From major movie studios to independent producers, real-time production tools are being explored as a viable alternative to on-set filming. A real-time game engine, such as Unreal Engine or Unity, is a software framework that allows users to create, manipulate, and interact with CG environments and objects in real-time. It offers a streamlined process to graphics and compliments the established trend towards bigger and better CGI.
The heavy increase in the use of CGI across TV and cinema, along with the rapid expansion of the games industry (now considerably larger than Hollywood) has led to a convergence. Both sides are dipping into similar markets; for example, the game studio Rebellion has set up a film & TV studio and bought the film rights to Judge Dredd, while Netflix is investing heavily in animation – its 2017 adaptation of the game franchise Castlevania has been a proven success.
But television has yet to utilize the full potential of real-time engines, with its use extending beyond simple CG and backdrop effects. This article explores rising trends in cinema, technology, and games, spelling out the benefits real-time game engines can bring to TV production.
An intersection of industries
Historically, popular game titles haven’t always translated well to cinema. Likewise, popular film franchises haven’t guaranteed success on game platforms. However, a merging of sorts between both industries has begun; a sharing of knowledge, experience and technology.
VFX has become the driving force behind the majority of cinema’s releases. Even short films, such as Star Wars: Origins, demonstrate CG that matches up to major productions. In fact, real-time engines are already in use across cinematic production. Disney has led the way in recent years with scenes from both Finding Dory and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story utilizing the Unreal Engine 4, for example. And the hugely popular, The Mandalorian, utilized real-time game engines and virtual LED production sets for the majority of its episodes.
In parallel, the gaming industry has become increasingly cinematic – the line separating the two fields has begun to blur. Games such as God of War rely heavily upon cinematic experiences intertwined seamlessly with playable sequences. The Last of Us is likewise lauded for its engaging storyline. The cinematics from both games can now be found sewn together on YouTube for fans to enjoy as individual features.
Based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski, CD Projekt Red brought global popularity to the Witcher franchise, leading to a successful TV adaptation from Netflix. Real-time engines offer TV studios a myriad of options for set design, lighting, filming and completion speeds. The technology powering cinematic game experiences can transform the production of television series, offering speed and versatility without compromise.
As we approach post-COVID normality, there’s no doubt that standard practices will be adjusted to armor against any future disruptions. Live-action shooting will always exist, but studios can only benefit from adapting their framework around supportive tech solutions.
By building a virtual set using LED screens, it’s possible to create multiple environments pre-shoot and build that into your production pipeline. To change the lighting conditions, environments can be accomplished fast and with a high level of customizability – all rendered in real-time on the day of the shoot. The simulation of environments can be achieved without building a physical set, negating the need to travel to an overseas or exotic location. The ability to light the set using the LED screens improves composition and also removes the need for color correction in post, usually required when using green screens.
Creating previs ideas in real-time engines can save time and money, allowing production teams to see accurate, scaled set designs in 3D and establish the framing and passage of shots before expensive sets are built. This bridges the gap between pre and post-production. Real-time can also gauge an earlier approximation of the final shot, drastically reducing the number of required iterations. Digital assets can also be reused – this is particularly cost-effective for studios working on a franchise strategy.
What’s the holdup?
With all the benefits listed above, and countless examples of real-time engines used across gaming and cinema (such as His Dark Materials), why hasn’t widespread adoption occurred? The reality is, the technology is relatively new and it can take time to permeate throughout the industry.
Preconceived notions about cost and expertise, alongside allegiance to traditional workflows, means studios are reluctant to gamble on something previously reserved to a separate industry. In truth, budgets could be considerably reduced if utilized properly. The reduction in multiple location costs alone would make a significant difference. And the speed real-time offers could substantially reduce the hours required for a typical production.
Technology advocates need to present a cost-benefit analysis between on-set shoots and rendered environments. Exemplifying the benefits in real terms will have a greater impact.
Likewise, gaming studios now have the capital to invest in television and streaming services, whether through adaptations of games themselves or through original cinematic IPs. Individuals that are already experts in the technology could drastically speed up adoption.
With on-set production for television still dwindling, now is the time to invest time and money into real-time engines as an improved replacement for traditional setups. The quality achievable with real-time engines – including the new levels of photo-realism possible with Unreal Engine 5 – will transform the industry, expanding the production of series and films. For real-time technology, TV is the final frontier.
Andrew Lord is the Co-founder and Managing Director of Flipbook Studio a multidisciplinary production company based in Manchester city center.