[In this sponsored feature, part of Intel's Visual Computing site, former Monolith head Jace Hall discusses Chadam, a new Unreal Engine-powered animated series using the engine for surreal, intriguing -- and initially non-interactive -- means.]
Although the term "convergence" has been bandied about for years, the advances in video game engines today are finally opening new doors for Hollywood creators. Epic Games' ubiquitous Unreal Engine 3, which powers everything from Gears of War 2 to the upcoming BioShock 2, is now making the migration to Hollywood through Chadam.
Based on the cutting-edge paintings of acclaimed California surreal artist Alex Pardee, HDFilms is creating a 10-episode, 50-minute Web series that Warner Bros. Television Group will distribute. The franchise will debut as a computer-generated Internet series and evolve into television and video games. Because the entire project is being created within a game engine, it will allow for a near-seamless crossover from linear to interactive entertainment.
And that's not the only convergence that's going on with this project. HDFilms, the digital production house creating Chadam, was founded by Jace Hall, the former head of game developer Monolith Studios. Hall oversaw the development of a diverse slate of games, such as Blood, TRON 2.0: Killer App, Condemned 1 and 2, and F.E.A.R. 1 and 2. During his game development days, Hall was competing with Epic Games' technology, as well as id Software's Quake engine, as his studio licensed out its Lithtech engine to game developers.
"In order to do my job correctly, I had to understand exactly the entire feature sets of all of the engines at all times and their rate of progress and how they worked," explained Hall. "In terms of using the Unreal Engine personally, I've never had to do that because I've always had my own technology. But I understand how Unreal works, where it's strengths and weaknesses are; that was my job of the day for many, many years. As we looked at this project, I was able to easily evaluate what technology makes the most sense for what we were trying to do and Unreal Engine 3 was the clear winner."
What HDFilms is trying to do -- and they're close to completing the job -- is build a digital pipeline utilizing video-game engine technology that will allow this team to create stories using computer-generated imagery for the Web, television, and movies.
"This is an amazing development," said Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, and the man who created the Unreal Engine technology. "For decades, non-real-time graphics packages evolved to meet the needs of cinematographers, while real-time game engines grew up independently to serve gaming. We've now reached a tipping point where the two come together, and the workflow of the real-time tools is so effective that digital artists can create better results more quickly in a game engine than in an off-line rendering solution."
Marti Resteghini, vice president of HDFilms, said the tools of Unreal were designed for storytelling. After all, video games, as a medium, are essentially highly interactive stories.
"It's only recently with the huge upswing in video games as a creative pool for feature films, that Hollywood has become aware of this," said Resteghini. "But the truth is, from Pitfall! to BioShock, games have long been focusing on heroes (or anti-heroes) and their journeys, which is what movies are about. With added software like Unreal Matinee, Unreal has become a hybrid of game engine and traditional rendering software that creates a virtual environment similar to a Hollywood sound stage, complete with moving characters, lighting, camera, lenses and sets."
HDFilms found that one of the key advantages of using video game technology was that it kept the costs down and allowed a core team of three to create the bulk of the work over an 18-month development cycle. At the height of production, when the team was heavily animating content, that team number rose to 12, including some outsourced work. Like Hall, everyone on the production team came from the video game industry. In fact, one of Chadam's storyboard artists, Jon Mayshak, worked at Epic Games on Gears of War in the same capacity using the same Unreal technology.
"Chadam's creator, Alex Pardee, and our editor, Stephen Reedy, did not come from the game space and often needed to coordinate with our director, Landon Pascual (also our lead designer), for the final episode renders," said Resteghini. "However, the Unreal Engine and its filmmaker-friendly tools have made it very easy for all of them to communicate between the mediums."
The team also took advantage of Intel hardware for this project. They used an Intel Core 2 Quad processor Q9550, with a 2.93 GHz render station with 8 GB RAM and 64-bit Microsoft Windows Vista. In addition, they had four Intel Core 2 Quad processors Q6600, with a 2.40 GHz workstation with 4 GB RAM and 32-bit Windows Vista. Even the team's editor used an Apple Mac with an Intel processor to piece the story together.
