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'Three Trees' Animated Short Made in Unreal Engine Makes Its Festival Debut

Montreal-based animation studio E.D. Films recently won Best Canadian Animated Film at Les Sommets du Cinéma d’Animation 2023 for their film Return To Hairy Hill. The studio has announced that they would be following it up with Three Trees,  set to debut this week at Palm Springs International ShortFest, competing to earn eligibility to the 2024 Academy Awards. The film is entirely built and directed in real-time in the Unreal video game Engine.

Three Trees borrows its aesthetic from the book of the same name and features the vocal talents of EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg.

Written by Emmy-nominated television and film director M.R. Horhager and illustrated by veteran art director Aaron Hong, Three Trees follows three friends who happen to be three different species of tree. As they grow and change throughout the course of a full year, they each experience the seasons in a unique way, that initially sets them apart. With the help of their friends, they come to embrace the differences that make them who they are.

To deliver their message of acceptance, Horhager and Hong imagined a short film with the look of a children's picture book, featuring a forest made of multiple colours and geometric shapes. But to bring it to life as an animated short, they wanted to use techniques that have traditionally been associated with live-action filmmaking, To have the freedom to experiment they needed the ability to explore a complete digital environment from any angle in real-time. For that, they needed a game engine.

This brought the duo to E.D. Films, who were known for their work with the Engine and were one of the first animation studios in the world to receive an Epic MegaGrant.

“We’ve been working with game engines for over a decade now, but recently Epic has made some incredible additions to Unreal Engine that have allowed us to streamline how we approach many of our animation projects,” said Emily Paige, co-founder and lead producer for E.D. Films. “Having access to Epic’s support team and the community of filmmakers working with Unreal has been incredible. With their help, our work on Three Trees really showed off what real-time animation production is capable of.”

E.D. Films began by adapting Hong's 2D artwork into a vibrant 3D environment. Using Unreal Engine's inbuilt tools, including foliage and terrain options, the artists were able to quickly recreate the illustrations in real-time.

With the stage set, the directors were able to jump into the scene and move through it in real-time. While in traditional animation each frame must be created individually, by using a game engine the duo had the freedom to take control of the 'camera', and had the chance to experiment. Once the short film's look was established it was then rendered in the game's engine.

Three Trees will screen as part of the Shorties program at the Palm Springs International ShortFest on Saturday June 24.