Real-time animation brings magic to the The Jolliest Elf

2020년 12월 11일
Every year, the North Pole’s Ryan Seacrest, Mr. Jingles, hosts a talent show to find the most talented of Santa’s elves and reindeer. This year, the spotlight falls on Lil’ Rey, the tiniest reindeer in Santa’s herd.

This is the premise of The Jolliest Elf, an original five-minute scripted short that premiered on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Amazon Kids+ for Thanksgiving last month.

Produced by immersive media studio TRICK 3D and with support from Epic MegaGrants, the Lil’ Rey episode serves as a pilot to a 12-episode Christmas Special series of animated shorts, each of which shares the story and performance of a new contestant. 

Viewers will vote for their favorites, leading up to a grand finale just before Christmas where the winner will be announced. The full competition will go into production in Q2 2021 with the aim of launching during the 2021 holiday season.

The show is the brainchild of Chad Eikhoff, writer and director at TRICK 3D. When it comes to elves, this is not Chad’s first rodeo—his previous work includes the holiday-special-turned-classic The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story.

This time however, Chad’s team is bringing together Unreal Engine, Apple's iPhone 3D facial capture, inertial motion capture, keyframe animation, and NVIDIA's latest RTX ray tracing for real-time physics, lighting, and rendering.

The result is a real-time animation workflow that is fast, flexible—and liberating. “I’m ecstatic about this approach because I believe in empowering animators,” says Chad. “My approach to updating the animation process focuses on bringing animators’ visions to life faster and with more clarity."
Image courtesy of TRICK 3D

Super-fast real-time animation

TRICK 3D has been experimenting with Unreal Engine since 2017, when it made virtual reality experience ‘Zayden’s Wish’ for Make-A-Wish America.

Since then, it has been developing plans to shift to a real-time animation pipeline—joining a growing number of studios using the technology to lower costs, shorten timelines, and broaden creative options.

By going all-in with a new real-time pipeline on The Jolliest Elf, the TRICK 3D team faced an immediate challenge—how to help people understand the concept. “One issue with pitching this show is that it heavily relies on the capabilities only available with Unreal Engine; we needed the real-time processing and animation techniques in order to be able to pull off this animated reality competition concept on time,” says Chad. “Also, since it has never been done before, it’s challenging for people to envision it.”
Image courtesy of TRICK 3D
This is where the Epic MegaGrant came in. Epic MegaGrants are awarded by Epic to creative, noteworthy, and innovative projects built in and around Unreal Engine or projects that enhance the open-source 3D graphics ecosystem. The MegaGrant enabled TRICK 3D to create the pilot episode and showcase both the high-quality look and the incredibly quick timeframe in which the team was able to create it.

Real-time technology was vital for the team to deliver on a fast-paced schedule—it needed to export a final within a matter of hours to days. Traditionally, it could take weeks to get all the renders and compositing complete. “Unreal made it possible to set up the final look development and slot in animation for final delivery very quickly,” says Chad. “We essentially skipped the need for rendering and compositing by using Unreal. It allows me as a director to work in the context of the 'world' rather than in context of 'shots'.”
Image courtesy of TRICK 3D

Facial capture via iPhone

This project brought to bear a number of cutting-edge real-time Unreal Engine features. “To be set up to create this show as a full series next year, we needed to prove out the enhanced animation pipeline, which included mobile motion capture and iPhone facial capture,” says Chad.

To keep the pipeline clean, fast, and efficient the team used the Unreal Live Link Face app on the iPhone and wrote a custom Maya script to apply that to its model’s blend shapes. “This process ended up so simplified that our amazing talent, Mac Sauce, a nine-year-old rapper, used it to capture her performance in the back seat of her dad’s car,” says Chad.

Nine-year-old Kansas City rapper Macyn “Mac Sauce” McMillian provided the voice of young reindeer MC Lil’ Rey in the short.


