In the past several years, one term has dominated the conversation on the cutting edge in VFX technology: real-time. A simple term in definition yet infinitely complex in application, a real-time system is one that is perceived to react immediately to external actions or decisions by the user. In traditional Hollywood visual effects, gargantuan render farms work around the clock at hours per frame to render all that you see on screen. For something interactive such as a video game, however, the world needs to change and react almost immediately to the user themselves; this requires a real-time engine.
The annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco just wrapped up last week. Fundamentally, it’s a conference for game developers as its name suggests. Nonetheless, as digital technology improves, we’re approaching a point of marriage between all forms of computer imagery. This year’s conference once again blurred the lines between interactive tech and movies with several key demos and discussions around the future of the industry.
When it comes to cinematic application, Epic Games’ Unreal Engine has proven itself as the tool of choice for many major companies. At GDC, ILMxLAB—penned: “the new laboratory for immersive entertainment” on their website—showed off the incredible power of this Engine in their short, “Reflections”. The aptly named demo displayed real-time ray tracing for the use of textured area lights, area light shadows, reflections, ambient occlusion, depth of field, and denoising. All of this was photographed in a real-time interactive space through an iPad using ARKit as a virtual camera.
This demo undeniably impresses, yet at ILM it’s already becoming an integral part of their creative process. In the same “State of Unreal” keynote at last year’s GDC, John Knoll revealed that “Rogue One: a Star Wars Story”’s most memorable digital character K-2SO himself was rendered using Unreal Engine technology. This use of the platform displayed not only it’s immense power, but also its extreme flexibility as ILM was able to dig under the hood of the engine and achieve screen-ready work.
ILMxLAB didn’t stop there for “Rogue One”. The company believed director Gareth Edwards should be afforded the same control in the film’s entirely CG epic space scenes that he had over the live action. So, in a nearly decade advanced version of James Cameron’s clunky and soundstage reliant digital camera from “Avatar”, the company strapped an HTC Vive controller to the back of a tablet and through Unreal tech, Edwards was able to enter real-time renditions of the films key scenes and block them out with the tablet as his camera.
Though “Blade Runner 2049” played spoiler to its Oscar, “War for the Planet of the Apes” continued the Apes trend of captivating audiences and pushing the boundaries of performance capture tech. The famed godfather of performance capture Andy Serkis made his own appearance at GDC in a way only he would. Unreal Engine showed off their own digital render of Serkis alongside another cg character both mimicking the real man’s performance as he recited lines from “Macbeth”.
Lifelike creation, besting the uncanny valley—this is considered by many to be the holy grail of digital effects, and at GDC 2018 Epic pushed forward on what they believe is the inevitable path to photorealistic real-time human simulation.
Conversations around true life-like digital humans in film have been rising in media since “Rogue One”’s incredible portrayal of the late Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing. Epic Games thinks this tech—when translated to a real-time environment—reaches far beyond traditional cinema. The company sees research, non-verbal machine communication, and even artificial intelligence in the future of these advancements. With the way that virtual reality and interactive applications have begun to bleed across industries it’s not a difficult future to imagine.
If GDC 2018 said anything about the visual effects industry it was that we’re never finished. As an art intertwined with technology, VFX have followed the same parabolic trajectory as the screen you’re reading this on (especially if it can fit in your pocket) and there’s no sign of stopping. While the finished products may reach a standard level of polish, real-time and game engine technology will revolutionize how we work in the industry, and with Unreal Engine 4 free to download, I’d suggest you strap in and getting ready for the ride.