What is Unreal Engine?
Unreal Engine (UE) is a FREE to download game engine developed by Epic Games. There has been considerable buzz about UE lately, not solely because of its noteworthy use in Fortnite, but also because, at the time of this writing, Epic Games is currently in a dispute with Apple that spurred a tongue-in-cheek video spoof of Apple’s “1984” commercial. Regardless, why write about a game engine on a filmmaking blog? Because content generators are now embracing UE for more than just creating games. Filmmakers have begun to adapt it for use in film, video, and commercial projects.
As a relatively new technology, the Unreal Engine is still in the “Wild West” phase of development and application by video pros. The full scope of its uses are as yet unrealized but filmmakers continue to experiment with it in increasingly innovative ways. UE was coded and developed in a way that has made it easily expandable and adaptable to advancements in hardware and software.
To give a little sense of what’s been achieved so far here are a few short films that were created with Unreal:
- Terra by Thomas Wilson – This short film evokes Disney’s WALL-E. Wilson, a filmmaker with a background in VFX, used this video as a challenge for himself. He made the film on a 2016 iMac, Epic Marketplace content, and Quixel Megascans. This film is an excellent example of how visually stunning results can be achieved using relatively simple elements and processes.
- Please Forgive Us – A Sci-Fi horror made in UE 4 by K&K Productions.
- Rebirth – The most commercially successful video on this list, commissioned by Quixel.
- A Boy and His Kite – Honored at SIGGRAPH with Best Real-Time Graphics and Interactivity Award.
What kind of creators can benefit from UE?
Perhaps you’re thinking, “this is all well and good, but what if I don’t have a background in VFX?” The good is that Unreal Engine is far more accessible to all types of filmmakers than previously available iterations of VFX tools. Sure, it’s easier for those who do have animation and VFX and animation experience, but the simple fact is: Unreal Engine can be learned by anyone.
Here are a few ways you can integrate Unreal Engine into your filmmaking pipeline:
Storyboards and pre-vis work: Mapping out the project is a vital step in any development process and storyboards have been the traditional means of visually doing so visually. UE markedly improves this method because not only does it allow you to easily create the storyboards, but also to then animate them, allowing you to refine angles and hone camera moves prior to production. This is referred to as pre-vis, and previously was an expensive resource available only to big-budget productions. CineTracer is another app that can be used to help make this process even easier for filmmakers when used in conjunction with UE.
Virtual Production – The core concept of VP is bringing the immediacy and interactive nature of the real world into CG. Imagine being able to create and modify photo-realistic sets, costumes and props instantly using CG, and then apply these virtual backgrounds live using LED projection. An ever-widening array of filmmakers are looking at this technique as an alternative to greenscreen. This allows key creative stakeholders to iterate quickly and make informed, timely decisions. I could write an entire article solely about how UE is utilized for virtual production, and probably will in the future.
In concert with popular filmmaking adage that it’s better to show than to tell, I recommend you check out the film, Spotless Mind, and then watch Spotless Mind BTS to get a practical demonstration of what VP can achieve.
Mocap – If you currently enjoy the use of Motion Capture as one of your creative tools, you should consider the benefits of incorporating UE into your pipeline. The Super Alloy Interactive team has found innovative and impressive ways to integrate UE with Mocap. Check out their work here.
This may sound like an overstatement, but this technology is so accessible and versatile that you can create your entire film/video project in UE! As evidence, have a look at the samples at the top of this post.
Getting started with UE
As in many things, when using UE, the first step is usually the hardest. Many find VFX innovations too intimidating to even explore the potential benefits, but fear not, with UE the most difficult step will be clicking this link: Download Unreal here.
Now that’s out of the way, it’s time to get acquainted with this incredible tool. In the interests of making their engine accessible to the widest possible group of users, Epic Games has covered all the basics for learning UE at Unreal Engine’s Online Learning Center.
Here are some additional resources to help you further explore the capabilities of Unreal Engine and stay up to date on new developments in the technology:
- Unreal Engine: Virtual Production Facebook Group – You do have to submit a request to join the countless talented people in this group. Members have a range of skill levels, from hobbyists to pros working extensively in UE.
- Epic’s Unreal Engine Learning
- Matt Workman – Matt Workman is a cinematographer who has taken a dive head first into UE. He runs a compelling and impressively informative YouTube channel where he regularly updates viewers on his new UE project applications
- The Mandalorian Season One Behind The Scenes – This is the video that first brought the Unreal Engine and the power of virtual production into the view of the wider filmmaking community
- UE4’s Next-Gen Virtual Production Tools | Project Spotlight | Unreal Engine
To wrap it up, Unreal is clearly an expansive, game-changing engine, but that doesn’t mean you should be intimidated by it. UE was designed to be accessible to all and give a powerful new tool to filmmakers everywhere.The fundamental principles of visual storytelling and the importance of creative human choices will never be replaced, but the power of UE and virtual filmmaking can help you bring the stories in your stories to life in new, exciting, and previously unachievable ways.
Hi, I’m Sam! I’m the Head of Production at Crafty Apes VFX. I’ve been in the VFX business for over a decade and produced exceptional low budget movie classics-to-be like Ozark Sharks, Desolation, and A Deadly Affair through my production company Fable House. If you’d like to see what I’m up to, which of course includes developing an Unreal Engine pipeline, you can sign up for my newsletter here.