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Progressing Beyond Pre-Render: The MARZA Movie Pipeline for Unity

September 6, 2016 in Technology | 4 min. read

The wonderful artistry we see in CG films often masks an expensive, expansive and tedious grind behind the scenes. Using traditional rendering approaches, months and years can disappear  before a project is finished. Despite the increasingly rapid advancement of technology to render out high-quality visuals, not much has changed to address costly issues like lengthy timelines, pricey equipment, slow iteration and review cycles, and the inability to check final quality until late stages. Not content with the status quo, legendary animation studio MARZA, known for creating eye-catching animations for the likes of Sonic and the film SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK, set out in search of a new, more efficient approach.

For MARZA, as a subsidiary of gaming giant SEGA, game engines were familiar but remained an untapped avenue of exploration to solve their need. Unity’s 3D engine had cracked rendering and production for gaming and VR, why couldn’t it be extended into the worlds of animation and cinema? Both games and film are built by a collection of artists, designers and engineers, after all. So, with an eye on extending a new, improved work flow to CG animation -- without sacrificing graphic quality -- MARZA tapped the Unity engine.

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There was no need to reinvent the wheel: the MARZA team was able to establish a production process that leveraged existing CG technology by creating a method that allowed individuals to work across their various platforms, without radically remaking them. To achieve the level of expression we’ve come to expect from modern CG, feature-quality character motions and shaders (previously near-impossible to obtain through game engines), were introduced through a blend of Unity, composite software, and custom solutions.

The result, The MARZA Movie Pipeline for Unity, a plugin to streamline movie production. For the first time, MARZA’s development, engineering and production teams got to work near-simultaneously. Where before production would typically run six to seven months, in just five short months (an improvement of 20-30%), The Gift was created.

The team largely accomplished this on their own. But to put the finishing touches on the project MARZA turned to Unity, whose engineers jumped at the chance to team up. One of the pipeline’s most useful elements were the Unity-developed custom Alembic Importer and Frame Capturer now open sourced and available on Github. The Alembic Importer allows complex geometry data from other software like Houdini or Maya to be brought into Unity. Frame Capturer allows for the generation of an EXR image file sequence from the game view, in a process called capturing. These sequences can then be imported into software like Nuke, Fusion or After Affects, for example, for final compositing. On this specific project, the team further customized these tools and used them as a base in higher level tools to obtain the high quality result.

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While still able to work in their preferred standard Alembic Mesh, artists could now quickly iterate on scene creation and layout, making for some dramatic improvements in overall efficiency. With one push of a button, they could automatically render a scene, and artists were able to go back and make updates or fine polish details even after scene creation -- no more time (hours!) spent rendering. In turn, MARZA artists could focus on their own work, at their own rate, without having to worry about impacting the production’s overall timeline. The broader team also shared in the added benefit of seeing near-final quality visuals even at the earliest stages of production.

Put into practice, the Alembic Importer played a critical role in overcoming a challenge centered on one pivotal scene. Our heroine “sets sail” on a sea of milllions of plastic balls, which flood the camera quickly while surging and shifting shape, a very particle-heavy push for the engine. Created using Maya, Houdini and Unity, the sequence was first exported as geometry, which didn’t quite work -- it simply couldn’t be lit smoothly. Using the Alembic Importer tool, along with a custom shader, they were able to quickly process a huge amount of data so individual balls, each lit and shaded, rendered smoothly. The result is an awe-inspiring mass of independent objects that maintain their identity while somehow flowing together in one harmonious sequence.  This is just one example of the impact that raw data-processing power can have, and a clear indication of the workflow’s real potential to improve not just efficiency, but actual output.

The team’s successful collaboration on and implementation of The MARZA Movie Pipeline, which will be available later this year, is of course only the beginning. Not only does the workflow carry impact for gaming, but an ideology that can easily expand to digital content projects and developments across film and VR.  Some in the film industry at large have been early observers of the benefits of Unity’s real-time rendering capabilities...fellow pioneers, take note and stay tuned.

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September 6, 2016 in Technology | 4 min. read