Next-Gen Game Engines for Realtime CG Filmmaking


Unity 5 was released today at Unity’s GDC 2015 Press Conference. Like Monday’s announcement with Unreal Engine 4, Unity offers a free full-featured version for individuals or small businesses under an annual revenue limit. The Pro version is either $75 a month royalty-free or a flat fee of $1500 (upgrade $750) royalty-free (versus UE4’s 5% royalty over $3000 revenue per quarter, which could end up being millions). Valve also announced today their Source 2 engine is on its way, free to all as well. This is the GDC of free next-gen game engines, that’s for sure.

While all of this was going on at GDC, I made significant progress today in Maya with Gnomon lighting tutorials. With simple test scenes, this worked out extremely well. However, with the more complex virtual set scene featuring many light sources for VFM02, I’m frustrated with ray result quality issues and render times, as they directly correlate to quality. It even makes the process of adjusting lighting to set up and try various things very lengthy and tedious. Especially, when I’m used to game engines doing this on the fly already (though usually not at perfect filmic quality). In prototyping methods to make high-concept indie movies on micro-budgets, I must always be thinking of techniques to keep this process as relatively fast as possible.

A single 4K render at Production quality earlier in the day took 2.5 hours and Final Gathering left unacceptable artifacts everywhere. Increasing rays to fix this would inflate render times exponentially. This last render is filled with artifacts and grain, glows are blown out more than their preview, and the lighting in IPR previews and the editor looked little like the final render. I also tried a Photography simulation Lens Shader, which is calibrated too dark here after some changes. After this 40 minute 2K render, I laughed at how bad it turned out (especially compared to how well the stand-alone set piece test render turned out).


Now, I’m sure there are dials to twist in just the right way that I’ll figure out over time. Currently, though the full set is taking so long to properly light and render at sufficient quality, that the entire time I was thinking– why am I not just doing this in a game engine in real time? One obvious reason is how I want to render at 4K, but…

Below is Unity 5’s realtime graphics demo from today, which proves we might be at an intersection between games and film now where indie filmmaking can find enormous value in machinema, finally at a professional-grade quality. For filmmaking, a hybrid between machinema captures, Maya renders, and After Effects enhancement compositing is a likely route. I’m increasingly considering going all-CG, including characters, and this made a strong case for that direction. They even claimed this was running on a typical contemporary gamer PC, nothing ridiculous.

While you watch this, keep reminding yourself that this is apparently rendered and post-processed all in realtime with a free game engine, because it’s going to be easy to forget:

Especially since I’m already well versed in Unity, trying to light the full VFM02 scene in Unity and get a capture from realtime rendering will be an appealing test. But I’ll do that later— I still think the best route is to figure out lighting rendering in Maya since the quality can be so high with it at such high resolution. But working in realtime may be so much of an advantage for rapid iteration, playback, and refinement that it could end up pulling me into Unity 5 for virtual filmmaking more than I might expect.

UPDATE: 2015.03.04.10:30

Well before turning in last night into today’s early AM, I went back into Maya, deleted all lights except one I had set up as the Sun, and added just two fill lights. I realized Incandescence and Glow actually can substantially affect lighting in the scene as actual light sources and not just appear as fake post-process effects. So, I could remove the dozens of lights I had set for all of the florescent bulbs. I woke up to a completed 4K render– but forgot to see how long it took! I at least know the test renders were much faster than before.


This is at least not a wreck nor did it take nearly as long, like the previous renders. While the light on the graybox elements reminds me of stuff I used to get a decade and a half ago on Bryce 3D, the actual modeled and textured set piece element (the only one so far) looks very well rendered. It makes me think that this lighting works and once the set is fully modeled, it won’t look so bad— the worst part right now is how the Sun key light scatters artifacts all over the flat surfaces of the graybox, but you can’t see any of that on the modeled set piece. Shadows seem slightly too flat or the scene is too lit now or something– this is still off. The glow effect on the florescent bulb material is also stronger on the 4K render than it is on the 1K test render, so that’s fun– the size of the florescent tube objects also affects this, so maybe I should bring down the ones along the walls. The Moon and Sky-sphere are stubbed in there– ideally I can get them to work so I don’t have to replace them in post. In fact, it’s my goal that I won’t have to do much of anything for it in post.

Luckily, I think this is back to a usable point where I can continue to tweak this, continue to go through the Gnomon Maya mentalray lighting tutorials, and resume modeling the set. Lesson learned about quantity of lights in a scene and glows actually being light sources too (not just fake ones).

And I am still curious to see what this looks like in Unity 5 and Unreal Engine 4.
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GDC2015: Unreal Engine 4 is Now Free


We are kicking off GDC 2015 with a bang today!

