29th March 2018

Animation on a Budget

One of the biggest costs involved with narrative-focussed games involves character animation. With the advent of Hollywood CGI studios bringing highly detailed 3D characters to life on the big screen, over time the expectations for games to match these pain-stakingly crafted animations in cutscenes (and increasingly the gameplay itself) has meant that studios end up spending large wads of cash on this element alone!
So, how the heck does a small indie game studio even come close to recreating Disney-quality animation on a shoe-string budget? At Turbo Chimp (like many other indie studios) we don’t have a lot of green to throw at this. So, instead, we rely on readily available tools that allow us to produce quality animations on a limited budget.
Fortunately, with game development technologies such as Unity coming of age we are now better equipped than ever to deal with those challenging facial queues and explosive martial arts moves demanded by the video game heroes of today.
Here’s a brief run-down of our process and the tools we use to animate Jake and FU-2 in our sci-fi adventure game, Mercury Blue. I’ll use the following as an example of an action sequence we would like our main protagonist to perform. We use Unity3D so we’ll use that as the context. And just note, there will be references to Mechanim, blendshapes and phonems, so you may need to use google if you aren’t already aware of any of the terms:
“Jake cocks his weapon and takes aim at the growling cyborg space pirate. He then quips ‘Hasta la Vista, Matey’ before letting rip directly at the enemy”.
And just so we’re clear – I’m referring to Jake’s laser rifle in this case 🙂

Step 1: First, I’ll draw the action out on paper.
Nothing fancy required, a stick figure will do the job in this example. Similar to a storyboard/comic strip, I’ll usually draw a single frame for each part of the animation sequence. This will help communicate to all involved what we want out of the character.

Step 2: Select your animation(s).
First, I’ll need one or more animations to perform the action. There are PLENTY of animation sets available on the Unity asset store that contain the animation sequence(s) required for this. Given we want our protagonist to first aim, then fire it makes sense to incorporate two separate animations in this case. One for aiming at the target and one for shooting.
Here’s an animation asset we use regularly for these sorts of movements:

Step 3: Map Animations to the Character Rig.
Next, I’ll map the animations to the character and combine them together so they transition smoothly over the course of the full sequence. Unity’s built-in Mechanim animation tools are pretty great (not to mention the timeline editor in Unity 2017) and usually suffice. I simply import the animation as a humanoid rig and assign them to Jake’s avatar. Then, in the mechanim editor I’ll link the first one to the second one so when the first one ends, the second one begins. There are many tutorials on youtube, Unity forums and documentation on how to work with mechanim and the timeline editor if you would like more information.

Step 4: Mapping Audio to Facial Animations
We use both subtitles and full audio of our lines throughout Mercury Blue. And we use Lipsync Pro to map facial animations to audio. The best thing about Lipsync Pro is that once your character is rigged properly, the software will automatically sync the character’s face to the sound using something called “phonems”.
In this case, we want Jake to say the line “Hasta la Vista, Matey”. So, first I’ll have our voice actor for Jake (the talented Rex Anderson) record the line which will then be inserted into the scene. Then we will run the audio through Lipsync pro which will automatically create the animation based on a set of blendshapes/phonems.
This usually requires a few touch-ups after the animation is initially created but generally it works out nicely.

And those are basically the basics . There is a little bit of setting up to do and a bit of time needed to polish animations using this process, but, by utilising quality tools and stock animations (along with some clever camera editing) we are able to get pretty pleasing results at the fraction of the cost of traditional techniques!