Recent Unreal Dev Grant recipient, Pakistan-based 3rd World Studios is on a mission to produce high-quality animated features for local and international audiences, exposing a side of Pakistani culture that doesn't get covered by the mainstream media. "Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor" is the company's first feature film about a young Pakistani boy from the North setting off on a journey to save his friend Mehru. The 3rd World Studios leadership team has extensive experience working on AAA game titles and drew on that knowledge to develop an Unreal Engine-based film animation workflow.
"Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor" is the first feature film from 3rd World Studios and was released to rave reviews in Pakistan, with plans underway for global distribution. The film's stunning environments were inspired by the majestic landscapes of the Hunza and Astore valleys in northern Pakistan, and more than 100 characters bring its story to life. The film was completed in a year and a half with a team of 50 artists, animators and engineers.
We interviewed 3rd World Studios Head of Production Usman Iqbal to find out what it took to produce the first animated feature film to be rendered entirely in a game engine.
Tell us a bit about 3rd World Studios and the backgrounds of the company founders and creative leads.
3rd World Studios was founded for the purpose of making quality animated movies for local and international audiences. We want to promote Pakistani culture and values and show the world the real Pakistan, which is mostly not covered by the mainstream media.
Uzair Zaheer Khan is the founder of 3rd World Studios and director of the film. He is a Vancouver Film School graduate and previously worked as a director on the animated television series "Burka Avenger." Collectively, all of the technical and creative leads in the company have worked on multiple AAA game titles and international broadcast and interactive projects.
How did 3rd World Studios get introduced to working in Unreal Engine?
Since we have a wide range of experience working in broadcast as well as games, we are always exploring new technologies and looking into nonconventional production solutions. We've always been fascinated by the ever-improving technology in game engines. When the Unreal Engine 4 "A Boy and His Kite" demo came out we were quite excited to delve into this powerful engine to see what could be achieved in terms of production quality, utilizing its amazing real-time results.
Before the formal production of the film began, we spent around a year and a half researching the toolsets we were going to use for the production of the film. We had to completely revisit the conventional animated film pipeline and do various changes to mold it according to real-time game engine requirements for production.
At the start, everyone around us in the industry was a naysayer and was in complete opposition of using a game engine for an entire film production, but in the end it all paid off.
Describe your production workflow.
We are using Unreal for all the lighting, layout and set dressing requirements of the film. All dynamics and visual effects were done inside the engine. For modeling and animation we use industry standard software products. Since we opted to use UE4, which fully supports PBR-based materials, we had to switch from older tools to recent state-of-the-art texturing solutions.
How long have you been working on "Allahyar," and how many artists did you have on board?
This film took around one and a half years to complete from initial concepts to final renders. The maximum team size that we reached was around 45-50 people, which includes artists, animators and engineers.
How long is the film, and approximately how many characters are there in it?
Our film is around 95-100 minutes long, with around 60-65 unique characters and multiple variants, which would take the character count to 130+.
Can you talk about a particularly demanding sequence of the film and how UE4 streamlined the production process?
Scenes comprised of birds with feathers and yaks with heavy fur were some of the most challenging and GPU-intensive scenes in our film. When we started our lookdev, the only timeline management solution was in the form of Unreal Matinee. But thanks to the 4.16 release of Sequencer, our workflow improved ten-fold and now we can manage our timelines more systematically with better control over spawnable objects, attribute keying, material overrides and sequence shots.
Now we can review multiple takes of the same shot and change cameras according to the director's feedback. The latest version Sequencer is faster and more stable than ever and proved to be a lifesaver as we approached the end of our film's production.
What are the benefits of doing this sort of large-scale project in Unreal Engine?
Unreal Engine provided us with a one-stop solution to all our rendering needs.
- Super high-poly meshes with all materials and lights could be worked on in real time.
- Landscape sculpting tools are super powerful. You can make changes on the fly - even when you're working on your final scenes.
- UE4 Content Browser filters are really helpful in managing long lists of folders, files and items.
- The Material Editor with its powerful shading nodes is amazing to work with.
- Sequencer has evolved into a very fine toolset for managing scenes, sequences and the timelines.
- On the technical side, Blueprints have been very helpful as well.
Are there creative flexibilities that this Unreal Engine pipeline enables versus working in a traditional CG animation pipeline?
You can quickly change from being hyper-realistic to a completely different and stylized look using just Unreal's built-in tools. Its real-time capabilities really let you explore various render style options at a blink of an eye.
What is the per frame speed for final renders?
Unreal Engine is being used to render out the final frames of the film with render times varying from scene to scene depending on the amount of detail it has. On an average, our single scene consisting of around 3,000-4,000 frames usually took less than a couple of hours to render out, with a single NVIDIA GTX 1080 Ti card on a machine using Intel Core i7 6700 processors.
Unreal has saved us months and months of rendering time. On average in a traditional pipeline, film quality renders take around 3-4 hours per frame and depending on the scene's complexity this time can increase exponentially. In UE4, we never worried about render times.
How did your team learn how to work in Unreal Engine?
Each team member was motivated and trained on-site by all the leads who themselves were getting accustomed to the unique pipeline and tools that were being used. Unreal's thorough documentation and live streams played a vital role in our learning and R&D.
Why did you choose to use Unreal Engine in the full production of this film?
Unreal Engine gave us almost all the solutions required for the production of this film. Artists always suffer from slow render times which in the end affects overall production cost and time. With conventional pipelines artists' creativity is hindered by huge render times, but with Unreal our artists didn't have to worry about that since render times were already down from several minutes/hours to multiple frames in a second compared to the conventional pipeline.