The Future of Storytelling is Unreal
How the 20-year-old engine behind the video game Unreal helped change the way we make movies, TV, and VR.
Last week, Playback’s Kelly Townsend published a great recap of the Banff World Media Festival (BANFF) panel “Borderless production: exploring the latest technologies,” featuring leaders from Toronto’s Dark Slope Studios, equipment rental house and operator of Canada’s largest film and television backlot William F. White International, mixed reality studio Metastage, remote production services provider Hometeam, and Epic Games, the company that created the Unreal Engine.
If we were going to get hit by a devastating global pandemic, at least we were hit at a time when technology is in place to create and collaborate remotely, on scales from Innovate’s fits-in-a-suitcase Remote Filming Kit, to Hometeam’s network of owner-operator filmmakers in over 20 countries and more than 20 US states ready to work locally, to massive virtual production stages like the ones Pixomondo has recently built in Vancouver and Toronto.
Virtual stages are probably the most impressive of the solutions discussed. Take a proven 3D video game engine, digitize a real-world environment or create a whole new virtual world, and display it on a 70-foot-high matrix of LED screens behind (or around) your actors. Now combine what the camera sees with what the computer knows, and create incredible settings and virtual worlds in the camera. The magic of movies and television has made great leaps forward in just the last few years.
To create a digital environment, you need a powerful modelling, animation, and rendering tool. The Unreal Engine is the game engine behind the 1998 first-person shooter-style videogame Unreal and its multiplayer follow-up Unreal Tournament. Over the last 20-plus years, various versions of the Unreal Engine (they’re up to Unreal Engine 5) have been released and have been the backbone of hundreds of video games. Now Unreal (and other systems like it) is used to create virtual environments for VR experiences, films, and television shows. Here’s where that matrix of giant LED screens comes in: the virtual stage.
Jon Favreau, creator and executive producer of Disney’s The Mandalorian, is a pioneer in making movies and television on a soundstage with a virtual backdrop. For years, Hollywood has been filming with green screen backgrounds and adding the background during post-production. But with virtual stages and sophisticated software, the actors, directors, and cameras can see that virtual environment right there in the studio, and see what the final shot will look like in real time. They can add or remove set elements on the fly. The light from the background lights the actors and bounces off reflective surfaces.
The visual effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic used walls (and a ceiling!) of LED screens and virtual environments driven by their StageCraft virtual production platform to create the desert landscapes and otherworldly locations of The Mandalorian to great effect. Favreau evangelized this new technology to the producers of HBO’s Westworld, and the results are stunning, with actual light and reflections of the virtual world on real-world surfaces on set.
Another great tech development that has made production safer during COVID-19 is the remote video village. On set at a film or TV production, you would usually find the director, cinematographer, and other key staff crowded around two or more video monitors in “video village”, watching the action as it’s being captured by the cameras. With high-speed streaming and personal wireless devices, products like Teradek’s Remote Off-Set Monitoring and Setstream.io can bring video village to the team wherever they’re located, enabling producers to stream live video from set, safely and securely, with built-in chat functionality to make remote collaboration that much easier.
We expect these tools and technologies will be in use long after our global health crisis is declared ‘over’. While workflows may have to change to adapt to the technology, the benefits of being able to collaborate remotely, to create virtual sets that can be changed in a fraction of the time it would take to move a crew from one location or stage to another, to be able to find a local crew and direct a day’s filming remotely, will far outweigh the pain of change.
And change isn’t just for the film and television industry: technological change benefits everyone. We’re all getting better at harnessing the technology around us to work together, remotely—in some ways, even better than we did in the before times. The combination of creation, communication, and collaboration tools at our literal fingertips is amazing. These innovations offer all of us new opportunities and disruptions. Production and operational workflows will change, training needs will evolve, and how we collaborate will look different. The only thing for certain is that resisting the change will impact you and your businesses. Embracing it will allow for growth and evolution.