Real-time sto­ry­telling

3D World talks to Epic Games, Unity and 3rd World Stu­dios about lead­ing the real-time rev­o­lu­tion across film and tele­vi­sion

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Epic Games, Unity and 3rd World Stu­dios dis­cuss lead­ing the real-time rev­o­lu­tion across film and tele­vi­sion

The use of game en­gine tech­nol­ogy in nar­ra­tive film or tele­vi­sion isn’t a new phe­nom­e­non, “Un­real En­gine has been driv­ing pre­vi­su­al­i­sa­tion and vir­tual pro­duc­tion on fea­ture films for years,” says Marc Pe­tit, gen­eral man­ager of Un­real En­ter­prise at Epic Games. “The first use was by ILM on Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I.”

More re­cently the tech­nol­ogy has been utilised by Frame­store for on-set vir­tual pro­duc­tions on the likes of Blade Run­ner 2049 and Christo­pher Robin. It’s also been em­ployed by pre­vi­su­al­i­sa­tion com­pany Halon for their work on War For The Planet Of The Apes and by ILM for fi­nal ef­fects shots in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. VFX house Method Stu­dios has even used Un­real En­gine as the ba­sis for a whole new vir­tual pro­duc­tion pipe­line on Robert Ze­meckis’ up­com­ing film Wel­come To Mar­wen.

Pe­tit con­tin­ues: “Most of the ma­jor stu­dios are lev­er­ag­ing re­al­time tools in their pipe­lines as part of pre­vis, tech vis, on-set vir­tual pro­duc­tion or post-pro­duc­tion. Each year we are see­ing Un­real ex­pand into more and more ar­eas of film­mak­ing, as de­ci­sion mak­ers see the cre­ative and fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits of vi­su­al­is­ing an en­tire film ear­lier in the process. Real time will also be em­braced by mid-bud­get and in­die film­mak­ers – even though they may not be work­ing with CG char­ac­ters or en­vi­ron­ments, they can still en­joy cre­ative and fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits in vi­su­al­is­ing and val­i­dat­ing their ideas ear­lier in the process.”

Unity has also be­gun mak­ing waves in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, as head of Made with Unity, Is­abelle Riva, ex­plains: “The gap be­tween real time and off­line has been clos­ing over the past few years, and it’s never been smaller. Unity’s ad­vance­ments in ren­der­ing tech­nol­ogy en­able film­mak­ers to achieve a high-qual­ity look in any vi­sion or style. It’s al­ready a se­cret weapon for di­rec­tors like Steven Spielberg, De­nis Vil­leneuve and Jon Favreau.”

There’s never been a more promis­ing time for real-time tech­nol­ogy on the big screen, but it’s also hav­ing a pro­found ef­fect on smaller ones too. Ef­fects-heavy shows are mak­ing use of it for ex­ten­sive pre­vi­su­al­i­sa­tion, such as The Third Floor’s work on Game

Of Thrones. Mon­treal-based stu­dio Dig­i­tal Di­men­sion has gone one step fur­ther by us­ing it to cre­ate an en­tire an­i­mated se­ries, Za­fari. Pe­tit con­tin­ues: “Un­real is also prov­ing to be rev­o­lu­tion­ary for en­abling real-time mixed re­al­ity broad­casts, most no­tably by The Weather Chan­nel and FOX Sports.”

The Unity en­gine has also been utilised on var­i­ous tele­vi­sion projects, as Riva ex­plains: “Mr

Car­ton was the first an­i­mated se­ries fully pro­duced and ren­dered in Unity, for French tele­vi­sion. This last year has been a bit of a gold rush in terms of amaz­ing

“We are see­ing Un­real ex­pand into more ar­eas of film­mak­ing, as de­ci­sion mak­ers see the ben­e­fits of vi­su­al­is­ing an en­tire film ear­lier in the process” marc Pe­tit, gen­eral man­ager of Un­real en­ter­prise, epic Games

con­tent, like with Bay­max Dreams, three shorts broad­cast by Dis­ney Tele­vi­sion.” Mean­while, Pak­istani an­i­ma­tion stu­dio 3rd World Stu­dios has been busy cre­at­ing the first an­i­mated fea­ture to be made en­tirely with Un­real En­gine. “Al­lah­yar And The Le­gend Of Markhor is about a young boy’s ad­ven­ture through the wilder­ness of north­ern Pak­istan and his re­la­tion­ship with the indige­nous wildlife that he en­coun­ters,” ex­plains Uzair Za­heer Khan, CEO of 3rd World Stu­dios as well as the film’s di­rec­tor and pro­ducer.

