On The North Star Experience animation production there was a very important part of the clients request that kept me up for a few nights. We were tasked by JLL Canada to create a Digital Shopping Mall Santa and deliver a Covid Safe photo experience at the ending of our scenic train ride.
We discussed several options like photo booths and kiosks with digital overlays and backgrounds but those solutions were not immersive enough and not part of the world we were creating. I chose to use the short throw projection system to seamlessly integrate our digital Santa from the show into a real world photo experience.
At first I was not worried, even though as far as I knew this had never really been done, I had under 3 months to animate the entire train ride sequence and a full body digital Santa Claus. Not to mention the Country wide installation and Launch on November 24th. With some experience in character animation thought I knew what I wanted and how to get there.
I had been experimenting with Epic’s MetaHumans Creator and knew I could make a custom Meta Human Santa by generating the Meta Human base Character adding my own costume and accessories.
As the deadline loomed closer I was in the middle of building landscapes animating animals, setting sequences designing lighting and effects all while planning the project execution and launch process across 13 Locations and 5 provinces. I had put Santa off because I knew the environments and train sequence were a huge time consuming task. I was starting to worry how will it all get done, but after studying the MetaHuman / maya / UE4 workflow and trying the animation rig in Unreal Engine Sequencer I knew I was on the right track(unintentional pun).
An intentional departure from the traditional Mall santa experience our entire train show offers guests an alternate holiday photo experience. We had to ensure the winter tour of the north was beautiful and inspiring and the ending with Santa is as festive and magical as possible with a believable realistic character families would enjoy taking photos with.
So based on my simple story board drawing and inspiration from a sculpture we have at home I started a 3D model in Maya and Zbrush to design his look. I used the Meta Human Creator Tool from EPIC Games and exported the character I started back in October and used that to build my costume on top of. I tested a couple versions of the character and it was easy to make variations and near endless realistic facial options with Metahumans. The hair and clothing are also very nice but not as many options there. The workflow for adding custom clothing is not complicated if you have understanding of rigging in Maya.
His long velvety red coat with the big hood and fluffy white trim are unmistakably Santa Claus but the overall character is intended to have a more natural woodsman look inspired by some of the older Christmas fables. Originally he had a beautiful natural wooden staff adorned with ornaments but we pulled it from the final show to simplify and make photos more clear.
The Meta Human character was an excellent asset in the process and looks fantastic in the scene with my custom costume. The built in animation rig for body and facial are great to work with giving so much control and perfect deformations. If I had more time I could have spent a lot more on animations and cloth simulation. I would have also liked to create a larger beard groom and add a facial motion capture pass to increase the realism. We can have all that in Santa 2.0 in 2022 we hope.
Our Meta Human Mall Santa appears at the end of The North Star Experience in a magical flourish , waving and greeting guests he silently beckons them in for a photo before heading on their way . The Panasonic Short Throw multi projector setup allows guests to walk right up to the screen and interact with the character. We used the new DLP laser projectors PTRZ890 and the ETDLE 060 lens widely used in immersive productions around the world. We consider this a passive immersive photo experience. The 3D scene is adjusted for photos by adding large white “photo discs” like reflectors used in photography that create a bright white light to illuminate the guests properly for a photo. There is also a added effect as result of the 3D lighting, our Digital Santa casts a simulated shadow onto the white disc just like the guests do with real shadow and it naturally blends reality and digital space in one photo. I have used this projection spot light technique before to create spotlights in projections for photos or for illuminating performers like DJs and musicians on stage.
Livevideoart Inc is continuing a tradition of pushing the boundaries of technology and creativity deploying the first ever MetaHuman Shopping Mall Santa and the The North Star Experience live in 13 shopping centers. We look forward to further developing our real-time digital characters in future projects.
It’s an absolute joy and definitely one of the highlights of my career to know this creation of ours is entertaining and creating memories with families across the country.
You can still see the train ride and our Digital Santa until December 24th but hurry shows are selling out fast. I am so happy to know so many families are enjoying this experience every day with our MetaHuman Santa Wishing everyone a Happy Holiday , A very merry Christmas and a wonderful winter season to all from JLL Canada and LVA.
Stay Safe and Be Good !