“Real-time animation allows your characters to come to life in completely new ways.”Kito Kondowe, Animator
The animation industry is ever-evolving and it was born out of artists' experimentation with filmmaking in the early 20th century. With experimentation comes discovery and with discovery comes innovation and evolution.
The animation styles many grew up watching as children have drastically changed in a matter of a few decades. Since its inception, animation has been evolving into what we see today.
For example, TikTok’s sudden rise in popularity completely changed the landscape of the animation industry. The app gave animators a platform where they can dominate the animation industry.
Today, the animation industry is producing 3D animation that makes us think the quality is at its highest. But the need for continuous experimentation and innovation is infinite as there will always be a “higher quality” to reach.
Animation is used in a wide variety of media from traditional entertainment to advertisements and marketing campaigns. In all these media, visuals have been refined and will continue to develop in the future.
Animators are always looking for faster, more efficient ways to get the job done, and also for resources that help with experimentation and creativity. Whether you’re working on games, educational content, films, television series, or personal projects, it’s always great to find a new tool that gives you more options while reducing tweaks and do-overs.
Real-time animation provides the tools to do this and has the potential to speed up 3D animation processes exponentially. Real-time animation technology has rapidly advanced over the past few years, and it shows no sign of stopping. These advancements unlock a tremendous amount of possibilities for animators to build value and improve their workflow.
Software like Adobe Character Animator and the Unreal Engine is already taking animation to new places. This means that animation will be available to many more brands, independent creators, and production companies.
In this blog, we discuss what real-time animation is and how it benefits 3D animators by speeding up production time to create a more efficient workflow.
What is Real-Time Animation?
Image via Post Perspective
Real-time animation also referred to as live animation or real-time performance capture, is the process of using a motion capture (mocap) system to puppet a 3D character live and in real-time.
It can be used for previsualization, so a director can preview an animation while the mocap actor is performing, or as a live feed so a real person or audience can communicate with the 3D character in front of them.
Mocap is becoming more and more prevalent, especially in the game industry. This is because mocap creates a foundation that animators can build off of to create hyper-realistic animation.
Real-time animation has several uses including pre-visualization, content creation, and real-time character interaction. It also has several applications including video games animated productions and branded characters.
Pre-Visualization is the most common use of Real-Time Animation by giving a preview of how the final animation will look. This allows the client to base their direction on the movement of the character rather than the performance of the actor.
Image via Clusters Media College
Real-Time Animation can also be used to create final performances which can be recorded for immediate distribution or streamed to a multitude of broadcast mediums. Studios can create virtual sets, run secondary animations, interact with props, drive particles, composite live feeds, insert motion graphics, and much more.
This means that animators are not simply creating a “digital puppet show,” but driving the full system, with all its elements, to create a complete animated show. This is ideal for episodic content, animated video blogs, CG news reports, live webcasts, or the creation of vast amounts of animated content in very little time.
Real-time animation also enables animated characters to speak directly with viewers, giving the characters a truly human-like personality that people can relate to and connect with. This is the beginning of an entirely new genre of animated entertainment that will reshape the way we think of our favorite video game heroes, animated movie stars, and branded characters.
GIF via GIFER
Real-time animation is used more in-game animation than in film animation. This is because game animation presents a unique challenge in the sense that everything happens in real-time. In contrast, film animators can spend hours, or even months, perfecting every frame.
For this reason, getting the facial expressions and movements of characters correct in a short time is crucial for 3D game animators.
Many game developers have been working to improve their software to include more accurate mocap technology. For example, Epic Games has made significant changes to its signature software, Unreal Engine, to improve its real-time rendering capabilities.
The Unreal Engine not only provides instant feedback on a sequence but also facilitates remote collaboration for story review sessions between game developers and 3D animators.
Many animators now use the Unreal Engine as their primary production tool for everything from broadcast series to in-house projects. Epic Games has a video series called The Pulse. In one of the episodes, many of the company’s creatives discuss the topic of Real-time Animation: Unlocking Story and Style.
The upgrades to the Unreal Engine create opportunities for creating photorealistic games with characters that appear to live and breathe. Visual aspects of 3D animations can now appear more appealing and ease the creative burden on animators.
The UK-based studio, Future Deluxe, used game engines and real-time animation to break ground in the interactive animation space. The studio created an interactive experience for Google called “Morphing Clay.” This incredibly photorealistic and responsive experience allows viewers and users to sculpt ceramics with hand gestures.
