I imagine HeroZ to basically be what you'd have if you combined The Avengers and Walking Dead. So, it's not quite your average zombie story, and not quite your average super hero story. Combining the best elements of both genres will hopefully make for a different, exciting story to tell.
What's also going to be different about this is I want it to be completely rendered in a game engine. One of the most frustrating things working as a lighter in the feature film industry is the delayed feedback when making the littlest changes to your rig. When you're on set, you can move a bounce card in and out. swivel or dim a light, and instantly see the effects. Changes take even longer when you have to go farther back in the pipeline to make set dressing changes, or animation changes. The inefficiencies of the offline render pipeline mean a lot more time and money are required to complete production. Game engines allow for near instant feedback on many things like camera moves, lighting changes, material tweaks, etc. And with the VR tools now built into the game engine, you can actually enter your scene and make tweaks as if you were there on a real set. (I've actually been able to jump into some of the test sets I've created in VR. I've also been able to "stand" right next to the rough character models I've been working on and see how they look. It's wicked cool!)
What all this means is: more iterations are possible in a much shorter time frame. This means not only arriving at a final product faster, but with a final product with higher quality since you are able to go through many more iterations to arrive at the final. Creating cinematic content with game engines is gonna be a thing very very soon. Amazing tools for this new workflow are already being developed. I'd like to get on that band wagon early. Bottom line is: creating great content can be achieved with fewer resources, smaller budgets, and in less time.
Also, working in a game engine allows for easier creation of VR content. This is also something still relatively new and a field I think would be profitable to enter early.
A BETTER WAY
As I mentioned before, working in the traditional animation pipeline can be incredibly frustrating and time consuming. After experimenting with the Unreal game engine over the past year, I'm incredibly excited about the potential to make the process much better. And, for the first time, gaming graphics are really beginning to approach the quality of features. The first real-time rendered feature character milestone has already been reached. And with the incredible rate at which gaming graphics and render capabilities in crease, it's only going to get much much better, and it's going to happen very fast.
To see how far game graphics have come, just take a look at the images on the right showing the evolution of the Nathan Drake character in the Uncharted series. The amount of realism and detail added to the character and the performance has been quite amazing. On top of being a great game, the cinematic qualities of the experience are also incredible.
And finally, let's compare some game graphics to some actual feature animation graphics. Take a look at the images below. One images is a screen capture from Uncharted 4. The other is from Ice Age: Collision Course. They look very similar. But the Ice Age frame probably took anywhere from 10-30 hours per frame to render (and probably involved a lot of digital matte painting), while the Uncharted frame renders in real time in 1/30th of a second. You could possibly play through the entire Uncharted collection--all 4 games--in less time than it would take to render the final frames for the Ice Age shot shown below.
The future of animation is looking more and more to be driven by breakthroughs in game engine speed and quality. Engines such as Unity and Unreal are keenly aware of this and are actively taking steps to make their engines more conducive to creating cinematic content, and not just games.
The visually stunning Adam short produced by Unity, along with the following 2 installments produced by Oats Studios and directed by Neill Blomkamp are truly inspirational and a clear indication of what is possible using game engines.
Sylvio Drouin, Unity’s Head of Labs, says work began on the first Adam film four years ago. People in the company anticipated that some elements of the film and gaming industry would merge, he says, and realized it was “time to start working on making the Unity engine and editor compatible with film technology.”
If you aren't aware of the Adam short films, you should check them out. It shows the amazing progress that is being made, and what is possible using game engine render pipelines. I think it will illustrate exactly why I'm so excited to use game engines to create animated media.
There are 2 main characters in HeroZ: Henry and Emily. (I've actually got an idea for a 3rd character. Not quite developed yet though.) We follow them and their story, as they wander through the world doing what they can to help people. Can they survive? Can they help others survive? Might they even find a cure? These questions will be answered as the show progresses. For now, I want to focus on developing the look for these two central characters.
Early 30's. Marine. All American, boy scout type. He was always a bit bigger and stronger than all the other kids his age, and he always felt the need to protect them. Especially the small ones that would get bullied. This natural protective instinct followed him as he grew up and he eventually joined the Marines.
He thrived in the military environment as he had in almost everything else. He was athletic, smart, and determined. A natural leader. He climbed the ranks quickly.
Henry was overseas when the outbreak hit. By the time he got home, his fiance was gone. There was no trace. It all happened so fast, there was no way to know if she was alive or not. He feared the worst. And all signs point towards her not surviving. He had dedicated his whole life to protecting and fighting for people. But, when the one person who mattered most to him needed his protection, he wasn't there. He feels like his whole life was a complete failure. He should have been there. This is his fault. This almost breaks him.
