This month TheCGBros were fortunate to interview the talented team at RealtimeUK, a studio that specializes in creating a variety of CGI imagery, including cinematic trailers, TV commercials and VFX. With two offices in the UK they have produced some notable works including SMITE-To Hell and Back, World of Tanks, World of Warships, World of Warplanes, Total War: ATTILA, Mummies Alive, War Thunder Heroes, Total War: Shogun 2.
CGB – Can you briefly explain the history of RealtimeUK and how it was formed, and how many people currently work there?
RTUK: We’re a CGI Studio and ever since opening in 1996 we’ve had the desire to create some of the most exciting marketing films in the world! Nearly reaching or twentieth year, we are so proud to say we’ve done exactly that and are now known for our cinematic games trailers; the latest being SMITE ‘To Hell & Back.
Our passion for achieving the highest levels of image quality, characterization and engagement on every project has become part of our DNA and is at the heart of each and every individual of our incredibly talented team who quite literally go above and beyond to make it happen.
Everything we do is underpinned by our high-quality production; marrying an extremely creative approach from some of the most gifted creatives to the most advanced tech savvy people in the industry.
Quite simply, we are passionate about creating inspiring commercials, marketing trailers, VFX & CG imagery.
CGB – What is the main differences between RealtimeUK and other VFX or animation studios around the world?
RTUK: Some of our team have been helping us push the boundaries of what’s possible for 20 years! Secondly our tremendous passion and desire to keep improving image quality and the emotion within our work – we spent many years focusing mainly on image quality and cinematography, but now that we’ve focused on storytelling and character performance to the same degree – it’s really boosted the excitement factor in the studio and we hope this is reflected in our more recent productions.
CGB – What do you feel has been the single biggest advancement in either software or hardware since RealtimeUK opened its doors?
RTUK: Being able to put so many more complex characters and FX on screen simultaneously has unlocked the previous restrictions we had. This is down to our pipeline development, refining processes, creating bespoke tools and finding our own techniques to keep us at the cutting edge.
CGB – Do you see any advantages or disadvantages of having your studio located in UK instead of the US?
RTUK: We don’t see it as either an advantage or a disadvantage. We do benefit from being able to tap into the European talent and the UK does already have a great reputation for quality and innovation. But overall it’s a small word and with all the technology these days anything is possible!
CGB – Has RealtimeUK ever created VFX for any feature films? If not, why? If so, which ones?
RTUK: We’ve not had the opportunity as yet, however, a lot of the skills that we have are easily transferable into film and we would love the chance to collaborate with all the amazing film and TV talent.
CGB – Can you explain the entire process you and your team go through (The specific steps) in creating a finished trailer?
RTUK: The early stages of the project very much depend on what the client brings to the brief. Some clients will have locked down storyboards and concept art. In the vast majority of projects, our clients know they need a trailer to promote their game and have a good understanding of their games USP’s. In these cases, we need an extensive creative and pre-vis stage.
Research: This is a combination of researching the game and seeking out inspiration for our approach.
Treatment & Storyboard / Budget & Scheduling: A written treatment with supporting storyboard is costed and a schedule is developed. Once this has been agreed and signed off by the client, we can go into production.
Concept / Animatic / Reference Photography: This is the first stage of production. Assets are designed, the storyboard is developed into a 3D animatic and keyframe concepts are produced.
Animation Blockout & Environment Layout: The animatic moves into blockout and staging. This is where the animation department starts roughing out performances. Basic environments are also developed at this stage and broken into what needs to be sculpted and what can be matte projections.
Modelling / Texturing / Mattes: The modelling department builds and texture assets. They build characters, vehicles, props and Environments. Many of our assets are sculpted in Zbrush and textured in Mari. During character building, our modellers work closely with our rigging department. Our art department starts creating Matte work.
Pipeline / Shaders / Lookdev: Assets are assembled in 3DS Max and shaders are developed in Vray under a variety of lighting conditions.
Rigging & Animation Tests: Our riggers work closely with our animation department to ensure our assets can perform as required.
Mocap (if needed) / Dialog Recording / Reference Shoot: This is the stage where live-action is most useful. Whether it’s shooting video reference, recording dialogue or using motion capture. The project’s structure is in place and this will guide what we capture.
