BROOKLYN, NY — Hi From The Future (www.hifromthefuture.com) recently created an animated music video for LA rapper Duckwrth. Find A Way, featuring Alex Mali, Radio Ahlee and Bayli, is set amongst the jungle ruins of an ancient civilization. The team’s determination - inspired by the song - leads them out of the wild and into a modern kingdom.
Elliot Higgins and Mark Rubbo head up Hi From The Future, a VFX and interactive media agency that specializes in producing realtime CGI & 3D animation, VR/AR games, avatars and digital projects. The studio had just five weeks to complete Find A Way, which was made further challenging due to the pandemic lockdown.
According to Higgins and Rubbo, the team had been experimenting with virtual production for the past year and opted to leveraging the realtime filmmaking capabilities of the Unreal game engine, alongside a range of 3D software tools supported by its pipeline.
Last May, Hi From The Future started on a project plan, which would be executed by two teams: the character team and the environments team. Each would be comprised of HFTF staff, enhanced with a sound designer and a cinematographer helping out as virtual DP.
The project plan was part 360-degree-media campaign, part-software-development launch. Since they were working with talent on the other side of the country, the strategy was to spend the first week nailing down the scope and general deliverables, so they could then use the rest of the time iterating and refining.
Two weeks were spent on character look, style and creative direction. One week was spent on envrionments and set design. Animation was ongoing throughout the projct and the final shoot using Unreal took place over one week.
“The chief advantage of working with game development tools is that you can keep perfecting until the last minute,” Higgins and Rubbo explain. “It can be the night before delivery and you are still going back and forth between applications, tightening up walk-cycles and making other tweaks. If done right, what you end up giving the client is a thousand times better than their most ambitious vision for the project.”
Another advantage of working with video game tools, they add, was that they weren’t starting from zero.
“For instance, when it comes to character development, Reallusion’s assets come pre-rigged, allowing you to apply custom motion-capture or dub over stock animations to give an extra layer of polish. For our project, anything that saved us time with setup was more time we could spend on high-end refinements. We used Reallusion’s Character Creator for the character base, then punched it up in ZBrush. Substance Painter was used for texturing skin and clothes. Reallusion’s iClone was where we did all the animation. Maya’s XGen for hair groom was next, before export to Unreal.”
For the characters, the team divided the design into small steps. First, there was the basic build in a generic wardrobe. Then, they performed markerless motion-capture sessions through Zoom to nail down the performance sequences. For the artists’ faces, they used Reallusion’s Live Face and for their bodies, the artists download “Moves by Maxon”, hit record, then upload their performances. These sequences were later combined with stock moves, such as when Duckwrth jumps off the cliff (1:36).
Also key was hair texturing. Unreal has a plug-in that supported realtime hair simulation, allowing for dynamic, physics-based hair animation.
“We hadn’t used the plug-in before, but it soon turned into a great tool to render Duckwrth and Radio Ahlee’s beards, and to do justice to Alex Mali’s green curls and Bayli’s Bantu knots.”
Character development took approximately two weeks, generating not only the assets for the video, but side-content that would be used for promotion across social media.
As with character development, working with pre-existing assets from Quixel Megascans and the Epic Marketplace gave the studio a major head-start in creating the environments. The objective was fitting environments to the storyboard to advance the narrative. It was also about replacing preconfigured design elements with custom assets that connect directly and personally with character.
The shoot in Unreal was somewhat stressful.
“After bringing all the major assets into our main staging level, we spent the final week nailing down camera angles and making sure the tone and quality of the piece was consistent. Since we were dealing with technology designed to do something different than what we wanted it to do, slight problems were constantly arising and our team had to keep refining and debugging.”