"Our lead designer found Intel -- economically, technically, and support-wise -- by far the leader on the market," said Resteghini. "We built all of our computers from individual parts paying close attention to the specs of each piece and how their function played into this project -- knowing we were going to demand a lot from UE3, Intel was our immediate choice."
Resteghini said that since the Chadam models were made in Asia, the Intel standard made the technical conversation between the team's modelers, designers, and animators much simpler, especially during the more complicated stages of production, such as key-framing and the cleanup of the motion capture.
The World of Chadam
Chadam originated as a character featured on the album covers for the rock band, The Used. He lives as the "chosen one" in the hyper-stylized and exaggerated metropolitan island city of Vulture. His power of imagination is strong enough to physically change his environment and, therefore, his world . . . to save it from evil. The dark, fantastical Web series focuses on Chadam, who has retreated with other survivors after a series of attacks by the serial killer known as Viceroy. This first introduction to Chadam will revolve around his battle with Viceroy. Actors Jeffrey Combs (Viceroy), Katey Sagal (Sandy, Chadam's mother figure), Sid Haig (Simkin, Chadam's mentor) and Carl Weathers (narrator) all lend their vocal talent to help bring the eerie world to life.
"So in the story that we are telling, you have, on the one hand, a character (Chadam) with the strongest imagination in this world, but he has suppressed it for years, and on the other hand a character (Viceroy), a freak of nature born with absolutely no imagination, wreaking havoc on the world in hopes of stealing enough imagination amongst this scared community of citizens to make him almighty," said Pardee. "And with so much imagination involved, CG is proving itself to be the perfect way to freely tell that story."
But computer graphics wasn't the first choice for Chadam. Growing up in the '80s, weaned on classic fantasy films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and horror movies, such as John Carpenter's The Thing, Pardee originally imagined the Chadam story to be told as a live-action film.
"The characters are physically odd, fantastical, and unique, and I am huge fan of Jim Henson's film work, and more recently, Guillermo Del Toro's work, and I fantasized about creating this massive real world full of rubbery and fleshy characters with huge heads that would resemble a ‘real' living version of my paintings and drawings," explained Pardee.
"But also, I knew how tough, expensive, and basically unrealistic creating that was going to be. Then Jace Hall and HDFilms came along and presented the idea of CG and at first I was hesitant. Not because of the medium, but because I felt that as I have watched CG evolve over the years, it seemed to, at least nowadays, be the default go-to answer whenever someone can't figure something out. Like ‘How do we get that branch to move?' ‘Oh don't worry about it, we'll just do it with CG, keep rolling.' I thought perhaps CG was maybe a rushed way to go about the project."
One of the challenges Pardee and the team at HDFilms faced was a lack of a typically large Hollywood budget. Pardee said that even if the team had access to millions of dollars, which it didn't, there would still be limitations as to what they could and could not do with live action. The world and story Pardee created had a lot of ambitious action, set pieces, and characters, as well as magic, so limitations would then mean creative changes, and a possible "dumbing down" of the story. Once CG became an option, the process of executing the project presented much fewer limitations.
"Imagination plays major roles in both Chadam's creation as well as the universe he lives in," said Pardee. "Chadam exists in a world where imagination is housed in a physical organ inside its inhabitants, which is just as vital to life as a heart or a brain. The variation in potency of this imagination organ determines how potentially powerful someone is, and a character with a really powerful imagination can theoretically change the world for better or worse."
"We are looking to stretch the imagination of gamers and filmmakers alike with the options available using UE3 tools," added Resteghini. "Artistically, UE3 has a lot of options, which at the end of the day, is what really sells the software to linear storytellers. When tackling a project like this that is intended to be manageable, lucrative, and still creatively satisfying, it has to be versatile. So far, the projects that have been explored with UE3 are similar in their look. With Chadam, I think we begin to break out and explore something new. Our next project, however, will definitely open up the work of this kind of storytelling to a much broader spectrum of content."
