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Pitch & Produce | CHIBURI: Using Real-time Design and Animation Tools for Creative Age Variations in Japan Edo Period


This story is featured in befores & afters

Read the interview article:

Neil Biondich – 3D writer/director/animator

Neil Biondich

Neil Biondich is a writer/director/animator, based in Los Angeles.  He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he studied art, film, music, martial arts, and roleplaying.

Neil began animating in the nineties, co-founding the company, Sik Puppy Studios. The company’s tech progressed from Amigas running Lightwave, to SGI’s running Alias Power Animator, to finally, PC’s running Maya. Neil had left animation behind for more than a decade but was drawn back in when COVID broke out and he began to study Virtual Production methodologies. The real-time raytracing capabilities of Unreal Engine blew him away and reignited his passion for animated storytelling.

Neil founded Kuden Creative with a charter to develop original, high-concept content for film and television. His sci-fi feature screenplay, KITTY, was a finalist at the 2020 Austin Film Festival and is now in pre-production with Neil set to direct.

His Pitch & Produce project: Chiburi employed real-time tools from Reallusion including Character Creator, iClone, LIVE FACE mocap for iPhone, with Rokoko Smartsuit Pro, and Unreal Engine.

Chiburi is a story about breaking the mold that society tries to keep us in. The plight of a girl in medieval Japan trying to rise above her station is perfectly synonymous with today’s struggles for equality. The character Sister just wants to earn her adult name. Unfortunately, her father will only award a name to one who lands a blow on him with a sword. Females are not allowed to touch swords. So, while Sister is raised watching her father train her brother to become samurai, she sneaks off into the woods to secretly practice what she observes.

“Reallusion was the exact toolbox I needed for my project. Each application tackled a different aspect of my pipeline and it all worked together flawlessly. They manage to bring high-end character modelling and animation into the reach of artists and filmmakers (non-3D gurus) without sacrificing quality.”

Neil Biondich – 3D writer/director/animator

Q: Hello Neil, and congratulations for being part of the Reallusion Pitch & Produce program. Kindly share with us your background and how you started Chiburi.

I’ve been studying traditional Japanese martial arts for more than thirty years and am fortunate enough to have trained in Japan more than a dozen times. With Chiburi, I was hoping to capture some of Japan’s majestic nature and draw upon the cultural history I’ve learned to create a compelling story.

Chiburi was intended as a live-action short film. When COVID broke out, I decided to produce the project as an animation. That was something I could accomplish during the lockdown. Coincidentally, I was teaching myself the Unreal Engine at the time, so I took it as an opportunity to plumb the depths of the software.

Q: Could you tell us more about the advantages real-time animation tools brought to your production? What made you decide to go this route?

I began in entertainment as a 3D animator and ran a 3D company for ten years. I love 3D, but the main drawback is having to hit that darn render button and wait a long time to see how your footage turns out. I had long since transitioned to live production when I wrote Chiburi. It was the allure of getting to animate and see results in real-time that drew me back. Now, I couldn’t imagine going back to a non-real-time 3D platform.

Q: You utilized Character Creator 3 to generate different age variations in your characters. Please share with us your workflow and about the benefits of using such an application.

The basic sculpting tools are so easy to use that I’m able to quickly rough out age variations for characters. Then I find other 3D characters that are similar enough and provide extreme age examples and set them up as morph targets.

For the younger version of Sister, I took my base Sister and changed her proportions to be roughly that of a ten-year-old. Then I morphed that version (just a little) with a baby. The ability to morph with another detailed character quickly provides subtle nuances that would otherwise be time consuming to achieve.

“I was stunned how quickly I could make unique, cinematic, fully-rigged and ready-to-animate characters in Character Creator. Why would anyone model characters from scratch anymore when it is so painless to get immediate, high-quality results with Character Creator?”

Neil Biondich – 3D writer/director/animator

Q: Chiburi features swordplay and training scenes which were motion captured by you as you are also a martial artist. Can you tell us a bit about your mocap process and suggestions you have for other artists who wish to mocap their motions?

Mocap used to be this expensive, exotic thing. No longer. I used a Rokoko Smartsuit Pro for body mocap and an iPhone for facial capture. The two most important things are good planning and thorough data cleanup. When capturing movement for a scene, especially with multiple characters, I record an audible script describing the action as it unfolds. I use this as a guide to get my timing down while acting in the suit. This is how I was able to play multiple roles and have them interact with each other.

“I like that iClone is focused solely on animation. I have yet to see another application that works as seamlessly with both mocap and keyframed data. From start to finish, iClone makes it easy to capture mocap data, clean it up, and layer further animations on top to create final output.”

Neil Biondich – 3D writer/director/animator

For data cleanup, I start with Rokoko Studio, making sure the feet touch the floor and are weighted correctly. Then I import into iClone to do more detailed cleanup and layer on additional animation.

Q: When can audiences look forward to Chiburi, what is next for Kuden Creative projects?

I’ve learned so much since beginning this project that I’m constantly tempted to go back and redo scenes that are completed. I have done this a bit, which has lengthened development time. I’m making steady progress now though and hope to complete Chiburi by Fall.

Kuden Creative has a slate of films that we’re producing. Mostly sci-fi/fantasy/high concept projects. I look forward to taking advantage of Virtual Production workflows to bring high-end VFX into films budgeted $2M-$15M. I feel like we have finally entered a time where it’s really about the idea, not the budget.

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