Another significant company constantly working on the development of improved real-time animation technology is iClone. The company launched in the early 2000s and is now responsible for creating a highly collaborative, interactive, and user-friendly real-time animation software used by animators across the world.
The caliber of rendering from game engines has evolved in recent years with their quality now rivaling standalone renderers. But more importantly, real-time technology can take the animation pipeline from linear to parallel. The entire team can review look development as each scene is developed, and iterate on lighting, camera angles, and post effects in real-time.
Implementing Real-Time Animation Into Your Production Pipeline
Mastering new animation tools can be daunting, but animators need to evolve with the industry as new technology emerges. Luckily, the companies that develop these new tools put out tutorials and easy-to-follow videos that teach animators the ins and out of new animation software.
Epic Games has put together several free resources for learning how to animate in the Unreal Engine since this is software that is ever-evolving and changing as the industry encounters new client needs.
Although some may find new software complicated, Epic Games strives to make their game engines as user-friendly as possible and make it easy for animators to import existing work.
For example, you can import animation from your 3D software of choice via the FBX file format, or bring in a mocap file, either by loading the file directly or using the Live Link plugin to bring in live data as it’s recorded.
Many artists also like the flexibility of animating in the Unreal Engine by placing keyframes in the Sequencer. When your animation needs are too complex for keyframes, animators can define controls and triggers with Blueprint scripts that eliminate the need for programming.
Image via Unreal Engine
For character animation, the Control Rig feature gives you greater in-engine control over character animation than ever before.
The real-time animation used in games production affects every aspect of development in the production pipeline. Once animators create the characters and props that will be used, they can import and then experiment without having to constantly stop the rendering process.
Real-time mocap animation can bring 3D characters to life and allows them to be present at game cons, appear on talk shows, speak at keynotes, and cover breaking news. But the benefits of real-time animation aren’t limited to audience experience, it drastically changes the way 3D animators do their jobs.
Benefits of Real-Time Animation for 3D Animators
Whether you’re looking for ways to improve the aesthetics of your next project or empower your creative team with a more flexible and efficient workflow, there are a lot of benefits to real-time animation.
While real-time animation was originally conceived as a tool for video game developers, game engines have become commonly used by AR and VR animators. It’s only logical that content creators specializing in motion design, VFX, and animation have caught on to the upside of real-time animation.
A great example of how to use game engines such as the Unreal Engine to create photorealistic renderings is a storm test done by the user koooolalala. This video is also a testament to how far game engines have come for real-time animations of things like rain and smoke, which can be difficult and time-consuming to create with traditional animation tools and software.
Here are some of the potential benefits of using real-time animation to create 3D animations:
- Scaling Animation Work Exponentially
Image via Art Station Magazine
Real-time animation is incredibly edit-friendly. You can change camera angles, update text, or change languages without having to re-render everything because it exists in real-time.
Real-time animation is also very powerful when it comes to scaling your animations. Suppose you’ve built a 3D environment with seasonal and time changes. With real-time animation, you can augment your environment without redoing what you’ve already started.
In addition, this flexibility offers a huge advantage for your animation clients who might be looking to maximize their reach by creating content in a highly strategic manner. You can offer real-time animation services to your clients by tailoring their content based on location, culture, demographic, and so on.
- Extend an Animated Campaign
Marketing animation is becoming increasingly popular because of the unique way animations communicate information. If your animation client wants to create a traditionally animated campaign, you can use real-time animation software like Adobe Character Animator to quickly produce social posts.
This allows your client to quickly respond to current events or online trends while using the animated characters developed for their traditional broadcast spot. More value is therefore gained out of the primary campaign by creating a social strategy that can stay extremely relevant.
- Interact With Fans
Real-time animation allows your characters to come to life in completely new ways. Because of this, you can offer completely new and unique services to your animation clients.
Because real-time animation is highly interactive, the characters you create for your clients can be brought to life and show up at panels at Comic-Con, Dragon Con, or a digital event and take questions from fans.
Real-time animation is limitless when it comes to creating unique and interactive experiences for your animation clients’ viewers.
- Faster Rendering for Better Storytelling
Image via Autodesk
The performance capture capabilities of real-time animation software such as Adobe Character Animator drastically speed up the process of scripted character animation.