In a mad fit of rage and despair, he went out into the streets killing every zombie he could find. He would fight till he dropped, and died. Death by zombie. While in his mad rage, a girl saw him in his military uniform and came out from hiding. She had survived somehow by herself. (Kinda like Newt in Alien.) She runs to Henry and asks if he's there to save her. Henry, still in a rage, turns to her and yells back he can't save her! He can't save anyone! She begins to cry. Henry then has flashbacks, hearing voices of his old friends, drill sergeant, and Julie...his fiance. "You will knock that shit out and you will help that little girl...do you understand maggot?!" yelled his drill instructor. Then he hears his girlfriend, "Henry, this is not who you are. Save this girl. Don't give up..." As the voices fade off, Henry's sanity returns. His sense of duty returns. He looks at the little girl and says he's going to save her. He has purpose again. From that point on, Henry doubles down on his lifelong commitment to save people and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. It is now they need him the most. And he vows to keep searching for Julie until he knows for sure what happened to her.
I basically see his character as Superman. In fact, I designed him to look like I could put him in blue tights and he could almost be Superman. In this version (left), I gave him shorter hair. I think in this image he's looking a little too Tom Cruise-y.
Late 20's early 30's. Of Asian decent. She grew up the youngest of three, with two older brothers. Being the youngest, the smallest, the weakest, and a girl, she was often told she couldn't do the same things her brothers did. She never accepted that and spend her life competing with her older brothers to prove she could do anything they could. Not only did she prove she could hang with them, but she often bested them. Her brothers were accomplished martial artists, and she could beat them both.
Though she always competed with her older brothers, it was good spirited and she and her brothers were very close. After the outbreak, bands of people were coming together to try to help one another. But, then there were those who used it as an opportunity for themselves. The violent people of society, with no law and order to hold them back or provide any consequences for their actions, ran wild and terrorized the pockets of survivors. Emily watched as her brothers were murdered by such people. They sacrificed themselves to save her and a few others. From that point on, Emily saw the real monsters as the people who preyed upon the survivors in this apocalypse. And with society and it's laws gone, she took it upon herself to provide her own brand of justice in this new world. She vowed to find her brothers' killers and kill them to death.
Emily has been the hardest of the 2 for me to pin down design-wise. I want her to be attractive while also looking like a bad ass.
At the start we'll see her as kind of a vigilante, hiding among survivors and then taking out people she identifies as bad. She operates mostly at night (Kind of think Batman). She disguises herself so no one knows it's her. In fact no one even suspects the night vigilante is a woman. She is constantly hunting for those who murdered her brothers so she can avenge them. She begins the series very dark, and ultimately changes and realizes there can be a brighter future.
I envision some kind of leather suit. Like a biker suit maybe. The leather would serve as armor against zombie bites. And also look bad ass. And maybe boots wrapped in chains, maybe also gauntlets wrapped in chains? So her kicks/punches are lethal. She also caries bladed weapons. Stealthy, and don't require ammo. She is a master hand-to-hand combatant, with many degrees in various martial arts.
Basically I'm looking to build this up in stages. I want to get the character designs as far along as possible, and get better models built, rigged and textured. From there, I'm hoping to use a combination of online free mocap libraries and traditaional animation to create some test shots or maybe a teaser and/or trailer. From there maybe a short. I want to keep building this up until hopefully it becomes something real.
One of the first steps could be trying to get Unreal on board. They give out grants all the time to projects they like. They also help promote these projects. So, I'd like to put together enough material to pitch them the idea and try to get some grant money and publicity. That would be the first step towards getting the ball rolling on all this. I think they're really pushing to try to expand from gaming, so I think an animated series using their game engine would be something they'd be very interested in. There's also Unity, who is pushing hard as well. Currently, they seem to be ahead of Unreal in content with the creation of the Adam shorts. Maybe that would make Unreal more inclined to pick something like this up.
For right now I'm looking for more refined designs so I can take the next step with the characters, and from their look derive the look of the zombies. The basic style I'm going for is somewhere between cartoony and realistic. I've gone back and forth between more realistic and more on the cartoony side. I think, for practical reasons, the design needs to fall more on the cartoony/stylized end. The environments can be more realistic, while the characters can be a bit more stylized and cartoony. But I want them to have a lot of detail.
Below you'll find a bunch of initial designs and concepts I've put together based on how I envision the characters. I think these are a good starting point, but they definitely need some polish and improvement. The character models were started from base models, and then I applied dozens of morphs and tweaked dozens of parameters to get the character's look where I wanted. I was able to get pretty close, but in some cases the combination of morphs and stuff cause weird pinches and other topology issues with the models. The clothes were all pre-made wardrobe stuff I bought and not always exactly what I was looking for. There are definitely some things that aren't quite right or what I want. I wanted to take it as far as I could to have a rough visual representation of what I'm thinking. Some of the images below are definitely better than others. Some I really don't like at all, but figured I'd include them. The top images of Henry I think are working really well as far as being cartoony, while still having a lot of detail and maintaining a bit of realism.
ROUGH CONCEPT GALLERY
This is just a rough idea of what I want Emily to be like on screen. I've just found some videos of shows, movies, and a real girl doing awesome kung fu kinda stuff to show what Emily might be like in motion.
These are just a few tests from a set I was putting together. The zombies are from tests I did a year ago. So they're kind of old. This was basically just trying to sketch up a potential mood for a teaser/trailer.