Es­tab­lished in 2016, one of 3rd World’s ini­tial agen­das was to pro­duce in­ter­na­tional qual­ity con­tent at an ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive cost, through in­no­va­tive ap­proaches, shorter pro­duc­tion cy­cles and smaller teams. Al­lah­yar And The Le­gend Of

Markhor com­bines this with their ide­o­log­i­cal mis­sion to in­flu­ence au­di­ences through en­ter­tain­ing films that high­light some of the is­sues plagu­ing us to­day, such as the lack of wildlife con­ser­va­tion, global warm­ing and in­tol­er­ance.

“Markhors are the largest species of wild goats in the world,” says Khan. “Not only are they en­dan­gered, due to poach­ing and a loss of habi­tat, but they also hap­pen to be the na­tional an­i­mal of Pak­istan. The aim was, that if a child watches the film, they should never grow up to be some­one who con­sid­ers hunt­ing a sport and would end up treat­ing an­i­mals with the re­spect they de­serve. We were for­tu­nate to re­ceive a lot of ap­pre­ci­a­tion and sup­port for our ef­forts, not only from the lo­cal au­di­ences, but also from or­gan­i­sa­tions like the World Wildlife Fund. ”

He con­tin­ues: “Orig­i­nally, we had only played games made with Un­real En­gine. When we started ex­plor­ing it sev­eral years ago, we didn’t un­der­stand its true po­ten­tial. Even though it was re­garded as one of the most pow­er­ful game en­gines around, it was con­sid­ered fairly com­pli­cated. It was only when we dove deeper into it, that we re­alised its ex­cep­tional, ro­bust and ver­sa­tile tool­box. We quickly be­came very ex­cited about its po­ten­tial.”

At this time Epic Games had al­ready cre­ated var­i­ous shorts in­side Un­real En­gine, most no­tably the kite demo, which show­cased im­pres­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties in cine­matic pro­duc­tion. Along­side this was an in­creas­ing num­ber of cine­matic video games be­ing made with the en­gine. This en­cour­aged 3rd World Stu­dios to ex­plore it fur­ther in film pro­duc­tion.

“All as­sets and an­i­ma­tions for the film were cre­ated us­ing in­dus­try-stan­dard soft­ware, with Un­real be­ing used for set as­sem­bly and ren­der­ing out the fi­nal frames. We used all the lat­est tools that Un­real pro­vided for land­scape sculpt­ing, fo­liage paint­ing,

dy­nam­ics and its pow­er­ful post-pro­duc­tion fea­tures,” adds Khan. The fact that Al­lah­yar

And The Le­gend Of Markhor was 3rd World’s first film brought end­less chal­lenges for the stu­dio, let alone the fact that they were switch­ing to a game en­gine for film pro­duc­tion. “The ap­proach in­volved a steep learn­ing curve,” Khan ad­mits.

“Artists and en­gi­neers with ex­pe­ri­ence in Un­real were prac­ti­cally non-ex­is­tent in Pak­istan,” he con­tin­ues. In­stead the core of their team had ex­pe­ri­ence cre­at­ing in en­gines such as He­lios, Torque 3D, id Tech 4 and Unity. Khan con­tin­ues:

“We had to switch and train our en­tire team to work in Un­real from scratch. Fig­ur­ing out an ef­fi­cient, work­ing pro­duc­tion pipe­line also took a lot of ef­fort. We faced quite a few tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions and had to learn, look out for and cre­ate a lot of out­side-the-box, cus­tom so­lu­tions for our pipe­line.”

De­spite the chal­lenges that arise from up­root­ing the more tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion pipe­line, there are a num­ber of ad­van­tages for film­mak­ers will­ing to em­brace real-time en­gines. Pe­tit out­lines one huge ben­e­fit: “Di­rec­tors can re­al­is­ti­cally vi­su­alise an en­tire scene up front, in­stantly it­er­at­ing on dif­fer­ent light­ing choices, colours, block­ing, fram­ing and more, mean­ing their vi­sion is locked in much ear­lier in the process. This drives both time and cost sav­ings in ev­ery­thing from pro­duc­tion de­sign to VFX.”

On the an­i­ma­tion side, off­line ren­der­ing has tra­di­tion­ally eaten up nu­mer­ous re­sources, with each small change to light­ing or ef­fects tak­ing hours, if not days. Re­al­time ren­der­ing not only al­lows an­i­ma­tors to it­er­ate on the spot, it also en­ables sig­nif­i­cant cost sav­ings in com­puter power and en­ergy out­put. This is some­thing Khan is keen to re­in­force: “Quick pre-vi­su­al­i­sa­tion, cut­ting down hard­ware re­quire­ments and ren­der times, Un­real’s abil­ity to han­dle ex­tremely large scenes and the power to make ad­just­ments at the last minute are just some of the ad­van­tages.”