As a 3D animator, you can now tell stories that you might have assumed were out of the scope of your budget because of rendering time. Your characters can now have a weekly show on YouTube or star in a series of shorts that tell a deeper story than a traditional spot.
One place where real-time animation pipelines shine is in story development. While storyboards are still important, sometimes you can’t see the best way to tell a story until the shots are staged.
With a more traditional approach to animation production, each artist is paired with their particular job, and by the time a problem is noticed days or weeks may have passed, and a director may be faced with a hard decision about whether there’s time to send notes back to the artists.
With a real-time animation pipeline, there are no such compromises. Animators can review shots right along with the director and make any suggested changes while the meeting is still in session. The team can try different lighting placements, color schemes, and camera angles in real-time.
If more tweaks are needed, the director can say so right then and there. Special effects can be added immediately to see how they work with the scene. Changes that might have taken weeks with a traditional pipeline can take place in minutes or hours.
Story meetings can go from difficult decision-making ordeals to creative brainstorming sessions where ideas can be explored in real-time. The advantage most often cited by producers and directors of animation is that a real-time animation pipeline leaves more time for the creativity of storytelling.
Similarly, animation teams using the Unreal Engine state that real-time review is one of its biggest benefits. The ability to see the entire sequence at any time means everyone is progressing. With real-time animation, review sessions are transformed from verbal discussions with long waits to see changes, to interactive tests that invite the entire team to experiment.
Such interactive sessions naturally lead to better storytelling and higher satisfaction for the entire team.
Some Downsides to Real-Time Animation
Having gone over some of the many benefits of real-time animation for 3D animators, there are still some downsides because this is a relatively new method for creating animation and there are several kinks to work out.
- Difficult Learning Curve
Many animation studios are still rooted in more traditional platforms like C4D, Maya, and 3ds Max. This is coupled with the fact that every new technology presents a shift in the job market that makes a lot of traditional animators scared to lose their income.
The learning curve is also difficult, despite tutorials and guides, and it requires a lot of coding, programming, overseeing, and optimizing renders. These skills might be difficult for some animators to learn.
That being said, there will always be a need for cel and character animators who can create within the more traditional 3D platforms, and then import those assets into a game engine.
- Conforming to High Industry Standards
Besides the difficult learning curve, real-time technology might be good, but it’s not quite at the level as the industry-standard photoreal image-making tools that traditional VFX and animation studios use. Playback compatibility with digital platforms like YouTube and Vimeo is also a potential setback.
However, you can screen capture from the Unreal Engine or Unity to broadcast traditionally on YouTube – but for a much more unique real-time experience, it is limiting.
- Low-Quality Data
Another potential downside is that mocap data is not 100% clean and smooth. If you have a low-quality mocap suit it will, in turn, produce low-quality mocap data that's even harder to animate with. Therefore, you will always need very talented character animators to clean up mocap renders.
For this, it helps to consult the actual movements of the actors as this can help you figure out the character’s intentions in a particular scene. Mocap also may not properly capture the direction of where the eyes are looking so video references will definitely be useful for that.
Most production companies still rely on traditional CPU and GPU rendering and there are several reasons why they don’t switch to real-time animation even though the amount of time they can save is enormous. For one, the color produced when rendering with real-time animation is still not the same as the traditional renderer.
- Changing An Established Production Pipeline
Another thing is that it’s a hassle to change your production pipeline if you already have one that works well. Some studios have also invested a lot on their render farm, and they will want to see that they get a full return on their investment first before trying another unproven solution.
In addition, there will likely be a lot of incompatibilities when transferring animation from established 3D software. Some research and development and a lot of tweaking can therefore be expected when it comes to implementing real-time animation into established studios’ production pipelines.
Despite all of these limitations, it is an undeniable fact that in the future real-time animation will be a mainstream solution for those who want to produce animation faster, and animation studios are expected to have this as part of their solution.
Real-Time Animation is the Future for 3D Animators
While real-time animation is mostly used by game developers, it definitely has some valuable uses for 3D animators in terms of saving time and money.
Real-time animation is the future for 3D animators as it speeds up the time it takes to create and render animations, therefore making your production pipeline more efficient.
It may take a while to get the hang of it, but once you do, you’ll be surprised at the amount of time you can save by switching to real-time animation for your 3D animation projects.
If you’re looking to grow your animation skills, check out our free masterclass, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!