The Unreal Difference
Although originally designed to create games such as Gears of War and Unreal Tournament 3, the Unreal Engine technology has expanded in recent years to accommodate a growing number of developers, and now Hollywood creators.
"We've been hoping for, and working toward, breakthroughs like Chadam ever since the community began creating Machinima with the Unreal Engine and its predecessors about a decade ago," said Sweeney. "In this time, it has evolved from a digital cinema prototyping ‘toy' into a serious tool. The first major breakthrough was the TV commercial for Gears of War, created by Digital Domain in real time, using in-game assets in Unreal Engine 3."
Pardee knows there are other, more traditional ways to animate projects like Chadam, but he believes that using the Unreal Engine for a non-game project is pretty forward-thinking.
"There was a lot more pre-visualization freedom that we have been allowed once we started playing with this technology," said Pardee. "And considering the fact that we have a really talented team working on it, that team is really small, and our budget is very low for how ambitious the Chadam project is, so using the Unreal Engine is also proving really cost-effective for us. Plus, not too many other projects exist like this, fully utilizing the Unreal Engine for something that's not a video game. I've always enjoyed being that person that tries new things and, hopefully, paves the way for more projects to make use of this amazing technology."
"Because in-game cinematics have become a staple of high-end games and a much-anticipated story element to the overall gaming experience, the evolution of UE3 has organically grown into a software built to make their creation native within the engine -- especially with add-ons like Unreal Matinee," said Resteghini. "Our team is built of multi-talented artists and designers that are constantly jumping from one aspect of the build to another (animation, asset creation, environments, posing, and so on). It's the ease of sharing files and assets within the software in UE3 that has made us nimble and efficient."
The heart of the filmmaking tools used for Chadam is called Matinee. The technology works similarly to Adobe Premiere , allowing game makers or filmmakers to cut together animating sequences and shots. However, with Matinee you can also create animations and interact within the scene while cutting together your tracks, which can save an enormous amount of time working on-the-fly, as opposed to going back and forth between software. "This is really where the final magic within Unreal is composited for our cinematics," added Resteghini.
HDFilms found that FaceFX was very effective in creating Chadam's facial animations. The technology is integrated into UE3.
"Our technology, like other game technologies, requires lots of processing power to unleash its full potential," said Doug Perkoskwi, CEO of OC3 Entertainment. "Our relationship with Intel gives us access to technical and marketing resources that help promote our tech and fine-tune it to run its best on the latest Intel processors."
The HDFilms team was able to import sound files for the characters and with some minor tweaks and adjustments, this tool took care of the characters' dialogue sequences. Resteghini said the team also used morph targets for blending emotions into the characters. With a sufficient library of morph targets, they were able to create any expressions they needed.
"We're investing heavily in the Matinee cinematography tool in Unreal Engine 3," said Sweeney. "The crossover is wonderful, as a great many filmmakers also expect games to be built around their films, and when digital assets can be shared between the two, you can increase the quality and consistency of the property, and also save time. Simultaneously, almost all game developers are becoming filmmakers, with modern games containing substantial amounts of cinematics, both interactive and non-interactive, often produced using Hollywood voice actors."
"Once more people are made aware of the myriad of options inside this engine, including lenses, lighting, camera, and texture, they'll begin to explore other opportunities like visual effects for TV and film," said Landon Pascual, lead designer on the project. "Regardless where you're looking to end up with your product, you have to start out with powerful technology and then pair it with talented artists to build believable assets and work with all the tools to sell the image."
Epic Games has built an online communication device, called the Unreal Developers Network, which allows free communication with the team behind the Unreal technology and also opens up dialogue among game makers, and now filmmakers, using the engine.
