Yuki 7 is a Chromosphere production

Yuki 7 switches to a real-time pipeline for 2D/3D hybrid animation

When you see an episode of micro-series Yuki 7, you might wonder what you're watching. Is it a spy thriller, a 1970s-style animated comic, or action/adventure series featuring some serious woman power?

It's actually all of the above. And judging from the thousands of YouTube views and effusive reactions, Yuki 7 is a hit with those who appreciate colorful characters, richly textured 3D environments, and the style of spy films from the 1960s and 1970s.

When Kevin Dart, award-winning CEO and Creative Director of Los Angeles-based studio Chromosphere, set out to make Yuki 7, he started with a traditional 2D/3D pipeline, then switched mid-series to Unreal Engine to reap the benefits of a real-time pipeline while staying true to the series’ signature 2D style. 

Yuki even has her own “making of” video, with the Chromosphere team detailing the Unreal Engine processes and pipeline behind the style and substance of Yuki’s world.

Chromosphere has also documented the team’s transition from a traditional to real-time pipeline in a case study on their website.

The Birth of Yuki 7

Yuki wasn't born yesterday. She was featured in the 2009 book Seductive Espionage: The World of Yuki 7 and a trailer for faux film A Kiss From Tokyo, and even became a limited-edition statuette in 2013. Over the years, Yuki herself drew a strong following from fans of Kevin's illustrative style.

In the meantime, Kevin worked on the special Powerpuff Girls: Dance Pantsed and the Carmen Sandiego series. Astute viewers might see a common thread—strong female characters who aren't afraid of a little action—and Yuki follows in these same footsteps.

"Yuki is really special to me because she is inspired by my wife,” says Kevin, referring to Elizabeth Ito, creator of City of Ghosts and Executive Producer on Yuki 7. “I’ve always found her inspiring because of how she sticks up for what she believes in and fights the odds. Yuki is a reflection of that same passion and drive that Elizabeth has, and also a reaction to a genre of action and spy movies where everyone is so used to seeing white men as the heroes."
Yuki 7 is a Chromosphere production
He adds that Yuki has evolved over the years into her current incarnation. "When we first started the project back in 2009, the inspirations were more narrowly focused on mid-century design and old spy movies," Kevin admits. He adds that as the series developed, Chromosphere has called upon a larger variety of influences and imagery, such as 1970s science fiction and giant monster films. 
Yuki 7 is a Chromosphere production
“Being able to throw in all these other inspirations makes working on the project endlessly entertaining,” Kevin says, “and keeps it feeling fresh even after over a decade of development."

Moving to a real-time pipeline

When Chromosphere began producing Yuki 7, the team used a familiar 2D/3D pipeline, one that served them well for projects like June and The Powerpuff Girls special. The process involves animating 3D characters in Maya, and then heavily processing the renders in After Effects and combining them with 2D assets to get the unique look.

This was fine for Episodes 1 and 2, but Kevin wanted to see how much further he could push the technique with everything the studio had learned from all its projects.

“Our Lead Creative Compositor Stéphane Coëdel, who also worked on the earliest Yuki 7 projects with me in 2009, has driven the development of our animated looks since the inception of the studio,” says Kevin. “For this most recent iteration of Yuki, he created all the techniques in After Effects for processing the 3D lighting, and applying different patterns such as halftones and raster lines to achieve the modernized, hybrid 1970s television show look we were after.”
For Episode 3 of Yuki 7, the team set out to make the entire episode in Unreal Engine. “In our traditional Maya-to-After-Effects process, it would often take months before we would have some idea of what a scene might actually look like once it was lit, rendered, and composited,” says Kevin. “It took a lot of imagination and faith that the process would eventually work out.”

Moving to Unreal Engine means that each team member can see the entire episode as early as the layout stage, giving them the ability to create and explore different options as they develop each shot.
Yuki 7 is a Chromosphere production

Kevin knew it would take some work to move to a real-time pipeline, but he and his team were determined. “To start, our Technical Art Director Theresa Latzko, who also helped us develop the 3D look for other projects like City of Ghosts and Age of Sail, enrolled in the Unreal Fellowship and got a four-week crash course in the engine,” he says.

With what Theresa had learned, she returned to the studio and meticulously built a lighting and shading process in Unreal Engine that mimicked the same 2D process Chromosphere had been using in After Effects. This included creating controls for processing and balancing the light and applying the halftone and raster-line patterns.
Yuki 7 is a Chromosphere production

Benefits of Unreal Engine

The team found that Unreal Engine’s built-in nonlinear animation editor Sequencer provided a huge benefit to the artists. “In our old pipeline, artists would really only be able to see each individual shot they were working on at the moment, until someone had time to grab all of the animation and update our edit,” says Kevin. In Unreal Engine, he says, the episode was always available for everyone to watch in Sequencer, up to date with everybody’s latest work. “This gave the artists a lot of context for the episode as a whole,” Kevin continues. “They could play through and see how a whole sequence was working.”
Yuki 7 is a Chromosphere production

The Unreal Engine pipeline also accommodates last-minute changes, giving the team the freedom to test ideas. “Toward the end of production of Episode 3, for example, I had second thoughts about a camera movement in one of our shots,” explains Kevin. “If we were working in our old pipeline, changing the camera that late in production would require going back to Maya and re-animating, then re-rendering, and finally re-compositing the shot. With Unreal Engine, all it took was about 15 minutes for our Lead Animator Tommy Rodricks to shift the camera, and we had the change.”

For Yuki 7, one of the most time-saving advantages of Unreal Engine was the use of its Niagara feature for effects. “For Episode 3, Theresa was able to create effects systems for things like the water trails behind the boat, which would activate automatically in every shot with the boats,” says Kevin. “We only had to make a handful of splashes, which could then be duplicated and placed in any shot where we needed a splash.” When compared with the process for Episodes 1 and 2 of Yuki, he adds, where all the effects were animated by hand in Flash for each individual shot, these automated systems in Unreal Engine saved the team a great deal of time.
Yuki 7 is a Chromosphere production

Future plans

Kevin is excited about the many ways Chromosphere can apply everything they’ve learned about Unreal Engine to other projects at the studio. In fact, Chromosphere has already started work on a new short film called Mall Stories using Unreal Engine, with Elizabeth Ito as director.

The unique 2D-based style of Yuki 7 has turned out to be a good fit for Unreal Engine, opening up new opportunities for Chromosphere. For example, Kevin sees a lot of potential for incorporating interactivity into Yuki’s future adventures. 

“As a smaller studio focused on art and design, we’re always excited about anything that can push the visual possibilities of animation,” Kevin concludes. “Unreal Engine is helping to open up lots of new pathways and ideas for creating exciting new artistic visions, and we’re thrilled to be at the forefront of using it for animation.”
Yuki 7 is a Chromosphere production

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