Published in Kidscreen Magazine- July/August 2018
How Australia’s Deakin Motion.Lab is using virtual production technology to make CGI-animated content faster, cheaper and more modular.
One part Ant-Man with a sprinkle of Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Deakin Motion.Lab’s new six x 2.5-minute CGI-animated children’s series Minibeast Heroes is proof that anyone can be a superhero—even real-life insects.
On the surface, the ABC Education short-form series explores the essential role of bugs and is hosted by a miniaturized, CGI-animated version of actor Carl Smith, a science journalist and co-host of ABC Kids’ ethics podcast Short & Curly.
But upon closer inspection, the series marks the culmination of years of research and development by Melbourne-based Deakin Motion.Lab (DML)—the creative research consultancy of Deakin University—and partners ABC Education and ABC R+D to implement motion capture, facial capture, live previsualization, game engine and virtual production technology into a CGI-animation pipeline.
After a few months of pre-production, Minibeast Heroes was shot in just one week last November, premiering on ABC’s linear feed and online at ABC Education and ABC iView in February. According to research fellow Dr. Jordan Vincent, Deakin’s virtual production system and range of commercially available and proprietary processes helped ensure a speedy shoot, achieving nearly real-time rendering.
“One of the benefits of the system is that the creation of high-quality animated content is fast, efficient and collaborative,” says Vincent. “We can output shots more or less immediately and edit on the spot.”
While not the first company to experiment with the tech in the kids space—Canuck pubcaster TFO, among others, is using VR and video game engines to enhance its own educational shows—DML may be one of the first to bring real-time facial capture into the mix.
“Much of our time has gone into introducing live facial capture,” says Peter Divers, DML’s virtual production supervisor. “The body can obviously convey a lot, but when you’re talking about driving very emotional characters and really getting your comedy and jokes across, it’s the eyes that tell the story.”
According to Vincent, the system provides opportunities for actors to step into animated worlds with more than just their voices.
“Once fitted in a mo-cap suit and facial rig, we usually give an actor about 10 minutes to play around in the studio and get into character, and look at how they move and gesture on screen. From there, it’s about having a great director, particularly one with live-action experience, come in and pull out the performance,” she says.
Armchair Productions’ Stefan Wernick filled the director’s chair on Minibeast Heroes, and even though the output was animation, Vincent says the workflow was much closer to a live-action shoot. “We developed virtual cameras that replicate live-action cinematography tools, to make the environment more personal.”
Minibeast Heroes also spawned a range of resources, including a 360-degree trailer, a collection of photogrammetry-designed bug models made in collaboration with Perth VR studio Pixelcase, and a link to Australia’s national curriculum for primary science classrooms.
“With game engine technology, we were able to make the show not only for broadcast TV, but also for 360-degree video, VR and ongoing software and mobile phone apps. All of the content sits in this modular space,” says Divers.
Although she declined to disclose the series budget, Vincent wouls say that the cost was comparable, if not a little less expensive, than traditional animation per completed minute.
“A lot of animation work in Australia is outsourced to houses in Southeast Asia, and India in particular. So to make the work we’re doing more relevant to the industry, we want to be able to match the cost of animation,” she says.
Now that Minibeast Heroes has launched, DML is developing its first original IP, a gender-neutral, STEM-based series entitled The Adventures of Auntie Ada.
In late June, Deakin also demo’d its entire virtual production system and conducted public workshops at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, as part of the Melbourne International Animation Festival.