Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth

From machinima mayhem to avant-garde animation, real-time rules at Rooster Teeth

Rob DiFiglia
It’s been over 25 years since Pixar kicked off the digital animation industry with the release of Toy Story, the first entirely computer-animated feature-length film.

Back then, achieving this level of quality using computer technology seemed like an impossible dream for all but the biggest studios. For many years afterward, it was still very expensive to set up an animation pipeline to get the highest-quality visuals possible.

With the explosion of the video game industry, that’s all changed. More and more tools are being democratized so that young creative talent can find ways to tell their stories without relying solely on massive studios.

“I think that’s what excites me most—it sort of resets the playing field in my opinion,” says Sean Hinz, Co-Head of Animation at Rooster Teeth. “When I think of the content I enjoy and all of the ways Unreal can empower creative visionaries to have a voice, I’m enthusiastic about the future of animation and video games alike.”

For a production company like Rooster Teeth, with its strong DIY ethos and grassroots background, this is a development that’s been a long time coming—and one they’ve had a hand in from the beginning. 

Real-time technology democratizes creativity

Rooster Teeth is a fan-driven, community-built entertainment company. Today, it has broadcast and live-action production capabilities alongside a world-class animation studio, but the company started out in the humble setting of a spare bedroom.

It was from here that Rooster Teeth created Red vs. Blue (RvB), a comic science fiction machinima web series that sparked the growth of a passionate global fandom.
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth
Machinima is a type of DIY filmmaking in which video game content and game engines are used to create stories using game footage. RvB uses computer graphics from the military science fiction first-person shooter series Halo to create new video content.

The series gained something of a cult following, and off the back of its success, Rooster Teeth has gone on to produce several original content series including RWBY, the most popular western-style anime series out today. 

Perhaps fittingly for a studio that started out life steeped in the world of video games, Rooster Teeth has increasingly turned to Unreal Engine to create its content. The open and accessible nature of this technology is a good match for the DIY ethos that has been integral to the studio since its inception.
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth

Unshackling the animation workflow

Hinz has been working in the new media space for about 10 years now. He began his career at indie company ScrewAttack as their news and event manager, eventually transitioning to a producer role for animation.

He explains that Rooster Teeth actually began using Unreal Engine purely as a render solution for some of the 3D fights on the popular YouTube channel Death Battle.

With multiple projects trying to leverage the same render farm, the studio could not find a practical way of sharing the queue. “Our solution was to move that process onto the individual artist’s machine with a real-time rendering solution,” says Hinz.

What started as short three to four-minute animations has now become full 12-minute pieces of content, or isolated 3D backgrounds for 2D character animations, and even led to the development of the studio’s own machinima platform.
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth
As Rooster Teeth dove deeper into Unreal Engine, they uncovered a whole new way of creating animation. The team primarily work in Autodesk Maya, and historically their rigs are set up using a proprietary system they developed internally. They would essentially create static meshes in Unreal Engine, animate the characters in Maya, then apply the animation data as an FBX to the mesh in Sequencer, Unreal Engine’s built-in multi-track editor.

“As time has gone on, we’ve discovered that prepping our assets for Unreal specifically allows for more control and, moving forward, we’ll be using rigging solutions more tailored to that approach,” explains Hinz. “Beyond the basic Maya-to-Unreal workflow, some of the best parts of the engine are its access to real-time feedback and the fast implementation of changes. So, whether we’re in a review and want to tweak the lighting in a scene, or share assets across multiple projects, Unreal has been more flexible than our traditional animation pipeline.”

The studio recently put this new Unreal Engine animation pipeline to the test on the latest series of its flagship production. 

Real-time workflows on Red vs. Blue: Zero

Set in the Halo universe, RvB centers on two teams of soldiers who are locked in a never-ending supposed civil war, though their subsequent adventures span time and space for the eighteenth full season of RvBRed vs. Blue: Zero—the studio opted to do something slightly different. 

While the main characters are still based on models from the Halo franchise, the season also features environments, weapons, and monsters not seen in the Halo games. These additional models include free assets from the Unreal Marketplace, such as monster designs from Paragon and weapons and character models from Ying Pei Games.
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth
“There are a number of ways we have used Unreal Engine to create season 18 of Red vs. Blue,” says Hinz. “The aforementioned Maya workflow was where we started, but kicking out the FBX was a manual process, and before on Death Battle we only had two characters in a scene.”

