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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