Nov 17, 2021
Vancouver-based BRON Studios was founded in 2010 with a ‘filmmaker first’ attitude toward live action and animation, and has gone on to participate in numerous Academy Award-winning projects such as Joker, Bombshell, and Fences. While pandemic safety requirements temporarily slowed down live production in early 2020, the studio's animation artists have stayed in constant production. Headquartered from BRON’s Beverly Hills offices, the BRON Digital division was publicly launched in July 2020 to focus on animation produced with virtual production techniques, with Unreal Engine at the center of the workflow.
With industry veteran Jason Chen at the helm as EVP, BRON Digital's first project will be the animated series Fables, a retelling of classical and time-honored tales such as The Tortoise and the Hare, Three Little Pigs, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In this video spotlight, Jason and BRON Co-Founder and CEO Aaron L. Gilbert sat down to tell us about the many advantages of using a real-time workflow for Fables.
"We started looking at getting involved with Unreal because we wanted to tell many different stories and be able to tell those stories in an efficient way," says Aaron. "This pipeline allowed us to move really quickly, efficiently, and to be able to work from home and in a virtual pipeline."
Fables consists of eight episodes that take place in completely different worlds—no sets or characters are re-used from one episode to the next.
To increase efficiency, the team built out ‘Little Hamilton,’ a virtual world with several distinct areas for the crew to explore. "It's like we're creating the Universal backlot," muses Jason. “It’s exciting to know that we've built out a corner rabbit's-food vegetarian bistro in Little Hamilton. Even though we don't shoot it, it's in the background. We can always come back to it in the next season.”
While the team appreciates this opportunity for efficiency, the main draw of using Unreal Engine for animation development comes from real-time iteration on ideas, which has led to new levels of creativity. "He [Jason] will text me and say, 'Hey, look at this.' And then four minutes later, he'll say, 'Well, how about this?' And an hour later, he'll say, 'How about this?' " says Aaron. "This is not an experience I've ever had with animation."
vThe team, which extends to Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Mexico City, New Zealand, and Australia, already had remote communication set up when the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America in March 2020. Aaron was delighted when Jason, who had previously worked on BRON live-action projects as a VFX supervisor, showed him Unreal Engine and proposed that BRON use it as a tool for creating animated content.
While live-action films require all the crew to be present in the same room, the same limitation doesn’t apply to animation projects—the director, animators, lighter, and VFX artists can all be in separate locations. But if every single person is remote, sharing work can be challenging, meaning artists lose the collaborative energy of story sessions and animation reviews.
By using Unreal Engine as their hub, team members could see updates in real time and discuss changes right then and there over video chat, almost as if they were all in the same room. “All our artists, from effects to lighting to modeling, speak on a daily basis,” says Jason. “They're always connecting to each other, trying to figure out the best solution for this individual puzzle, whether it's figuring out the best way to make a spoon look like a spoon, or make hair look more organic. Everyone throughout the entire workflow and process is communicating on a regular basis, providing each other feedback, which is pushing the quality level to the high-end realm.”
Another bonus to moving into real-time animation was that much of BRON’s live-action crew could be quickly trained on the digital version of their jobs in Unreal Engine. This meant the Fables team got the benefit of a crew highly experienced in art direction, lighting, special effects, and other aspects of filmmaking, while at the same time, these crew members gained new skills and were able to keep working through the pandemic.
"It allowed us to tap into our live action-crew members, and now they can step in without it being intimidating," Jason says. "They're able to sit and actually make creative decisions in real time through a video chat."
In addition to increased creative license through fast iteration, Unreal Engine also provides the team with a level of efficiency they've never before experienced. “We can get through over 125 camera setups a day," says Jason.
Beyond these advantages, Aaron also sees Unreal Engine as a boon to transmedia opportunities, with the potential for games, merchandise, and other benefits from the assets already in hand. "Our ability to do all of that and build all of these different auxiliaries relatively quickly—that's just not something that we've been able to do before,” he says.
Jason adds that they built Little Hamilton with the idea that Fables would one day be the basis for other media. Since the world is already built in a game engine, transitioning to a game, for example, will be a trivial task compared to what they’d need to go through with a traditional pipeline.
“What we really want to do is expand the experience so that it has longevity, not for just the 30 minutes that you see one episode on the screen, but for hours, hours, days, months, years to come, and enjoy it almost like an interactive experience or a virtual theme park,” says Jason. “If you know what you're trying to achieve at the end of the day as a 360 property, that's where Unreal Engine really shows its true potential.”
These advantages make it clear to BRON Digital that Unreal Engine is the choice for them. "I think Unreal is the most filmmaker-centric engine out there," says Jason.
Aaron concurs. "There is nothing else on the marketplace, nor is there currently, that could compete with just what's available to us inside the Unreal Engine," he says. "We're not limited by anything other than our imagination, and that's good fun."