The Power of Real-time

I’ve been thumbing through The Art of Pixar, a collection of colorscripts and artwork from Pixar’s first twenty-five years in the industry. A colorscript is a series of rough paintings that define the feeling and atmosphere of a movie, and it’s amazing to see how much of the final story is captured in thumbnail-sized gouache pieces.

In the book, Amid Amidi writes:

“Directors, in particular, like colorscripts. For the first time in the production, they are able to see their entire film in color, in one place, on a single board. Seeing things in one place is a rare event in the fragmented computer-animated filmmaking process.”

Once the colorscript is at a good stage— assuming the script and storyboards came before— the following steps in the production pipeline are a means to an end. Of all the advantages of real-time production, I think this one’s pretty important: speeding up production doesn’t just save artists time and money, it lets artists figure out—early on in the process— if their final renders communicate the same message that was defined in the colorscript.

In traditional animation, the process can get in the way. Maybe a background asset gets more attention than it deserves, maybe the lighting department has a different understanding of the scene’s atmosphere. The longer a crew spends on production, the more it risks losing sight of what’s important: the soul of the story.

Real-time production compresses the process filmmakers are already familiar with. Asset creation can be faster when it’s done natively in 3D, feeding motion capture data into a character rig is easier than ever, and real-time rendering in game engines gives filmmakers a “final look” in seconds. While game engine renders aren’t at Pixar-quality yet, we’re getting pretty close.

Here are two examples of animated pieces rendered with Unity and Unreal. One’s a short film, the other’s an episode of a TV series.

Sherman (2019)

Made in Unity, by the Unity team.

Morgan Lives in a Rocket House (2017)

Made in Unreal Engine by Peter Monga.

Today, big crews, big budgets, and long timelines define animation. When production timelines are compressed to ensure that final scenes evoke the same emotions as thumbnails in a colorscript, every animation director is better off. Real-time production gives small crews with tight budgets the power to make movies faster, increasing the odds of one studio— or one artist— making the next big hit.

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