When I made the move from developing Flash games into actual game engines in 2011 for my indie projects, Unity was very appealing to me, especially as I work on Mac. I made somecoolthings with it on my own over countless long nights, learning the ropes of game design and game development while working during the day at triple-A studios. Between the licenses, upgrades, and necessary Asset Store purchases, I’ve probably spent at least $5,000 on Unity, maybe more. At the time, that was still very good for a commercial game engine. At the time, there was no Unreal Engine 3 Mac version and building out to every platform imaginable from the same project and engine was groundbreaking. But that was four years ago.

Now, not only is Unreal Engine 4 a massive leap forward from UE3, not only does it offer a Mac version, but it’s also a massive leap over Unity. And today, at the start of GDC 2015, Epic has announced that Unreal Engine 4 is now free to all. You only have to pay Epic a 5% royalty over the first $3000 earned per quarter by a product made with UE4, which is not only absolutely reasonable but an amazing, amazing deal.

When I got my first game industry job with Activision in 2009 (as working for a major studio was practically the only way you were able to make a professional commercial game back then) licensing Unreal Engine 3 was certainly not open to anyone other than major studios and cost a ton of money. Contrasting that with today, this is nothing short of the indie revolution perhaps coming to some complete level of culmination: now anyone can make and commercially ship a game worldwide on a world-class game engine for no up-front engine cost. My guess is, for all other engine-holders like Crytek (CryEngine) and Unity, to prevent everyone from abandoning their engine for UE4, they’re about to announce the same offer— at this point, they probably no longer have a choice.

Unreal Engine 4 up and running on my iMac within minutes, for free.

Combined with free CG modeling package Blender and ultra cheap alternatives to Photoshop (Pixelmator) and Illustrator (Affinity Designer — which is actually better than Illustrator), along with swapping a $65,000 Bachelor’s program at an Art Institute for online training courses at sites like and Gnomon (for combined annual subscriptions less than the price of a single course at a community college), the barrier to entry is practically zero. Just the existing overhead of your time. Thus, making a game on a world-class engine is now cost-equivalent to writing a novel on a laptop. While this is mind-blowingly accessible now, it also doesn’t guarantee you can complete either project. Additionally, you must invest a considerable amount of your time in learning the craft for how to do each of these things at all, and then how to do them well. But it’s way better than it used to be…

Compared to this, which I practically grew up on:

In the mid-to-late 90’s, I spent much of my years between 5th grade through maybe 8th grade after school and during summers modding Marathon: Infinity by Bungie. For example, I made my own Marathon sequels, and even Myst and Super Mario total conversions. But you couldn’t do anything commercially with mods and we didn’t even have dial-up Internet until I was a high school freshman in 1999. There were no marketplaces to sell games online anyway then, other than literally snail-mail payments through shareware.

If I were a middle-schooler with access to Unreal Engine 4 and commercial distribution platforms on Steam and freaking PlayStation 4, which anyone serious enough can get into today, game development would’ve been infinitely more viable to me as a business before I had even entered high school. This is going to happen now to the kids out there today, as well as anyone else that wants in on this sandbox. I can’t wait to read about the first million-selling title across Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Wii-U, and iOS made by an eleven year-old. It’s gonna happen, people. I know this, because I remember how relentlessly driven I was as a kid with nothing but time on my hands modding Marathon: Infinity— I can only imagine what I would’ve done with these tools and open commercial platforms.

2015 is definitely a rubicon of sorts in so many ways— we are firmly in the 21st century with the old models and ways of the 20th increasingly distant in our rear-view mirror, if not practically gone. This is the new normal. It’s astonishing to me that it’s actually here now; as an ’84 Millennial, I’ve been waiting throughout the 2000’s and early 2010’s for this, but it’s finally here in 2015. We’re all really lucky that these dreams have come true. There’s no excuse anymore— anything you want to make, go make it. It’s more of a problem of personal logistics: finding the time and money to allow yourself to learn and create. So much is possible today, it’s not about what can you do but what do you choose to do. It’s also an issue of having a viable plan to see it all through to completion, especially at the exponential rate the rules are constantly changing and how fiercely competitive these new rules have made the market on a global scale. But it used to be, before you could even think about those things, you were just looking for ways that starting out at all would even be possible. No more.

I also can’t help but laugh, because this new inside-out indie-driven time that I’ve been hoping for my whole life has made my entire career on-site at triple-A game studios and all the arduous sacrifice and pain that came with it now totally unnecessary. Today, I could’ve just signed up for my free download of UE4 and Blender and gotten to work, on demand in minutes, regardless. But I’m thankful, because at least it means we even have the option between making our own indie projects or working at corporate studios to help build massive titles. Being independent and freelance, I’ve never been happier, and now is a time where commercial independent creativity is concretely possible for anyone.
IMDb / LinkedIn

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