The SyncSketch team was lucky to get a moment to chat with some of the key creative talents and technical minds behind the Award winning Short Film Sonder. We wanted to learn more about their groundbreaking work – how to create a short film entirely in the Game Engine ‘Unity’ and the role SyncSketch played in their distributed production.

Andrea Goh – Technical Supervisor
Stefan Schumacher – Animation Supervisor
Gates Roberg-Clark – Lighting Pipeline Tools Lead
Yee Sum Hoi – Creative Manager
Neth Nom – Director

Q: Sonder is notable on numerous levels… in addition to a great stylized look and a riveting story, you guys are on the forefront of realtime production using Unity. What did this mean for things like dailies and animation reviews? Can you give us an overview of the typical shot progression in Sonder? Ie. Are there shifted bottle-necks to be aware of? Do any hand-offs shift priority? What role did SyncSketch play in this? Are the changes felt throughout the team or do the animators go on as usual while the realtime happens with the lighting and set-dressing?

Stefan: Animators were actually working primarily in Maya. Only after a shot was approved would the animation be imported into the real-time environment. That way we didn’t have to worry about getting over 20 animators up to speed on working inside a game engine. Our animators were already familiar with the Maya / SyncSketch workflow and review process. We used SyncSketch in combination with Google Hangout to do live reviews every Sunday night for over a year. Additionally, our way of asking for feedback was simply to post a SyncSketch link, which I would review whenever I had a chance. With animators contributing from so many different parts of the world and time zones, this flexibility was absolutely invaluable.

Andrea: The real-time part of the production fell under lighting and rendering, which were done in Unity. The handing off of animation and simulation from Maya to Unity was one of the trickiest parts of the pipeline, as bugs and asset incompatibility would break the shot in Unity. Besides the animation department, the cloth simulation department also relied on SyncSketch as their review tool. SyncSketch’s easy drawover feature helped our Character TD Supervisor and Leads give visual notes as quickly as possible. As we assembled the cloth in Unity, SyncSketch was helpful for us to check on the uploaded playblast videos to confirm that the exported asset was correct.

The scene where the flower pot hits the ground and breaks up hits me like 2D – driven by the desired pose and composition rather than what a simulation would normally give you. Effects animation plays a secondary role to character animation in Sonder, but where it pops forth, it feels very tight. Did SyncSketch play a role here? And generally in the direction of cloth, hair, etc.?

Stefan: Yes, this scene was ‘hand animated’ so to speak, with the animator moving each wooden shard individually one frame at a time. It was extremely helpful to use SyncSketch to compose in real-time the placement of the different pieces, and to design the shattered look—including placing the dirt, which the talented effects artist added.

The ground seems to be shifting under the feet of cg productions everywhere at the moment, with GPU rendering, realtime engines, AI-supported image editing etc. Having dealt intensely with realtime, would you say there are only advantages, or does it just shift the effort-time equation elsewhere? Is there a break-even point for real-time?

Gates: The ability to iterate quickly allows artists to fine-tune their work and get a greater volume of feedback. Those last iterations can be the difference between an average shot and one of movie magic. Real-time can help you create the content faster, and SyncSketch can get you feedback faster. They’re symbiotic.

As hardware advances, we’re getting closer and closer to the look we desire from a typical final rendering.  I think the challenge right now is scene complexity. The more you try to fill the world, the slower things get, and we definitely hit the real-time breaking point on Sonder with forest scenes and water simulation. Once we hit the ultimate real-time goal, render farms may be a thing of the past, but we’re not there yet.  Communication tech like 5G and future internet speed increases could lead to a lot of artists and engineers working off-site. That will have a huge effect as well.

How does the realtime pipeline affect the communication workflow? Anything a review tool like SyncSketch should be aware of? Can you give an overview of how you worked with it?

Yee Sum: We used SyncSketch in various departments from Art and Set Dress, all the way to the Animation and Cloth Sim departments. SyncSketch is super useful when it comes to pausing a frame and doing drawovers on it during reviews. Our team members would share the SyncSketch links across the department so they could check out notes from the director even after the reviews. It saved us lots of time in the review process, freeing us from having to take screen captures and write down the notes.

SyncSketch saved us a lot of time

Did you have to customize anything to tie it into other software or processes or Is there a specific SyncSketch feature that popped up as critical for your work?

Andrea: We did not do any software customization, but that’s definitely something I would love to look into if we had more time. As mentioned above, the drawover tool that goes with the live feedback feature of this tool was definitely the most used feature of SyncSketch for our film. As our team members mostly worked remotely in different parts of the world, it was great to have live visual feedback of the notes given on their shots during the weekly meetings. The mobile app version of SyncSketch was also heavily used by the cloth simulation department because their meetings usually occurred in unconventional places, hence having it on the phone was handy.

Yee Sum: Like Andrea said, the drawover tool was definitely the most used feature on Sonder. Other than that, being able to tweak the playback rate was a feature that also played a huge role in animation reviews. It helped us to play around with timing and view animation in different speeds, which definitely made it easier in getting the right timing during reviews.

Do you have any SyncSketch workflow and tool tips you’d like to share with other animators?

Stefan: Having a centralized platform (‘Trello’ in our case) where artists could post and receive SyncSketch links was really helpful and saved us from a ton of back-and-forth email traffic.

Yee Sum : Unfortunately there wasn’t a specific workflow we used when we first started using SyncSketch on the film. Back then, we weren’t even aware of all the features that SyncSketch provided. I hope in the future we can look more into that. I just love how easy SyncSketch can be!

An excited Sonder Crew celebrating at their Wrap Party

What are you guys up to now? Has the Sonder experience pushed you further into realtime Film-making?

Neth: With the success of Sonder as a film, what we’ve accomplished with real-time filmmaking is huge! You cannot discuss real-time animation now without mentioning Sonder. There has been a huge increase in the popularity of real-time production, and it will continue to grow as people are always eager to learn new ways to make production better and faster.
We definitely want to continue making films in real-time. We built something really special in the Sonder team and we want to continue working on awesome stories. It’s still early, but I’m currently thinking about some future projects. You’ll be hearing more from us soon!

We look forward to that – Thank you for your time!

Visit Sonder’ official website here: