IV Studio: A Unity case study
How does a small, distributed animation team create, revise, and deliver final content for a global brand in just weeks? IV Studio did just that, after it received a creative brief with a tough deadline for four Nike Avatar shoe videos for diverse media formats. The client needed the team’s best, and – just like everything in ad production – change requests would be frequent and last minute.
To create winning visuals with no time for traditional production rendering
Video, social media stories, shareable GIFs
For fast turnaround, real-time animation is the only answer
With traditional animation workflows, compositors work with assets after they’ve already been through the rendering process. The problem is, that takes a long time, and it also means last-minute changes are out of the question if you’re on a tight deadline.
However, IV Studio could do it in real-time. In fact, the team’s expertise with Unity was a big reason they had landed a coveted Nike job. With their background, they’d be able to make four highly recognized professional athletes appear as avatars in a video game.
- 4x faster changes than a traditional animation pipeline could process
- More creative iterations on effects, from dust particle behaviors to lighting design with immediate rendering
- Quicker development and greater directorial control by consolidating production steps in one tool
A team ready for a challenge
Zac Dixon and Sam Cowden founded IV Studio in 2012 with a steady stream of video production and animation work. They enjoyed animation most, and they steadily picked up an impressive array of clients including Reddit, Amazon, Netflix, Bad Robot, and the Cleveland Browns NFL football team. From frame-by-frame and motion design animation through 3D computer-generated imagery, they mastered different visual styles to communicate exactly what their clients wanted.
As one of the studio’s side projects, they developed a game in Unity for two important reasons. “Making our own product gave us a depth of insight into marketing that now informs every decision we make as a commercial animation studio. And it helped us understand what it takes to create great advertising,” Dixon says.
New ways to reach audiences
The other reason, Dixon says, was to find new ways to reach audiences. “We saw the kind of visual power a real-time production platform like Unity can harness.” And as 3D animation became an increasingly big part of their work, they found Unity to be an important part of their toolkit.
The brief for the Nike Avatar content was demanding, to say the least. Put four recognizable megastar athletes in thunderously electric, 3D animations with the immersive qualities of a top video game, produce four animated videos and, last but not least, deliver the final content in five weeks – half the time they’d normally need. Nike wasn’t looking for a concept prototype, they wanted it done. IV Studio had its challenge: deliver top quality … very quickly.
Workflow as usual doesn’t deliver
Under different circumstances, after creating style frames and the storyboards, artists would kick out a series of EXR bitmaps and the team would review and suggest changes. After several rounds of tweaking and lengthy rendering, Dixon would start compositing in After Effects, then use other tools and plug-ins to add effects. All in all, the studio could end up using any number of different software tools for blocking, rigging, lighting, shading, compositing, and rendering.
“This is when not having a real-time workflow can really bog you down,” he says. “When I’m compositing I’m thinking ‘what if the characters did this instead of that? I wish there was more fog or different backlighting. What if we tried a different lens on this shot?’ Reframing is something I’m always thinking about but can never really do easily.” Yet at that point, changes would mean going back up the pipeline. They would have to budget considerable time for rendering or outsource it. For the Nike content, this workflow wouldn’t cut it.
Real-time rendering, faster production
For IV Studio, Unity real-time production is about the artistic freedom that comes from immediate feedback.
Traditional workflows require a linear pipeline: scene layout, modeling, animation, shading and texturing, through to lengthy rendering. It’s why blockbuster animated films take years to produce and 10 minutes of credits to list all the contributors.
Real-time rendering, on the other hand, delivers immediate results. A designer can change lighting and reposition characters on the fly, and user actions have immediate effects, which eliminates the need for a strict linear production pipeline.
Dixon loves it. “With Unity, when I start compositing, I can do anything – layout, lighting, effects. I can iterate a hundred times and just keep improving. It’s seconds instead of hours. Unity gives me so much freedom, especially on the back end of projects.”
No time for an intermission
Was there much pressure? Let’s look at the tape: Dixon’s family added a newborn son just two weeks before the project started. The work began as a sprint, and the team knew there’d be no letup. Then the pandemic forced everyone to work from home. And just when they’d barely gotten the first rough cut pulled together, Nike’s agency wanted to see a full-fidelity, nearly finished ad for any last-minute changes.
The agency loved the work – but wanted IV Studio to make some major adjustments to the dark mood of the piece. The animation was complex with elaborate particle effects and even tornados, and to change the assets upstream and re-render everything in a traditional pipeline, while meeting the deadline, would have been impossible. “Without Unity, it would have been game over,” says Dixon. “With Unity, we got all the changes turned around in maybe half a day.”
Looking ahead to transmedia
Cowden, who runs the studio’s business end, is always looking for ways to leverage content and make the most of their deliverables. The Unity platform’s importance to transmedia marketing is huge, he says. “How can we make one set of assets into AR stickers? How can we make these interactive? How can we find more ways to engage with the consumer? If we want to jump from an animated TV spot to a minigame, it’s a real option with Unity.”
Indeed, digital advertising is increasingly moving to emergent platforms with visual and immersive content, from discovery and try-on to transaction. IV Studio is well positioned to create high-end AR and VR experiences for their clients. “We need the production value of a film with the interactivity of digital ads, 3D, AR, VR, or mixed reality. And with Unity we can deliver this immersive content across distribution channels at scale,” says Cowden.
Customer satisfaction in record time
Dixon and his team have always enjoyed working with Unity, but applying it to a challenging advertising project – under enormous pressure – was new. From the pandemic to a newborn to the insanely fast turnarounds, Dixon says, “without Unity’s real-time production, it would have been incredibly challenging, and maybe impossible, to do a project like this.”
In the end, according to Dixon, IV Studio just didn’t have time to do things the old way, so they “tried the logical alternative. And as far as Nike is concerned, we nailed it with Unity.”