Behind the Scenes of ThePack’s First Animated Feature Made in a Game Engine

This year, we at ThePack released our first theatrical animation film fully rendered in a game engine: Journey to Yourland. The film is produced by BFLIM, Plutoon and ThePack.

Journey to Yourland tells the story of a 10-year-old boy named Riki. One night, Riki finds a mysterious luminescent stone which leads him on a crazy adventure through the fantastic world of Yourland. During this adventure he makes two new friends: a girl named Emma and a monkey named Tidling. Together, they must find the magical power source of Yourland, which has been stolen, and bring it back to the Presidential Tower where it belongs.

Journey to Yourland
Journey to Yourland

When the teams of Plutoon, BFILM and ThePack met for the first time, we established the following goals for the development of the project:

1. Cross-platform production

2. Appealing look for the audience

3. Being able to expand the IP of the film, namely through VR, games and other extensions

After a lot of brainstorming and R&D, we came to the conclusion that the ideal technical & creative solution was to use a game engine to produce the IP.

But, why would we also produce the film in a game engine? There were quite a few challenges in the script that would be difficult to achieve within the available budget (approximately €3,800,000), and we thought the game engine would allow us to solve these. One of the big challenges was a 15-minute water sequence, a complex task to achieve with traditional 3D simulations in a tight budget. We faced two options: either change the script, or find a way to make it work in a more budget-friendly way.

Journey to Yourland
Journey to Yourland

We had been looking at the possibilities of the Unity game engine for quite some time, and decided it could provide us with the technological and creative advantages we needed to achieve the complexity of this sequence. It definitely felt like taking a leap of faith, as we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. How would the engine behave in a full feature-length production? How could we use it within a multi-studio animation production pipeline? How would we be able to work with artists that had never used this kind of software?

Right from the start, we realized that making a feature film in a game engine is not an easy thing to do. Luckily, at ThePack, we had been doing R&D on the use of real-time technology in cinema and games since 2015. For a previous project we wanted to reuse the 3D environments that we created for the film in a game. Based on this experience and our knowledge of 3D animation, we created a dedicated “real-time” pipeline: SYNK.

Journey to Yourland
Journey to Yourland

SYNK combines the power of a real-time engine while keeping the traditional animation workflow in place. We thought that this would allow us to tackle the challenges for Journey to Yourland and, at the same time, the film would be the perfect project to stress-test the robustness and reliability of SYNK on a real-world production.

It turned out to be the right decision. The first advantage of the hybrid pipeline was that the various teams in multiple studios could keep on using their preferred software. Maya was used for animation, Substance Painter and Designer were used for texturing and Unity took care of the lay-out, shading, lighting and rendering.

Journey to Yourland
Journey to Yourland

Because we were working with different softwares and we were working with different partners in multiple countries, any changes that were made in the data or the metadata had to be automatically updated. These changes also had to be logged in the production tracker, Ftrack, to make sure that every department could keep track of updates, in order to work on the latest approved version of each element at all times.

Additionally we had to develop tools for layout and lighting for the artists to enable them to work within Unity. One example of a tool that was developed in SYNK is a VR lay-out mode. This technique makes it possible to fully immerse yourself in an environment and explore all different possible camera angles. We were also able to record different takes for each shot with real time feedback.

Journey to Yourland
Journey to Yourland

Another extremely useful feature the team developed was “fully-automated-environment-transfers.” The ability to transfer entire environments from one software to another ensured that all the approved assets remained 100% the same in every scene. This meant that we could eliminate a lot of approval stages. It also allowed for effects artists, lighting artists and lay-out artists to work with continuously updated, textured and lighted assets, instead of having to work with dull, gray, unlit models.

Last but not least, one of the biggest advantages was that we were able to get a final look very fast. This is why we decided to combine the last steps of the production together into a “finalizing” stage in which we combined lighting, effects and finishing.

Journey to Yourland
Journey to Yourland

The fast iteration possibilities, in combination with the SYNK pipeline, enabled us to finish the final image within Unity without needing a compositing phase. Combine this with the speed of the real-time finalizing steps and the typical end of the project crunch time was avoided.

In just three weeks time we rendered the final version of the film in 4k. In a normal workflow/pipeline this would have taken substantial render capacity costing a lot more time and money.

Making the move to a real-time engine and the SYNK pipeline that supported it, made all the difference for us in this project. The advantages game engines provide are too interesting for us to go back to a traditional workflow. We definitely feel that real time animation production is here to stay and is the key for smaller companies to get closer to competing with the bigger productions, thanks to a more efficient and creative production process.


Journey to Yourland was originally released in May 2022.

Tom Verbeek is a business developer for SYNK and a marketing manager for ThePack.

yourland.film thepack.studiosynk.cloud

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