"Chadam is a prototype for this kind of storytelling, so we have adapted to the different obstacles and opportunities accordingly," said Pascual. "Since we've been working to complete it within the parameters of the current options within UE3, we haven't had time to start a dialogue with Epic about what we learned or suggestions from our experience. However, now that we're almost done, and we are gearing up for other projects, we will definitely be sharing our experience and suggestions based on what UE3 currently offers and where we think we can push the envelope."
"This is an amazing development . . . For decades, non-real-time graphics packages evolved to meet the needs of cinematographers, while real-time game engines grew up independently to serve gaming. We've now reached a tipping point where the two come together, and the workflow of the real-time tools is so effective that digital artists can create better results more quickly in a game engine than in an off-line rendering solution."
- Tim Sweeney, Founder and CEO of Epic Games, and Creator of Unreal Engine technology
The Convergence Pipeline
"We see this project as independent filmmaking for animators," said Pascual. "It's been less about searching for the unused techniques or functions of the engine and more about using its raw power and intent to create a compelling story that benefits from using the fundamentals that are open to everyone."
Resteghini believes that a lot of filmmakers and studio executives are afraid of having their visual effects appear video-game-like, meaning they have limited lighting and low-res textures. He said that is their top concern when launching into a heavily visual effects-based project. But the truth is, for a while now games have been really challenging the resolution, lighting, and textures even in-game, which are the fundamentals of selling a digital image as believable.
"The process we're trying to deconstruct and mature, specifically with the setup made possible by an engine like UE3, is episodic storytelling," added Resteghini. "With an initial investment up-front in assets, characters, and environments, rendering new scenes is relatively fast and efficient. With the growth of services like Xbox LIVE, we really feel episodic content -- both interactive and linear -- is really the meeting ground for video games and traditional storytelling. If you can deliver episodes on a television timeline, as opposed to a video game timeline, you have something that both industries can sink their teeth into -- together."
Resteghini added that Hollywood studios are very intrigued by the idea of building a video game simultaneously with a feature film Intel or TV series. If pulled off, the savings in shared assets is appealing. Several projects have been explored for this process, but the missing link is building a team that understands both the needs of a video game and the art of linear storytelling -- namely, how to tell a story through camera angles and specific shots or moments. Resteghini believes that if the needs of those two efforts can be efficiently planned out, this will be a lucrative, speedy process. Otherwise, it starts to resemble traditional video-game development that runs in parallel, but not symbiotically.
In fact, if all goes according to plan, Chadam will eventually become a video game. In essence, the team at HDFilms has been killing two birds with one engine. Once Chadam is completed this summer, all of the content for a game has already been created, as well. Resteghini added that with all this content created and loaded into the engine, it's quite simple and fast to restructure and design different stages or levels, if needed. This helps save time and money in developing assets or content in regard to the visuals and animations.
"From the start of development to delivery this will be an 18-month project," said Resteghini. "Originally we planned for 12 months, but our budget constraints led us to sacrifice time over content. Our team has worked around the clock to continuously push the limitations of what we can deliver. We can, of course, continue to perfect it, but as an experiment in creating a 3D animated series for the Internet, we're done. We feel we've surpassed our own expectations and are eager to reveal it and do it again."
Perkowski added, "As the tools game developers use to create cinematics get more advanced, the potential for creating high-quality Machinima movies increases. Our technology is a prime example of this, and the fact that HDFilms is using UE3 for a high-quality production indicates that we've crossed a threshold of some sorts."
With the pipeline in place and the first project finishing up, HDFilms already has plans for its next Unreal Engine 3 story. Hall said that right out of the box, Unreal Engine 3 offers more visual punch than Pixar had with the original Toy Story. But the key for HDFilms in using game technology for traditional storytelling is not to create a video-game-looking movie. It's to create an original story that, like Machinima, takes advantage of the rendering capacity of games to paint a whole new visual experience: an experience that will likely be not only enjoyed by gamers as much as mainstream audiences, but also one in which the control remains in the hands of the creators, not the audience.