In a spotlight blog post on the making of the project published today, Epic Games’ Unreal Engine team announced that the debut of Mold3D Studio’s new real-time animated short Slay is made even cooler with the addition of hero character Windwalker Echo to downloadable assets in Unreal Engine 4.27 and Unreal Engine 5 Early Access. The character was introduced in the UE5 reveal video, Lumen in the Land of Nanite. Mold3D and Epic will be making the full Slay sample project available to download and explore later this month.
Mold3D was founded in 2016 by CEO Edward Quintero, a 22-year veteran creative leader, animator, VFX and environmental artist whose resume includes roles at ILM, DreamWorks Animation and blockbuster projects such as The Matrix trilogy, Avatar and The Mandalorian. The studio was formed to explore the potential of real-time technology and content creation, as Quintero was collaborating with Epic on Unreal Engine projects such as Paragon and Robo Recall.
Quintero began pitching Slay to Epic after the UE5 demo wrapped. The proposal was to create a finished piece of final-pixel animated content in Unreal Engine. With Mold3D beginning to gain a reputation for environment art, they were excited to illustrate their expertise in story development and character design. With the exception of Windwalker Echo, the Slay assets (including her adversary) were all designed and created by Mold3D.
As the project was greenlit just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the studio quickly transitioned to a remote working environment to create real-time rendered animation — as well as Mold3D’s other projects — using virtual production techniques. Motion-capture was created in Las Vegas, with Quintero’s team in Burbank directing the actors via Zoom while viewing the results on the characters in real time in Unreal Engine, making it easy to ensure they had the takes they wanted. After the main motion was captured, the team did a second session with the actor just for facial capture. For this, they used the Live Link Face iOS app.
“Although we probably would have done a lot of things the same way we had if there was no pandemic, we were thankfully able to rely on the virtual production aspect of the filmmaking to save the day,” said Quintero. “We were able to look at her takes with the recording that came out of the iPhone and also, on the day, we could see the camera looking at her.”
The team had previously modeled the assets in Maya and ZBrush, before blocking out the animation in Maya and bringing it into Unreal Engine via FBX, where they also blocked out the cameras in Sequencer, Unreal Engine’s built-in multi-track nonlinear editor. Taking advantage of the engine’s ability to render the files in real time, they brought in animation daily, starting in a very crude state, even while the models themselves were still being finalized. For look development, the team used lots of Unreal Engine’s materials and shaders, including vertex shaders and decals to not only give a unique effect, but to help maintain real-time performance.
“It was great to see the previs with light and color. You gained a taste of what it was going to look like right away, instead of having to wait a few months to start getting a little bit more involved. That was valuable, as it helped us visualize and finesse the look along the way,” noted Quintero. “It’s combining tricks, techniques and processes that were learned in the years I spent working in the visual effects and animation industry, with the benefits of being able to quickly iterate and visualize the results in real time.”
In addition, Mold3D used Unreal Engine’s Landscape toolset to create the terrain, and Quixel Megascans — which are free for all use with Unreal Engine — to populate the environment. Effects, such as the glowing orb, were mostly done in Niagara, Unreal Engine’s visual effects system. Lighting played a key role in the look of the project, with the team taking advantage of Unreal Engine’s real-time ray tracing capabilities to produce sophisticated effects. To finesse close-up lighting on the characters, they built movie-style lighting rigs in Unreal Engine, enabling them to create beauty lighting, rim lighting, key lighting, and so on.
“We had a certain look that we were going for. I think originally, we wanted this to be very stylized, like a manga/anime kind of thing, but it went more towards trying to make it look realistic. And it ended up being a little bit of a hybrid, not super photoreal, but it has a little bit of a stylized tinge to it. The lighting was a big part of that; we worked with several lighters to get the correct look,” Quintero explained. The quick change potential of real-time lighting was one of the things the team most appreciated: “If it’s not working for the shot, you can quickly move the sun direction or quickly move the character light and kind of feel your way there, instead of having to light, render overnight, come back, check your renders and not be happy.”
Apart from the obvious benefits of being able to render out frames in fractions of a second rather than minutes or hours, Mold3D also relished being able to conduct multiple aspects of production at once — for example, working on look development in parallel to animation and being able to make decisions flexibly, based on the context of the visuals; not to mention composition, timing, camera and lighting.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without the creative collaboration and continued support from the team at Epic Games,” said Quintero. “They were there for us every step of the way. Our company grew by leaps and bounds on this project, and we look forward to many more cool productions in Unreal Engine.”
Watch Slay on YouTube.