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Compositing Supervisor Realizes His Action-Adventure Game in UE5 with Character Creator and iClone

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Sneak Peek of Symphony of Demons Project

Varuna Darensbourg is a traditional and digital artist with a deep passion for video games as a storytelling medium.  Growing up, he drew comics and made movies and animation with anything he could get his hands on.  He studied Art & Animation in college at LCAD and has been working in the film industry at SDFX Studios as a compositing artist and supervisor on films such as Avengers, Mad Max and Blade Runner.  In his spare time, Varuna has been working with his wife, Michelle, to develop an original video game using Reallusion’s tools and Unreal Engine.

Q: Hi Varuna, welcome to our Feature Story series. First of all, congratulations for another DreamWork animation film, The Bad Guys, which just came out in 2022.

Apart from being a Digital Compositing Supervisor, fewer people know that you are a developer on your indie game project.

Could you give us a brief intro of your artistic path as a character/game artist and what pushed you to start developing your own games?

Thank you!  I am extremely proud to be a part of bringing The Bad Guys to theaters.  The crew I worked with did an incredible job converting the entire movie into 3D.

My artistic path began at an early age.  My imagination was creatively spurred on by comics, animation and video games.  I was obsessed with the idea of creating these amazing things!  I sketched and drew comics a lot growing up and always envisioned bringing my characters to life.

As an artist, I find the digital tools available these days immensely exciting, especially the ability they have to enable a solo artist to develop their concepts into fully animated, talking characters and interactive environments.  I approach digital art with a tremendous love for traditional art and a respect for the limitations that artists faced before computers became such powerful conduits for creative expression.

Demon Girl (created and rendered in Character Creator 4 with additional tools such as Substance Painter, ZBrush)

Working in the industry has been both challenging and immensely rewarding.  I work on big projects, but my field of work on those projects does not actually involve any of my interests in animation, storytelling, or character design.  As an artist & storyteller, that passion and need to create never stops.  Over the years, I have explored many tools for creating my own projects and in 2019, I began to narrow my personal creative passions on game development. 

For me, video games are an incredible medium for storytelling and the tools currently available are unbelievable.  Character Creator (CC) has given me a lot of control over creating the sort of characters I want in my project.  The animated characters I have created so far have me beyond excited and confident that a Reallusion pipeline will allow me to produce the character quantity and quality I am seeking to achieve as my project progresses.

Symphony of Demons

Q: The ongoing Symphony of Demons game project has very unique design for each demon.

Could you share with us your artistic concept of this game, from character, music, and sound design to the worldview of this game?

This project has several underlying concepts that are driving the overall aesthetic.  It is a story-driven action-adventure based around a young demon girl learning new things about herself and the unique world around her. Many of the core concepts will be left for the player to unravel, but I want the art to support a sense that characters and environments all have a sense of history behind them. 

For both the animated characters and environments I am aiming for a sweet spot between stylized and realistic.  I love art that has a balance of bold shapes and select detail. As this project progresses this will become more prevalent. Everything from the visual art to the sound is based on contrasting themes like old and new, strange and familiar; much like the work of Guillermo del Toro and Studio Ghibli, but with a Dune and Fifth Element twist.

For Symphony of Demons we are doing more planning than usual in regards to writing music.  I tend to compose music based on a feeling I am trying to capture.  This works well for ambient soundscapes that instill a feeling of mystery and intrigue.  For this project however, I am collaborating with Michelle for vocals and to write some more intentional music.  This is new territory for us, but we are beyond excited about it.

Like many artists, I pull inspiration from sources like Animation and Comics, however, a key factor in my approach to world building stems from nature and growing up in the Sierra Nevada mountains; surrounded by forests, fields and creeks.  Having a familiarity with different environments can enhance your approach to many things on a creative level. Comics like Elf Quest, Jeff Smith’s Bone and every Studio Ghibli movie are prime examples of worlds where the environments solidify your connection and understanding of the characters that exist within them.  My goal is to capture a similar connection in Symphony of Demons.

Q: Why does it have to be a game, instead of other mediums like an animation film?

