The Glitch Productions team shared a behind-the-scenes look at The Amazing Digital Circus' character animation pipeline, discussed rigging and animating Pomni, Jax, and Gangle, and explained how Maya and Unreal Engine were used in the workflow.
The Amazing Digital Circus
Digital Circus is the story of cute cartoon characters who hate their lives and want to leave. It was conceived by Gooseworx and picked by Glitch Productions out of three total pitches. We all agreed it was the one with the most potential, particularly because of how nostalgic all the 90's inspired CGI renders were, and we knew that this was something incredibly unique that no one else could do.
Pre-Production & The Pilot
We began pre-production on the Pilot back in mid-2022, and a lot of it was focused on actually figuring out how to make a 90's CGI-inspired show that didn't also look really bad visually. Production went into full swing towards the end of 2022 – in fact, the character trailers we released in the middle of the year were actually the proofs of concepts we made to test the animation style and visuals.
At Glitch, we adhere to a mission of bringing our showrunners' visions to life, which, to us, means that they're supposed to focus on the creative side of things, and we do everything else. Gooseworx concepted the characters and designs, wrote the pilot script, etc., while Glitch focused on bringing all her madcap ideas to life. Goose also hadn't worked a lot in 3D before, so that was a big thing that we threw our expertise behind.
The Animation Pipeline
Our 3D animation pipeline was set up like most other studios, with separate departments specializing in different areas such as storyboarding, layout, 3D modeling, rigging, animation, lighting/compositing, effects, and postproduction. We mostly use Maya for our 3D process and then send everything into Unreal Engine to be rendered.
Animating Pomni & Jax
Pomni uses a primarily joint-based rig, so the character and animation can be easily imported into Unreal Engine. Her mouth is achieved by just skinning a couple of corrective joints to help maintain the face's volume during extreme poses or side mouths. The Pupils make use of UE's Decal system, which allows the pupil texture to be projected onto the eyeball's surface without being warped from geo's deformation.
We also use Custom Animation Curves to drive different material values on the characters, like switching the Pupil's texture so the timing can be approved during the animation phase and is automatically reflected in Unreal. We tend to only use Blendshapes for simple deformation such as Pomni's sharp teeth, more so we can keep the character under the UE joint limit while making sure the important areas (like the mouth and eyes) have the most control for the Animators to push the expressions.
Jax's face is a more complicated version of the Murder Drone mouth, which uses native deformers (lattices, live blend shapes, shrinkwraps, etc.) to achieve the face shape on a proxy version of the character (to help with performance). Then, our in-house Batch Export tool subdivides the geo and applies some corrective deformers before exporting as an Alembic. Our Importer tools then attach the Alembic Geo to the body and align the animation tracks.
We do have tools for the Animators to have the option to toggle between the proxy and exported face so they can optimize their workflow while maintaining a consistent playback speed.
Glitches and Abstracted Characters
The Abstracted characters were Animated without the jagged/glitching effect so they could focus on the body performance. The abstraction effect is all material-based that's applied in UE. Since the intent was for the effect to be glitchy/broken, we were okay with clipping in the environment or other characters. However, we did have controls for the abstraction materials so we could adjust the intensity of the effect if the shot needed it.
Animating bugged-out Ragatha was a lot of fun. We enjoyed trying to think of different funny ways she could glitch out each time we saw her. One of the favorites that our lead animator snuck in there was her eyes playing Pong with her nose.
Rigging Gangle's Body
Animation-wise, Gangle was definitely a challenge. We wanted to make sure her ribbons actually felt like ribbons and had a nice flow to them. When she got dragged down into the hole, we had to do a lot of frame-by-frame animating to make sure everything flowed correctly.
For rigging, Gangle was a challenge to implement, but she can be broken down into a ribbon rig (controls driven by a NURBS surface), which were each attached to our Univeral Rig system (UniRig) so she could make use of other characters' animations while having the ability to detach the ribbons from the UniRig for when she unravels. To help with animation, we have tools that could maintain the ribbons' position during the unraveling transition.
I can't share too much about the show's future, but I can say we're absolutely astonished by how successful the show has been – it has honestly been much bigger than anything we imagined. We're still kind of reeling back here and trying to find our feet on what to do next, but we are definitely so touched by how much this fanbase has gotten into this series and how much they want more. Honestly, the best thing someone can do to support the show is to just help spread it around and let other people know about it.