Dead Pixels casts real-time into prime time TV

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.

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A Kingdom Scrolls action sequence made in Unity.

End-to-end workflow

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.”

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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

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