Animation: Character animation goes through various stages. We start with the body. In First-Pass we establish key poses and develop the correct timings between each pose. Second-Pass fills in the gaps, blending between poses while adding to the performance. We then do a first and second pass with character facial animation.
Cloth and Hair: Having been developed earlier during rigging and look-dev, Cloth and Hair can only be simulated once the animation has been signed off.
Scene Assembly: Here we combine assets such as characters, vehicles, and props with environments and apply cached animation data. It’s also where we incorporate Mattes and apply set dress. Almost everything in these files is referenced to allows for quick updates.
Effects: Although many effects will be started at the beginning of the project, it isn’t until the closing stages, when the animation, cameras, and edit are locked down, that the work can be executed.
Lighting: Rigs which are developed during Lookdev are applied to the scenes and tweaked on a shot by shot basis.
Rendering / Compositing / Grading: Shots are rendered and composited. Shots are broken into passes to allow manipulation and fine-tuning during compositing. We try to make each pass as comprehensive as possible; this helps characters feel grounded and aids the overall believability of the finished image.
Final Edit and Mastering: Finally, the visuals, music and sound effects are brought together and the movie is mastered.
CGB – What are the biggest challenges in creating CGI trailers, and can you tell us if there was any trailer or shot that was hardest to create?
RTUK: The biggest challenge is simply getting the budget onto the screen. It’s so easy to get caught up in the process, to sculpt perfect assets, to develop insanely complex simulations. But at the end of the day, our final product is a 2D render. All our approaches need to be efficient. The audience doesn’t see how hard we’ve worked or how innovative we’ve been unless the results make it into the final render.
CGB – What is the main 3D software packages that your studio uses and why?
RTUK: We use 3dsMax. It is artist friendly and suits small teams and tight deadlines. We’ve developed extensive in-house scripts and plugins to expand Max beyond what is available out of the box. Much of our cinematic pipeline relies heavily on these proprietary tools. Although 3dsMax forms the backbone of our studio, we also use both Maya and Houdini in supporting roles and we’ve incorporated them into our pipeline.
CGB – What are the primary compositing packages RealtimeUK uses?
CGB – Does your studio use any off the shelf software plug-ins, for example for hair, cloth and particle FX?
CGB – The water scenes in the “World of Warships” trailers look extremely realistic; can you explain what software is used to create the water as well as the process of integrating it into your scenes?
RTUK: The ocean FX in the world of warships was all simulated using Houdini’s FLIP and Particle solvers. An average scene would consist of a 40 million particle water simulation. These particles are then meshed to create the ocean surface. We use additional displacements to add fine detail in to this mesh. Next we simulate whitewater particles based on the vorticity and curvature of the main simulation. These particles are rendered as small points to look like surface foam and aeration under the surface. We also add a mist layer to help add to the realism these layers are all comped together in post.
CGB – How are the immense environment scenes created and do you use digital elevation maps, specialized software or are the handcrafted?
RTUK: Our approach is entirely dependent on what we want to achieve. We have used elevation maps in the past on projects such as World of Tanks. Other environments are entirely hand sculpted in Zbrush. We use procedural software such as World Machine. Digital Matte Paintings are also used where possible for set extensions.
CGB – There are many high quality render solutions available on the market, what renderer does your studio use for the majority of your cinematics and why?
RTUK: We use Vray as our primary renderer. We initially adopted Vray back in 2003 for its GI rendering. With features such as Vray proxies, Vray displacement, physical cameras and sphere fades. It has become an integral part of our studio’s pipeline over the years.
CGB – Does your studio use any special hardware or software to capture any of the facial animation and character motions, or are they key-framed? Can you also explain at what stage this done in the overall creation process?
RTUK: The majority of our work is created through keyframe animation. But we do have a magnetic motion capture suit from Perception Neuron which we use during character blockout and as an aid for the animation team. If we need more refined data, we generally use motion capture services. We’ve used a variety of facial capture solutions over the years such a Di4D and Image Metrix. If we’re intending to rely on motion capture to drive a project, we aim to have a tight, locked down blockout before we start.
CGB – How important do you think playing video games is, and what role does it play in your artists’ creative process?