Now, the team has anywhere from five to eight unique meshes in a scene, so their engineers create tools that package up all the assets as individual FBX files and output them for Sequencer.

The team leveraged the Unreal Marketplace to build the environments and to source pre-packaged VFX assets, in order to focus more time on animation. Most of the lighting, rendering, and compositing took place in engine.
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth

Neon Konbini and Human Beans

Rooster Teeth has also been experimenting with Unreal Engine on shows featuring different styles of animation. Two of its newest offerings are Neon Konbini and Human Beans.

Neon Konbini is a vehicle for numerous genres of storytelling, including the sketch-based comedy of RWBY Chibi, along with some of the studio's newer avant-garde ideas.
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth
Human Beans is an idea from the mind of Director Joshua Kazemi. It’s an immigrant story of a coffee bean trying to make it in the human world as he flounders at trying to find a new job. “We wanted the ‘bean’ characters to visually clash with the reality of the human world, furthering the divide, so all of our characters are animated in Harmony and then ingested into these hyperrealistic environments created using Unreal,” says Hinz.
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth
The team originally developed this look for their animation on a Death Battle sister show called DBX, so they’ve had two seasons’ experience in mixing media to iterate on. Both looks for DBX and Human Beans are inspired at least a little by unique approaches to 2D/3D animation hybrids along the lines of The SpongeBob Movie and The Amazing World of Gumball.

The team uses a similar method to the way they ingest animation data out of Maya to bring in characters. But in this instance, character animation takes place in Harmony Toon Boom, and image sequences are brought in and paired with a custom sprite flipbook tool developed internally.

Then, they combine that with shader materials the team developed to allow for interaction with light and shadows across a 3D environment when desired. “In this way, we can rapidly implement 2D animation frames in a variety of complex spaces, while also casting reflections and other unique world interactions that would be more costly to composite manually as needed,” says Hinz. “All using Sequencer, which is then rendered out for editorial.”
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth

Faster, freer animation processes with Unreal Engine

One of the big things that has changed between the move from the studio’s traditional CG pipeline to an Unreal Engine pipeline is its approach to project management—tasks such as scheduling, tracking, review and approval, and resource loading. 

“More than anything, it has just allowed us to be more flexible,” says Hinz. “Traditional pipelines have a lot more hands in the process, so every bug or mistake can be a major disrupter to the flow of production. While Unreal Engine has not removed that element, it has mitigated it.”

That’s because real-time technology enables Rooster Teeth teams to pivot more easily if something goes wrong, Hinz explains. “And the ability to work through look development in real time makes addressing those challenges head on much easier,” he says. “Of course, we still use a very standardized process for tracking shots across the pipeline, submitting assets for reviews and approvals, and general workflow. But we are able to iterate more quickly on the existing tools and try to maintain focus on the creative.”

Hinz says that the response from the production team to this shift to an Unreal Engine pipeline—whether they’re directors, producers, artists, or pipeline TDs—has been universally positive. “While it hasn’t instantly solved all of our problems, it has enabled us to create content that would have otherwise given us big challenges,” he explains. “Whether it was to empower individual artists to create content locally and not be tied to a render farm, or getting access to Marketplace assets, or the ability to try new things, Unreal Engine has been a tool that improves our productions.”
Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth
The team also makes use of Blueprints and the node-based Material system. “These are a huge part of what makes our pipeline tick,” says Hinz. “I know our visual post team is excited about the Movie Render Queue feature as it allows for additional compositing and render options by default in a cinematic space. And there are also a number of Unreal plugins and shaders we have found that are great for refining the look of our shows, adding to the diversity of our content.”

Leveling the playing field for DIY creators

The Rooster Teeth story is a great example of the part video game technology is playing in democratizing creativity. Whether it’s creating traditional machinima or working directly in the engine, DIY content creators now have access to powerful tools and a level of creative freedom that was unimaginable 25 years ago when Toy Story first hit the silver screen. 

What’s more, those creative avenues are only set to increase with the new animation tools coming in Unreal Engine 5. It’s an exciting time to be an animator: you don’t have to work on Pixar productions to get started; you can begin at home, in your bedroom—today.

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