With crew and talent able to use mocap suits and facial capture technology wherever they are—even from their own homes—a whole new way of filmmaking is now possible. “It allows two specific things; one, more immediate and individual expression in animation, and two, more broad and accessible collaboration,” says Chad.

“Let me explain. Firstly, I or an animator can put on a suit and use an iPhone to capture and develop ideas so much quicker than just using controllers in the software,” he continues. “And secondly, we can provide these tools to bring in voices to collaborate with who don’t have to be experts in software or hardware. Our Lil’ Rey performance was captured by a nine-year-old on her dad’s iPhone in a totally different part of the country.”

The team also used Unreal Engine’s real-time ray tracing, Groom system for fur, and Sequencer to set up a camera system that mimics a live-action competition show. “I particularly loved working in Sequencer—it’s like a three-dimensional video editor—I don’t know of anything like it,” says Chad. “This really could not have been done without Unreal. Our entire show, from set, characters, animations, fur, visual effects—it all lived in our project file that was straight from Unreal on a laptop.”
Image courtesy of TRICK 3D
The team created and animated the models in Maya before exporting Alembic into Unreal Engine. Once the models and character animations were in the engine, everything stayed there. “We exported the final to Premiere for a few simple edits, but we didn’t do any additional compositing or color correction. What you see in The Jolliest Elf came straight out of Unreal,” explains Chad.

Real-time technology for a flexible workflow

TRICK 3D has far more flexibility now that real-time technology is the backbone of its animation workflow. “Animation is a very rigid process where most of the creative attached to the story needs to be locked in before you see any final frames,” says Chad. “Real-time allows me as a creator to see decisions much more quickly, and artists to see how their work fits into the whole as part of the iterative process.”

Like many studios in the film and TV industry, this year's pandemic forced TRICK 3D to rethink team collaboration. Production on The Jolliest Elf  began just as COVID-19 was shutting everything down—but real-time workflows enabled the studio to weather the storm. “What we did a bit differently was to fully embrace the idea of a virtual studio,” says Chad.  

The studio moved all of its server infrastructure to the cloud and leveraged source control in Unreal Engine so the team could easily share files from all around the world. “Unreal allowed us to have a team working in the same project and then bring all those changes back into one master project every day,” explains Chad. “It’s an empowering feeling to see the teams work all come together on a regular basis.”
Image courtesy of TRICK 3D
With a set up that enabled remote collaboration, the studio was able to cast its net for animators forced to work from home because of lockdowns, bring on board The Jolliest Elf‘s animation supervisor Tony Plett (Jurassic World, Lilo & Stitch) and creative producer Art David (The Matrix, Signs). “Because of the pandemic, we’ve been able to get some veterans who would probably not normally be available, but are lending their time to the short,” says Stacy Shade, Head of Studio for TRICK 3D.

When COVID-19 is a distant memory, TRICK 3D will still be taking advantage of the remote working capabilities it has experienced with Unreal Engine. “When I founded TRICK 3D, the idea was to have a virtual studio and stay flexible enough to work with artists from all around the world,” says Chad “The pipeline we built for The Jolliest Elf using Unreal has brought that to full fruition. It will be great to bring the team together in real life for specific occasions, but our new virtual studio setup is massively scalable, efficient, and just straight-up fun!”
Image courtesy of TRICK 3D
The new real-time animation pipeline Chad’s team has spearheaded on The Jolliest Elf is just the start for TRICK 3D. The studio has a slate of animated shows that are all created around the capabilities that Unreal Engine enables.

And now that he can source talent from anywhere in the world, he’s looking for people to join him on the journey. “Because of the wide world of collaboration this pipeline allows, I’m always looking to connect with talented creators,” he says. “Feel free to reach out.”

Interested in working with TRICK 3D? Drop them a line


    Get the world’s most open and advanced creation tool. 
    With every feature and full source code access included, Unreal Engine comes fully loaded out of the box.