A clever mix of live-action and made-with-Unity animation, the TV series Dead Pixels originally aired on Channel 4’s E4 in the UK. This summer, it landed a weekly slot on U.S. network The CW. Now, London animation studio Keyframe Studios finds itself delivering season two sequences in a speedrun.
If you’re a gamer, and especially if you’re a fan of role-playing games, you may wonder why you’ve never heard of a popular MMORPG called Kingdom Scrolls, the incredibly addictive online world replete with what The Guardian calls “a feudal empire in chaos. Evil magic on the march. Far-flung warriors gathering their strength for an ultimate reckoning.”
The four main characters of Dead Pixels, represented by their Kingdom Scrolls avatars.
There’s a reason: Kingdom Scrolls is a game that exists only in the comedy television show Dead Pixels. But it might not exist at all if its creators, Keyframe Studios, hadn’t used a real-time animation pipeline.
Made for TV
Dead Pixels premiered in 2019 on Britain’s E4, a leading public service broadcaster in the U.K. The brainchild of creator Jon Brown – a writer on Succession and on Channel 4’s longest-running comedy, Peep Show, and himself an avid gamer – the Dead Pixels series parodies popular MMO (massively multiplayer online) role-playing games and gamer culture. Its characters commit every spare moment to their favorite pastime, playing Kingdom Scrolls, which – outside of the television show – is not a game at all, but a game-like series of scripted animation sequences that Keyframe Studios created using Unity, specifically for the TV series.
A Kingdom Scrolls action sequence made in Unity.
Keyframe Studios is a London-based, full-service creative animation studio for 2D and 3D character animation. Its clients include broadcasters (Channel 4, BBC, Sky, BBC Studios), production companies, agencies, and brands including Lloyds Bank, Hyundai, Nissan, Samsung, and Vodafone.
The studio’s entire pipeline is built on Unity and incorporates the full creative process, beginning with animation, real-time lip-sync, and motion capture recording, continuing through to lighting, next-generation virtual effects, real-time 4K+ (very high-definition) rendering, and compositing.
Speeding up time
The workflow for animation sequences involved heavy use of Unity Timeline and Unity Recorder. Ben Purkis, Keyframe’s CTO, says that these tools make the Unity real-time pipeline up to 300 times faster than a traditional render process. “I'd estimate the instant nature of this workflow would save days or weeks of back and forth over the course of a production,” he says. Equally significantly, he says, “We’ve found that this workflow is actually 100 times more environmentally friendly as well, due to significantly lower energy consumption.”
Live-action characters live their fantasy lives in a video game. Image courtesy Channel 4
Script rewrites = animation do-overs
Making changes throughout the production cycle was particularly useful with Dead Pixels since it allowed the team to accommodate continuous tweaks and last-minute modifications. Changes happen all the time in any CG client work, but this was “essential for a show where the animation has to work with live action to ensure that the comic timing is just right, handling last-minute script rewrites at very short notice,” says Purkis – a phenomenon that happens regularly with episodic television.
Early concept art for the Usman character
Central to the series is Keyframe’s reimagining of the games of the past – including what The Guardian newspaper calls “pleasingly grotesque avatars” – for the main characters. This required the skill of the studio’s animators, and also pipeline flexibility that coincided with an update to the Unity version the studio was using.
“Series one (a/k/a season one) satirized the games that were popular in the 2012/13 culture,” says Keyframe founder and animation director Asa Movshovitz, and the team designed and modeled characters and environments with the sensibilities of that gaming era.
The keyframe rendered out animation sequences up to 300 times faster.
Double the work, shorten the time
But after the first season aired on U.K. Channel 4, two things happened: season one was picked up in other countries – in both Australia and Israel, as well as by U.S. television network The CW – giving the show an international audience; and a second season was ordered by Channel 4, with a storyline that expanded the visual look and feel into more modern gaming aesthetics.
“Series two takes the game into 2020, calling for highly enhanced graphics with a much more cinematic look,” says Movshovitz. This meant starting the animation from scratch for the second season, redesigning and rebuilding a whole world, including entirely new environments and more than 80 characters, which they accomplished using Unity’s 2019.3 implementation of RTX ray tracing in its HDRP pipeline.
Early concept environment art
We have speed on our side
With series two, the studio succeeded in delivering on a turnaround of less than eight months, which in animation-speak is incredibly tight for a six-episode TV show, says Movshovitz.
But it was no battle for Keyframe Studios. “We happily take on new scenes or last-minute changes late into the production process,” Movshovitz says, “because we have speed on our side.”
Ready for prime time
Season two of Dead Pixels is coming soon on E4 in the U.K. U.S. audiences can catch season one on-demand via The CW’s free service, The Seed.