RTUK: It is very useful. Gamers gain a huge variety of experiences on a very personal level through playing games. Someone who plays a lot of games finds it easy to place their head in other situations. It also arms them with the social references and the cultural insights that are needed when dealing with the gaming community.
CGB – What other inspiration do your artists draw from?
RTUK: Obviously film and literature play a huge role. Music is very useful when creating visuals. If we can find the right mood and energy in a piece of music, it guides me in my creative decisions. It’s very tempting to take inspiration directly from our own industry. However, it’s far healthier to trace inspiration back to its source and develop it from there.
CGB – We have found that there are a majority of men dominating the VFX and CGI world. In your experience have you found this to be true and if so, can you explain why?
RTUK: It is definitely a male dominated industry. But I suspect there are many contributing factors. For generations, computers and programming were considered a very male interest and I think we’re still seeing the results of that mindset. Like the video games industry before it, digital vfx were pioneered by hobbyists and computer enthusiasts. Initially the digital vfx industry was just another part of the software industry. ‘Artists’ needed extensive technical knowledge from what was an established male orientated background. But within the last decade, the artist has become separated from that industry. They have become consumers. Both hardware and software have become far more accessible to traditional artists. 15 years ago the vast majority of vfx artists would have built their own PC at home, they had spent their childhoods playing on games consoles. This is no longer the case. Many artists today start their careers in traditional arts and sciences and see the technology merely as a tool to do their job. I would hope that as becomes ever truer, the gender divide will start to evaporate. – Ian Jones: Director
CGB – Do you see any emerging technologies or innovations such as game engines, VR or other tech that will have significant impact on your studios creative process over the next few years?
RTUK: GPU rendering is set to take off where CPU rendering stalled, making rendering both cheaper and faster. A much needed boost as we move towards 4k. Technology for motion capture, 3D scanning, even facial capture systems are all becoming artist friendly consumer products. What does all this mean to us? It means that services that we’d traditionally outsource can be brought in house and ultimately that means more iterations. In this industry, iterations are the secret to success.
CGB – Where do you see the future of the CGI/VFX industry going?
RTUK: The industry is now less about giants and more about boutiques. Small studios with strong teams of talented artist can go a long way. Proprietary software is being replaced by off-the-shelf solutions. As the industry matures everything is becoming standardized. Everyone uses the same software. Everyone runs projects the same way. There is a huge amount of knowledge sharing going on. If a job is too big for one studio, they can collaborate with another pretty easily. You don’t need expensive Flame suites or huge render farms anymore. Everything has moved to the desktop and into the cloud. Small players can make a big noise right now.
CGB – What’s the most important thing you look for in a demo reel?
RTUK: Keep it short, keep it concise and if you contributed to a larger piece of work, make sure you have a breakdown that details what you were responsible for. Where possible, demonstrate that you can take direction and that you can work from reference.
CGB – What is an absolute killer to a demo reel that shouldn’t be on there?
RTUK: Content that is recognizable from tutorials doesn’t prove much other than that you can copy settings. Test renders don’t carry much weight unless they’re within the context of a shot. Everyone tells you to start with your best work and this is great advice. But they should also tell you that that’s where you should stop. So many demo reels start with a great shot but then show progressively poorer and poorer examples of work. Keep it short and only show the very best. Nobody in this industry is impressed by quantity.
CGB – If you could give advice someone just starting an industry what would it be?
RTUK: Stay a Generalist for as long as you can. There is a move away from pigeon-holing artists into single roles. Being amazing at one discipline isn’t enough anymore. If you want to be a great animator, learn the roles on either side of animation. Learn to rig, learn to light and render. The more knowledge you have of the whole process the more useful you’ll be to a studio. Everyone knows the saying “Jack of all trades and master of none” but few people know it continues “though oftentimes better than master of one”.
CGB – Do you think formal art education is important why and why not?
RTUK: It isn’t important to us. We just want to see a great demo reel. Industry experience is important for senior positions, but two or three great shots that show good potential are enough to get you a job as a junior.
CGB – Thank you again to RealtimeUK for taking the time to answer our questions and give us some great CGI industry insights!
More about RealtimeUK :
Watch the amazing Smite: To Hell and Back trailer below.