There are several reasons this project must be a game.  Video Games are an incredible and versatile storytelling medium.  They  have evolved into a wonderful, interactive, sensory experience that can meld so many different art forms together and immerse the player in incredible ways.  Basically, the platform is helping me focus all of my interests into a single project and collaborate with my wife to breathe life into a world of strange characters.  I won’t lie, it’s all very daunting, but I am extremely driven to do it.

Q: How Reallusion tools help you achieve such goals?

When my wife and I worked on the Reallusion 2021 Lip sync contest, we ended up re-writing and re-doing all the dialog in the last four days leading up to the deadline.  We had a new idea and acted on it.  iClone’s Lip Sync tools made that decision possible and also helped us develop a pipeline that easily translated into our game project.

One of the most important yet challenging components to character dialogue is facial expression and lip sync. Even in AAA games they will often bypass having to include these elements to reduce time and cost.  Reallusion’s tools actually make including high-quality lip sync and natural expressions a possibility for smaller developers. The base CC characters all have fully functioning face rigs and morph systems which allow for many different, modular approaches to using them. 

For me, the iClone Acculips and Animation layering system changed everything.  After a few tests, I knew I had a pipeline that would enable me to achieve the results I was seeking. The best part of it all, is that compared to doing it all from scratch… it’s fast. Crazy fast!

Create the detective’s lip-sync animation in iClone 8.

Additionally CC and iClone provide me with a level of sanity.  Any motions, characters, clothing or morphs I create or purchase are all organized and quickly accessible in a shared library.  This allows me to find, test and re-use anything on new or existing characters, or create new content based off of items in my library by using the GoZ pipeline.  Having this hub for my character development has helped reduce the overwhelming nature of game development and in a way, separate the character development into a department that I can visit any time and easily bridge to Unreal when needed.

Q: We’ve known Varuna since your first game project Salvage in 2019. At that time, you still use ‘iC7+CC3+UE4’ pipeline, instead of the current ‘iC8+CC4+UE5’ pipeline for Symphony of Demons.

Either the game concept or the upgrade of software, how do you see the change of yourself through these 2+ years?

Over the past two years, my goals evolved as my skills grew. The more I worked with Character Creator and expanded additional skills, the more potential I saw to tell a more character driven game than I originally envisioned.  Now with the release of CC4, iC8 and UE5, the possibilities are unbelievable. Switching to the new updates has been intuitive and very inspiring. These updates certainly injected fresh energy into the project.

CC4 alone immediately improved my workflow. There are many things I can list, but the ability to quickly create and map custom expression morphs using GoZ is incredible.  Additionally the ability to test your characters at any time with animation and lip sync presets without leaving CC4 is a massive workflow improvement.  Combining CC4s improved facial profiles with iClone 8 also gave me an immense sense of reassurance that I could produce the subtle character performances my project required.

Q: Many character artists are familiar with ZBrush and Substance Painter, but don’t really know how to turn their characters into a game character that is ready for animation.

Could you share your experiences on using the GoZ pipeline with Character Creator and iCone? 

While working on Salvage, my 3D sculpting and modeling skills were extremely limited, but I still built many fun, original game characters using the deep morph system inside CC.  When I joined reallusion’s character design contest in 2020, I was really impressed with the content other artists were creating by combining CC with tools like ZBrush or Blender.  I was intimidated, yet inspired.  Sculpting and modeling skills are not required to utilize Reallusion’s tools, but if you do have additional 3D skills, especially sculpting, you can really maximize the full potential of the software. 

The competition showed me this, so I took the time I needed to develop those skills.  For me, learning the basics of ZBrush took some time, but the Character Creator GoZ pipeline is so fast, powerful and intuitive, it’s beyond worth it!  For anybody already familiar with ZBrush and Substance, adopting Character Creator is one of the fastest ways to get your custom characters up and running in a game engine and still have the ability to quickly test and update things.

Create Creepy Detective with GoZ pipeline.

Q: Also, as your self-taught testing result on UE5 has successfully WOW the audience,

what would be your advice to learn the mechanism of a game engine (UE or Unity) from scratch? What could they start from?

For anybody new to Game engines like Unity or Unreal Engine, my advice would be to look at the engine as a studio that has different departments that all handle different tasks.  E.g. Animation, Level Design, Game mechanics.  Break it down in a way that makes sense to you.  If you just jump into the programs and try to make a game, it can be very overwhelming.  If you pick a department to start in, it’s far less challenging.  Pick something that you have the most interest or existing skills in.  Focus on your strengths and ease yourself into the things that intimidate you. 

