Keyframe Studios: A Unity case study
How does a small studio create broadcast-quality content for the fast-paced television world of last-minute rewrites and format changes? Dead Pixels is an episodic comedy series set in both real life and in an online game. To bring the virtual world to life, its producers, Various Artists Ltd., chose Keyframe Studios for their proven expertise creating both linear and interactive content.
To enable last-minute changes while maintaining top production standards
Broadcast television; on-demand streaming
Giving last-minute changes a platform
The greatest challenge facing Keyframe was to deliver animated sequences for each episode quickly, maintaining top production standards while enabling last-minute changes. Their production environment required the kind of flexibility that only real-time animation could provide. And with Unity, Keyframe was confident it could deliver whatever the writers and producers asked for.
- 300x faster 4K rendering over traditional methods
- Ability to add fresh scene revisions and make format changes up to the last minute
- Faster handoffs and approvals, saving weeks in project turnarounds
- More creative iterations possible than when using conventional rendering techniques
Steadily building a reputation for innovation
After a freelance career as an animator/rigger, Asa Movshovitz founded Keyframe Studios in 2009 and soon brought on Ben Purkis, a friend with an interesting background in applying real-time animation techniques to architecture applications. They steadily put together a team of animators, artists, and tech wizards, and today create diverse visual communications that include broadcast serials and playful, interactive AR environments.
Over the years, Keyframe contributed to a number of BBC and Sky projects, delivering everything from children’s programming to adult comedy. Early on, before the advent of cloud rendering, their production infrastructure consisted of a number of animation tools and three or four computers. Overhead was high and they had relatively small projects, but they consistently put out quality content and built a reputation for innovation and quick turnarounds.
Betty Boop shakes things up
Movshovitz remembers, “A big change came when a friend moved to Canada and decided to build a game around the Betty Boop character. That’s when we got started with Unity.” About the same time, Nissan approached Keyframe for some cutting-edge, touchscreen-based projects. Working on Betty Boop and with Nissan, he and Purkis, now the CTO, started to see the potential of mixing their expertise in linear production with more interactive, real-time content.
After seeing what Keyframe had done with the touchscreen idea, Nissan wanted more. They were an Olympic sponsor, and they asked Keyframe to create a promotional game based on Olympic athletes. The Keyframe team kicked around Nissan’s ideas for a bit, and soon Purkis got back to them with, “Yes, we could do that. But actually, we can give you something bigger and better.”
Keyframe created 3D athletes in Unity, built a crowd system from video of 10 friends in front of a green screen, applied various plug-ins and Unity shaders – and “it turned out great. The results from real-time rendering were very impressive, and we started thinking, why not apply this workflow to TV shows?” Purkis says. And the more they worked with it, the more confident they became. “The bonus was that real-time rendering in Unity kept the costs down, which meant we could grow the business at the same time.”
Dead Pixels brings Keyframe’s vision to life
English is not Movshovitz’s first language. But when he saw a comedy script being pitched to the British E4 network, he says, “I couldn’t stop laughing.” Dead Pixels was a show about live-action characters bouncing back and forth between their everyday lives and their online world in Kingdom Scrolls, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game. The script depicted a blend of linear and interactive, real-time content — exactly the kind of innovative visual production Keyframe had envisioned for years. The studio mocked up prototypes for the producers, who immediately said they loved it, but Keyframe didn’t hear back for a year.
They eventually got the phone call, and for the first season of Dead Pixels, Keyframe had a team of 17 artists creating over 70 minutes of animation, 350+ shots, 70 characters, animals and monsters, and around 30 CG environments, all in an 11-month production schedule.
Rendering 300 times faster
Keyframe confidently jumped into using Unity real-time production for their Dead Pixels sequences, and as they gained experience with each episode, their visual style evolved. “The image quality not only matched what we saw in other shows, it was getting better and better,” says Movshovitz.
It had to. The demands of broadcast TV meant producing great visuals in very little time, not easy when you’re a smaller studio with no budget set aside for traditional, outsourced rendering. “Real-time rendering is what made it happen, and it’s something the industry is going to absolutely embrace.”
Purkis calculates that their real-time pipeline renders 4K frames 300 times faster than their previous, non-real-time workflow. “Using 10 nodes, it would take 5 minutes to render 100 frames. In Unity, we’d render that in 6 seconds. On one computer.” This kind of instant content delivery facilitated an increased number of iterations they could produce. “We want to give the art director or the client exactly what they’re looking for – we want to match their vision – and Unity makes that happen.”
The “heart attack” call
They say it happens at least once on every television project – the dreaded “heart attack” call. And sure enough, Keyframe Studios had to make that call first-hand. The Dead Pixels project had been originally specified for 24 fps output, and Keyframe had delivered the first few episodes fully rendered out. Near the end of production, however, the editor informed the team they actually needed the episodes in 25 fps format. And they needed it now – right now, actually, because the show’s editors were sitting in the edit suite, waiting for the footage. “We immediately called the producer to let him know, and weren’t sure what to expect. He reminded us this was the heart-stopping call he expects at least once per project,” says Purkis.
The call was unnecessary, though, because Keyframe quickly tooled a way to automatically interpolate everything into 25 fps without losing any transitions. Then, because they were working in Unity, they just clicked Render and everything was done within a couple of hours. “That one re-do on its own is enough reason to use real-time rendering,” adds Purkis. “If that had happened in a traditional pipeline with a render farm instead of Unity, who knows how long it would have taken and how much it would have cost.”
In rendering, like comedy, timing is everything
Movshovitz says Keyframe is constantly bombarded with pitches from cloud rendering companies, and he always responds the same way. “We’re not looking for rendering services. We know what the big studios are doing, and we don’t want to compete at those prices for that infrastructure.” He adds that their real-time workflow gives Keyframe a tremendous competitive advantage by letting them be more innovative.
And for a comedy show, that innovation is everything. If the writer wakes up in the middle of the night with a new joke, a new twist that makes the difference between LOL and ROFL, why should an obsolete workflow stand in the way? “Being able to animate new content on-demand in Unity lets us deliver better comic timing for the writer’s instincts, without the moment being lost to slow rendering,” says Movshovitz. “We could get the job done and close the studio doors on time every night.”
More creativity, wider reach with Unity
For Purkis, one of Unity’s most important features is its extensibility as a development platform. “Unity accepts almost any kind of input, and then we can freely play around with the physics of objects. It’s the most open of all the content creation tools I’ve encountered, from animation to interactivity to architecture.”
Keyframe's real-time production capabilities go beyond the creative experience and have a big impact on customer satisfaction, as well. Dead Pixels Series Producer Tanya Qureshi learned this firsthand. At times, the last-minute editorial changes required the studio to create "new, fully animated scenes that were turned around within a matter of days," she says. "Their ability to offer up creative, comedic solutions based on their workflow unquestionably added huge amounts to the final programmes.”
Purkis owes this flexibility to a real-time pipeline. “Before we had Unity, when clients asked for the moon, we often had to say ‘Sorry, the tools won’t let us do that.’ With Unity, we have no problem saying yes. In fact, there’s never been a point where we couldn’t accomplish something creative because of Unity.”