“It is a very non-lin­ear way to tell a story,” adds Riva. “Small teams work­ing on story de­vel­op­ment or an­i­mated shorts can it­er­ate with all of the

“di­rec­tors can Re­al­is­ti­cally vi­su­alise an en­tire scene Up front” marc Pe­tit, epic Games

de­part­ments at their fin­ger­tips. Unity also places com­posit­ing up front in the work­flow, cre­at­ing a mis­sion-con­trol style plat­form where bet­ter judge­ment calls can be made on an­i­ma­tion, tim­ing, light­ing and cam­era po­si­tions. Larger teams can en­joy the speed and ef­fi­ciency of real-time ren­der­ing, widen­ing the win­dow for more it­er­a­tion and cre­ative risk. Why not try it, if it only takes a few sec­onds?”

Ac­cord­ing to Pe­tit, real-time en­gines are fast catch­ing up to the level of qual­ity pro­vided by more tra­di­tional meth­ods. “We’re al­ready see­ing Un­real driv­ing fi­nal on-screen pix­els for block­buster films like Rogue One where ILM de­vel­oped a real-time ren­der­ing process for the droid K-2SO. This will only be­come more com­mon as the tech­nol­ogy con­tin­ues to im­prove and peo­ple dive deeper into the tools.”

Khan is scep­ti­cal that larger stu­dios will fully em­brace real time: “They have their own tools and pipe­lines in place. How­ever, smaller pro­duc­tion houses with lim­ited bud­gets have al­ready started look­ing into it. We are start­ing to see an­i­mated con­tent com­ing up through game en­gines. The shift in fo­cus from game en­gines towards build­ing bet­ter and eas­ier tools for cre­at­ing such con­tent en­sures that they will be in­dus­try-stan­dard tools for cine­matic con­tent in the fu­ture. It’s great to see this com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ing and grow­ing right in front of our eyes, when just a cou­ple of years ago it was rel­a­tively non-ex­is­tent.”

Else­where Unity is al­ready be­com­ing a vi­tal part of the pipe­line for var­i­ous stu­dios. “MPC and other post houses are even in­te­grat­ing Unity into the suite of tools used on big bud­get films

“small teams can it­er­ate With all of the de­part­ments at their fin­ger­tips” is­abelle riva, head of made with Unity

like Aqua­man and Jus­tice League, or for com­pan­ion ex­pe­ri­ences to fu­ture-proof IP, like with Pixar and Magno­pus who pro­duced Coco

VR,” says Riva. What­ever the fu­ture holds for real time, its po­ten­tial in the film and tele­vi­sion in­dus­try is un­par­al­leled, and film­mak­ers are just be­gin­ning to scratch the sur­face. “From truly im­mer­sive mixed-re­al­ity broad­cast seg­ments, to cross­ing the uncanny val­ley with pho­to­re­al­is­tic dig­i­tal hu­mans, the im­age qual­ity that cre­atives are able to out­put with Un­real is un­prece­dented, and it is only get­ting bet­ter,” says Pe­tit.

Pe­tit con­cludes: “Be­yond fi­nal im­agery, it also has the po­ten­tial to rein­vent the en­tire con­tent cre­ation pipe­line. Once fi­nalqual­ity im­ages can be achieved at any time dur­ing pro­duc­tion, the cre­ative process will shift to the front end. Imag­ine on a Cg-heavy ac­tion film, cin­e­matog­ra­phers be­ing able to nail their light­ing, and vis­ual ef­fects artists be­ing able to craft their mon­sters, right there while ev­ery­one is still on the green-screen set. That will be an in­cred­i­ble mo­ment of co­a­les­cence.”

Dig­i­tal Di­men­sion’s an­i­mated se­riesZa­fari is the story of a baby ele­phant with ze­bra stripes, a gi­raffe with pea­cock feath­ers and a pink lion

Za­fari aims to teach kids that dif­fer­ences should be cel­e­brated, not just tol­er­ated

A still from 3rd World Stu­dios’ Al­lah­yar And The Le­gend Of Markhor

3rd World Stu­dios high­lights Mati­nee as a par­tic­u­larly help­ful tool in Un­real En­gine, call­ing it one of the most pow­er­ful ed­i­tors in a game en­gine

Un­real re­cently won a Tech­nol­ogy & En­gi­neer­ing Emmy for an­i­ma­tion pro­duc­tion from the Na­tional Academy of Tele­vi­sion Arts and Sciences

Raad is cur­rently work­ing as a free­lancer for VFX and video game com­pa­nies around the world, and he soon hopes to set­tle in an­other coun­try

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