If you are excited about environments and world building, it is entirely possible to spend months just focused on the world building tools inside a game engine.  While doing that, you will not only learn the interface, but you will begin to learn about other things that tie into other departments. 

In Unreal, for example, iClone & CC make it very easy to get your custom characters into the engine, but  you will still need to understand how the Blueprint and material systems function.  Youtube is filled to the brim with tutorials for any game engine, but it still helps to break your focus down into digestible blocks or departments and chart out your tutorial choices based on your initial focus. 

Additionally, the Unity and Unreal markets are loaded with many amazing things, but even the best assets will require you to understand how they work inside the engines.  I have no programming skills, so for me, it is very important to know what assets will help me achieve my goals.  For me, it helped to learn some of the engine basics with some free content and then I was able to understand the true value of the marketplace items and what tools and plug-ins would benefit my project.

Q: Metaverse, XR, NFT, the technologies become more and more accessible to everyone.

As a Digital Compositing Supervisor for almost a decade, how do you see the development of Animation / Film / Game industries for indie developers and pro studios in the next 5 years?

From my experience, current technologies have already shifted industries.  The use of Virtual sets is becoming more common and has reduced the need for some forms of compositing in both film and streaming content.   Advances in real-time engines have started to change the landscape for both large and small studios and I believe it’s going to change rapidly moving forward. 

Reallusion and Unreal Engine are already on the forefront of this, with real time tools pushing all of the visual mediums to new heights as well as allowing smaller studios to produce more complex projects, create unique gameplay and tell stories in new ways.  Over the next few years, I don’t believe tech will fully erase practical sets and VFX though.  Instead, it will allow teams to work more efficiently and put more funding into necessary areas, while reducing time and money spent in others.

Editing Demon Girl’s poses in Character Creator 4.

I’m not sure where Metaverse and XR are headed, but I’m sure AI will impact those things in many ways.  In the next 5 years, I believe AI generated art will have a massive impact on both pro and indie studios.  Currently there seems to be a lot of fear that AI is going to steal something from artists, but like all digital tools, it can be used to enhance one’s existing skills as well as a studio’s pipeline. 

AI generated art is already pretty crazy, exciting and a little scary.  What really matters though, is what people do with the technology and the creativity individuals and studios apply to it to bring their ideas to life.

Q: Also, how do you balance between the mainstream commercial demands and your own artistic ambitions? 

I will admit, I am still working on a healthy balance between my day job and my personal projects.  The industry hours can get very long and I have a bad habit of finishing my day job and then jumping right back into working on my own stuff.  It’s good to be driven and focused on goals, but it can help you avoid creative burnout if you just detach from your tech and get outside for a little while.  Maybe to walk or just to view the landscape and recharge your spirit.  For me, this also helps me return to my art with a fresh perspective, and new ideas.

Demon Girl in sci-fi scene (part of costumes from ‘Rugged and Trendy Collection’).

Q: Could you share 3 things that inspire you most when you start a new project?

For inspiration, I have a few sites I visit regularly when starting or continuing on a project:  

Pinterest is handy for just creating boards that represent a feeling you are seeking.  I tend to make a few boards that I look at as a wall of thumbnails that immediately give me a sense of an overall aesthetic I am interested in.

Artstation can be overwhelming.  The talent posting there is insane!  But I have learned to look at it and feel recharged and inspired to push my skills and creativity further.

Games that inspire me tend to be character and story driven. I love Uncharted, A Plague Tale, NieR:Automata, and the The Last of Us series. But I also love games like Dark Souls that are a bit vague on story, yet they weave elaborate clues throughout the world and have a great sense of history and discovery.

Additional YouTube channels that I have found inspiring and immensely supportive:

Q: Please share with us one quote that influenced you a lot till today.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.

Pablo Picasso

Learn more about Varuna Darensbourg :

• LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/varuna-darensbourg-a9199547/#experience

• ArtStation https://www.artstation.com/aria_redux

• Instagram https://www.instagram.com/ariaredux/

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