ALab “Phase 2” provides a view of a full production scene with over 300 production quality assets, two animated characters and baked procedural fur and fabric, all provided as a part of the first open-sourced USD scene and shot context from a studio.
All the elements developed for ALab were created in-house at Animal Logic and grew out of an idea from Felicity Coonan, to build an early 1970’s Australian backyard lab that would double as a real testing ground for Animal Logic’s in-house technology.
ALab features two animated characters, Goggles and Hinge, with development stemming from a love of ferrets and vintage science equipment and pareidolia.
Driven by a desire to find a way to simplify the approach without compromising the fun of the characters, Goggles’ design and animation style was drawn from the world of puppets, with sock like anatomy, finger puppet arms, and a limited facial rig. Animal Logic’s studios are adorned with vintage camera equipment, so Goggles was given a leather cap featuring a heads-up display made from toy cameras as a little wink to Animal Logic’s collection.
Hinge was inspired by the concept of pareidolia, a tendency to recognize faces or characters in inanimate objects. Hinge’s design evolved out of multiple iterations, each featuring found objects from the lab – one version rolled around on a castor wheel, another was based on a measuring tape, another used old stop motion armatures for limbs, and another had a door plate for a face. The best bits of each design were merged into a single design, then layered with details that made it seem like a homemade robot.
Compared to a typical screen production, where detail applied to assets would be relative to the distance from the camera, the 300+ assets created for ALab all needed the same level of high detail. It allowed the team to leave easter eggs, silly jokes about movies, CGI, and sometimes just bad puns. Phase 3 promises even more assets!
No project is complete without some stats so here’s the ALab number crunch:
Number of Assets = 319
Number of threads of cloth = 248,679
Number of hairs on Dr. Goggles McPherretson’s = 3,936,441
Number of USD prims = 12,928
Number of lights = 54
Number of lines of USD = 218,158 lines of human-readable USD (and countless more USD binary)
Number of materials = 1,109
Once the ALab scene was created, it was time to play. Production on the Unhinged short film began in February 2022, to explore Unreal Engine, while leveraging the beautiful assets produced for ALab. Directed by David Peers, Unhinged examines the need for both chaos and order to create something wonderful. Goggles and Hinge are two different creatures who push each other buttons but also need one another to make magic. The animation style of the two heroes leant into the handmade feel with a limited range of motion.
For Goggles, the animation team referenced the world of puppets, staging the character the way you would with a puppet, covering up where the puppeteer is operating and limiting nuances of the overall performance. Hinge’s key references were the slightly janky robots of movies from the 80s when everything was done with animatronics and trying to keep an analogue vibe. Hinge only has two facial expressions, which means there’s a lot of ‘body acting’ and a lot of help from sound. Hinge is also super finicky and precise, so there were lots of little detailed actions where various mechanical devices and industrial robots were referenced.
In using Unreal Engine, the team set the bar high by building an entire ‘engine first’ pipeline from scratch and working entirely in AWS Nimble Studio’s cloud environment, always aiming to achieve an Animal Logic polish look out of Unreal. Everyone had to learn these new approaches to filmmaking on the job and the crew were amazing and really rose to the challenge, collaborating to solve various issues and problems together.
Being able to set up shots on a fully lit and surfaced set created a buzz across the project, as did the multi-user workflow. The workflow gives all the interactive and collaborative benefits of a live action set, while still being able to take tricky issues offline for people to noodle and solve. The team used it for initial design, scouting and set dressing, as well as in the ‘finishing’ stage.
The hero portal was created in Sidefx’s Houdini and then imported into Unreal. The VFX team utilised as much as they could out of Unreal, but polished it in Houdini, finessing the sci-fi, smoky feel to hit the design.