Pixar would spend 29 hours rendering a single frame of Monsters University using what’s considered one of the fastest supercomputer rigs in the world: 2,000 computers with 24,000 processing cores. The new animated short A Boy and His Kite was rendered on a single computer, in real time. That means the 30 frames of blowing leaves, rich textures, and realistic light that glow in front of your eyes every second are calculated in real time.
It’s a graphical mic drop produced by Epic Games and its Unreal Engine. You may have never heard of the Unreal Engine, but it’s the core technology that a lot of developers build their games on top of, saving them the expense of programming things like their own lighting physics so they can focus on art direction, story, and gameplay.
In interest of self-promotion, Epic releases these State of the Union-style demos now and again, showing a best-case scenario of what its platform can do in the hands of the right artist, playing to its strengths, on a hulking tower PC that costs several thousand dollars. All of those caveats aside, demos like this one are a powerful beacon of where video games are headed in the next five to ten years.
Except in this case, I think we’re reaching something else, a sort of uncanny valley of real-time animation, where, at a glance, Epic has produced something indistinguishable from the product of high-end animation studios. No, I’m not saying that A Boy and His Kite is equivalent to the visual quality of a modern Pixar film–it’s not, and it doesn’t take an extremely sharp eye to spot details like the boy’s feet don’t push down the grass, his helmet hair lacks the 1,150,070 individual strands of the Ratatouille rat, or that the realistic textures of the environment clash with the cartoony finish of our protagonist. (Plus, who knows how much other stuff is lost inside YouTube compression.)
But I am saying that, with the right story and art direction, I don’t think most people would care that this lacks that last 10% of very expensive polish you get in a mainstream Hollywood animated production. Already, we’re seeing kids’ TV shows rendered by fast, cheap tools. How long will it be until we have the Blair Witch Project of real-time animation?
Correction: A previous version of this article wrote that there was a 5% royalty fee on any animation produced inside the UT engine. In reality, video animations are exempt from the royalty payment, though it seems that animations printed to film would not be.