Powering Stan Lee’s The Guardian Project

The man who conjured some of the most beloved superheroes of all time, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, has a new legion of heroes primed for the 21st century.

Stan Lee’s The Guardian Project offers 30 unique animated characters, each based on an existing National Hockey League franchise. To attract a new, younger generation of hockey fans, the NHL has partnered with Lee’s POW! Entertainment and SLG Entertainment to create Guardian Media Entertainment (GME). GME is deep into production of a cross-platform franchise set to launch in conjunction with the 2011/2012 NHL season. Powering the new computer-generated TV series and online video game is Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 technology, marking the first time game-engine technology has been used for a mainstream Hollywood television project.

Peter Krygowski, the director of The Guardian Project at Vicon House of Moves (HOM), where the performance capture for these digital characters was created, says game engine resolution has reached a place where it can address the quality that other media demands.

“A cross-pollination is now happening between games and other media,” explains Krygowski, who has been in the video game space for 12 years. “Obviously games have been in the public eye for a while, but only recently has the talent behind them begun to work in other media, applying their problem-solving ideas to traditional pipelines.”

Building Across Mediums

Each character in The Guardian Project is a superhero version of a hockey team, possessing unique super powers and representing a specific city and environment. The San Jose Shark, for example, uses his Silicon Valley roots to hack into computers with technopathy.

“The artist who designed these characters with Lee has a background in character animation and design for both television and gaming, and he warned us that many designs would have to be simplified to work for both outlets,” recalls Tony Chargin, executive vice president of GME Creative Affairs. “However, when we began working with Vicon, their process allowed us to realize in our final products all of the detail we imagined in the original designs, without sacrificing anything.”

A team at HOM choreographed the actions for each character and then motion-captured the actors and stuntmen to capture the data digitally on the 26,000 square-foot stage. More than 200 VICON T160 cameras were used over the nine-day shoot in Los Angeles. CG assets were built using Autodesk Maya and Pixologic ZBrush, and Autodesk MotionBuilder was used to retarget animation and navigate environments during motion-capture sessions.

An Unreal Journey

Krygowski says the team didn’t know that when they suggested using Unreal they would have in their back pocket Alberto Menache, a Hollywood visual effects veteran who has worked on blockbusters such as Spider-Man, The Polar Express and Superman Returns. Menache’s input, insight and sheer diligence coaxed the best out of the Unreal engine.

“We wrote code to help generate custom shaders and bring virtual cameras into and out of the Unreal Engine for this project,” explains Menache. “As a result, we had incredible creative flexibility and could render out 8K frames in a matter of seconds — not to mention the savings in gear costs — without the need for a multi-CPU render farm.”

Menache says the team used Matinee to blend animations and camera cuts, as well as for effects. They also used the Unreal Material Editor to build shaders and Cascade to build effects. Kismet was employed to make sure cinematics would play at the start of the game and for some camera effects and post-processes.

Chargin says working with a video game engine saved time in editing and allowed the team to focus on creating dynamic content during production. “In terms of its value over traditional CG, the render times are cut down exponentially, which allows for softer deadlines,” says Chargin. “We can turn out a better product in a fraction of the time. Because this has never been done, we did not have a template, but with those challenges comes even greater excitement and reward.”

TV production is a fast-paced avalanche of work where turnaround times for visual effects run anywhere from seven to 11 days, explains Chargin. For the most part, he says, a bunch of talented people are pouring their collective hearts and souls into making compelling visuals under crazy deadlines.

“Game engines are not the silver bullet in beating the curve for traditional TV work, but used judiciously with skill and foresight, the game engine can cut out a ton of pre-viz, pre-, pro- and post-production time,” says Chargin.

The Future of Entertainment

HOM has already integrated Unreal Engine 3 technology into its system, intending to employ the game engine on both video game and Hollywood projects. Krygowski says the engine has the ability to push the envelope of media by allowing creators to build a single set of assets for a variety of media, allowing for real-world environments, assets and characters to traverse multiple uses, resolutions and intentions.

In Hollywood, it all comes down to dollars and cents. And Chargin believes video game technology will become a mainstay in Hollywood because of economics. He says the Unreal Engine allows his team to produce a higher quality product in a fraction of the time of traditional CG animation.

Creatives can bank on this, moving forward. And the implications for the game industry are also huge, given that the sharing of assets built in the same engine will allow for more immersive experiences. But perhaps more importantly, it will blur the lines between interactive and linear entertainment — just as The Guardian Project and its cast of superheroes is doing.