Nordic Entertainment Group: A Unity case study
How does a regional entertainment provider cost-effectively create state-of-the-art content that competes with the world’s largest networks and studios? Nordic Entertainment Group (NENT) is the leading operator of streaming services, TV channels, and radio stations in Sweden, Denmark, Noway, Finland and Iceland – and its streaming service Viaplay continues to expand beyond the Nordics. The company’s production companies create content from music competitions and game shows to weekly series and full-length movies. Viaplay already competes directly with Netflix and HBO, and now it faces AppleTV+ and Disney+ as well.
To produce world-class original content with short schedules, a small staff, and tight budgets
Streaming services, broadcast TV
3 (initial pilot), 16 (season 2)
High-end image quality
Faster episode delivery
For entertainment studios, original content is king
According to Jens Köpsén, general manager at NENT Studios Animation, “Owning your own content is absolutely the key to success in this business. Because buying content is so expensive, we focus on producing originals.”
Indeed, NENT is premiering 30 original productions in 2020 and has over 80 original titles out or in development. To continue expanding their production capacity, while aiming to produce Pixar-quality content and staying within tight budgets, NENT has built its animation pipeline based on Unity’s real-time 3D platform.
- 40% more output at 10% the cost of traditional rendering by using Unity’s real-time animation pipeline
- Constant iterations without increasing external rendering costs
- Animation sequences perfected with instant audience feedback
- Streamlined workflows, improved team collaboration, and easily integrated custom pipeline tools with Unity
- Meeting and exceeding the production standards of the world’s largest studios with HDRP
Experimenting with new formats
“To compete, the quality of our streaming content has to be as good or better than what consumers expect, which is what they’re used to getting from HBO or Netflix. The only problem is, we have a fraction of their budget,” says Köpsén. Unity provided an opportunity to level the playing field, and NENT’s R&D team was eager to try it. “We had broadcast parts of the 2016 Olympics in 360 VR using Unity,” says Joel Edström, Head of Production for NENT Studios Animation.
At the beginning, however, VR content was limited, and existing technology, 360 cameras and tools, didn’t have the muscle to convert film stock to realistic, immersive experiences. But Edström continues, “We became very fond of working with Unity, and we created virtual worlds instead. Unity’s rendering gave us the quality we needed – it was a totally new creative playground, and it also produced a quality level that equaled high-end animation studios.”
Innovating the asset pipeline
Using Unity for nearly every aspect of the asset pipeline, the team built environments and a character, and then rigged it so that when actors put on VR goggles, they’re immersed in the fantasy world instead of acting out in front of a green screen.
The first project that made it into production was the story of Fixi, an animated character that serves as the mascot for NENT’s children’s programming. As Fixi’s development progressed, the team found that working with the Unity Editor was quite different from using their traditional workflows and methods.
Instantly iterative animation
Because modifying environments and characters, choosing camera angles, and adjusting lighting were done with Unity in real-time, creative iteration could take place instantly with an audience of children in the studio.
“The animators could get immediate feedback from the kids. We’d give the character a different appearance, or we’d make changes to her clothes, and the kids would shout NOOO!!! or YAAAY!!!” says Edström.
In fact, the 3D model for Fixi herself started out in early experiments as a fox, and now has her own children’s series as a squirrel. “It’s so easy in Unity to adjust the look and feel, even after you’ve done so much of the animation and artwork,” says Farshid Tavakoly, head of engineering at NENT Studios Animation. “Unity made many iterations possible for virtually no added cost, so we’d end up with really great scenes.”
Eliminate external rendering
The team had created elaborate environments for Fixi, whose animation sequences are captured in real-time by an actor in a MOCAP suit. “This is when we discovered that not only can we bring actors into a Unity environment, we can just as easily drop in real-time animation,” says Edström.
And most importantly, they can iterate as much as they want. In a traditional animation workflow, teams can spend hours working on a single shot, but if they’re at the end of a waterfall process, further iteration is nearly impossible. With offline rendering, it takes hours of processing just to preview a shot – time that holds up other production processes and is quite expensive. Unity’s 3D real-time rendering with the High Definition Render Pipeline changed all of this for NENT.
Streamlined time and cost
“The power of Unity’s real-time lighting and rendering to rapidly improve production times and workflows can’t be overstated. We get instant feedback on our effects and setups and can preview final 4k frames in seconds,” says Tavakoly. And Edström adds, “With Unity, it cost us a tenth of what traditional rendering methods would have cost, and it probably increased our output by 40%.”
Customizing any part of the pipeline
As the group’s engineer, Tavakoly says it’s easy for NENT developers to make Unity do exactly what they need it to do. “Unity is flexible. We’ve built a lot of tools over the years, and have been able to customize Unity to create a robust system that includes our other pipeline components.”
Since Unity is highly extensible, NENT can easily repurpose content from one platform to another, such as using real-time animations from the TV show in VR or AR projects. The broadcasting team, for instance, can add AR layers in a sports broadcast, inserting remote, live athletes as holograms to join the team of announcers.
“We need to be very, very smart about how we produce content, and this is the way we can do that," Tavakoly says.
Achieving the “impossible” with Unity
The collaboration between artists, designers, and engineers that Unity enables has been a huge advantage. "With Unity, we have creatives who can do things now that they used to have to wait for programmers to do,” says Tavakoly. The studio found that it needed fewer contributors overall because each one can accomplish much more.
As leading creators in a fast-paced industry, NENT consistently pushes its creative use of technology as far as it can. Unity is a big part of their strategy. As Köpsén puts it, “We want to go way, way beyond our competition.”
NENT is impressing other creators with its results, too. “We had someone from a large animation studio visit us. After seeing a demo, they remarked on the high quality. I told them five people did it. And they said, ‘That’s impossible,’” Tavakoly says. “That’s the power of working in Unity.”