Watch ‘The Voice in the Hollow’: An African Horror-Fable Powered by Unreal Engine

The dangers of jealousy and ambition are laid bare in the atmospheric, supernatural new mixed-technique animated short The Voice in the Hollow — a texturally rich and visually bold take on the old warning “Be careful what you wish for,” set in an African tribal village.

The Voice in the Hollow, which premiered in Hollywood on November 17, is a “masterpiece of real-time animation,” according to Brian Pohl, Technical Program Manager of Media & Entertainment and Academic Dean of the Unreal Fellowship at Epic Games. “Engaging, mesmerizing, and unquestionably indelible, [The Voice in the Hollow is] masterfully executed — and so impressively takes advantage of the rendering capabilities of Unreal Engine 5 that one finds themselves in disbelief that this film was accomplished by such a small team using only a game engine,” Pohl commented.

The Voice in the Hollow
The Voice in the Hollow

The 10-minute short was created using a combination of hand-drawn and cutting-edge 3D animation techniques and led by a surprisingly small core team of two: Miguel Ortega and Tran Ma, otherwise known as Half M.T. Studios. While Unreal Engine has been utilized by full studios to create real-time pipelines for years, the Epic team believes The Voice in the Hollow is breaking new ground for rendering top quality 3D animation exclusively using a game engine.

“Tran Ma’s artistic prowess is fully on display by creating a robust and wonderfully unique non-CG appearance for her characters and the world that they inhabit that rivals, if not exceeds, the production design of animated films with far greater budgets and staff, while Miguel Ortega’s attention to detail directing style and mastery of emotive subtlety so impressively brings everything to life.”

Created on the heels of Half M.T. Film’s award-winning short, The Ningyo, which told the tale of a search for a mythical Japanese creature, The Voice in the Hollow presents another unexpected story: an African horror fable exploring sisterhood, envy and ancient evil. And despite its vivid colors, it is not for kids. With its intentional Spaghetti Western aesthetic and softened renders, Ortega and Ma “wanted to make a statement with this film,” Ortega noted. “The beautiful visuals and vibrant colors are simply a red herring for the dark tone the film ultimately delivers.”

Ortega, originally from Colombia, and Ma, originally from Vietnam, cast their film using native African actors in Kenya and Tanzania. The short film is produced entirely in Swahili with supporting English subtitles, with voice actors resourcefully discovered from
audiobook translators in Africa and all recordings captured through Skype. Now based in Los Angeles as resident artists and instructors at Gnomon School in Hollywood, the filmmakers hired a local actor for the female mocap performances, while Ortega himself acted the movements required for male characters. This film was created using an impressively small team of artists and actors, with the results of a first-class studio.

The Voice in the Hollow
The Voice in the Hollow

Supporting Unreal Engine in the creation of their groundbreaking animation workflow, Ortega and Ma used industry-standard software ZBrush and Maya for the character design and creation, with character texturing handled using Adobe’s Substance Painter. Xsens’ Awinda suit and gloves helped provide the motion-capture performances while MocapX captured the facial expressions, which were all later improved upon by some of the film’s contributing animators using Maya.

Environments were sculpted and textured in Gaea, the industry-popular terrain design tool for VFX, games and virtual production, before being layered with Epic Games’ Megascans. For the most convincing fabrics and costumes, Marvelous Designer was used for the design and simulation before being exported as Alembic caches into Unreal Engine 5.

As instructors at Gnomon, the industry-focused school of VFX, games and animation in Hollywood, it was important for Ortega and Ma to document the entire process of the film’s production, from the casting and sound, through the editing and visual effects production. Over 100 hours of making-of footage have been recorded and are all available for worldwide viewing to help other aspiring filmmakers learn from their thought processes and creative workflow. Their entire filmmaking journey can be viewed now on YouTube.

“Miguel and Tran have created a beautiful film, and we’re very proud of their accomplishment,” said Alex Alvarez, Founder & President at Gnomon School. “For 10 months, they live-streamed their weekly progress, and it was a pleasure to watch the film come together. The end result is a testament to their passion and talent, while also an impressive case study on how Unreal Engine 5 empowers independent filmmakers.”

Watch the full film below:

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