In this new series we will look at a number of independent and small productions using the latest technology. The project is either self-financed or is being carried out as an indie “garage” project. While large productions are discontinued and restricted worldwide, a large number of small innovative projects are produced with astonishing results.
Memories of Australia
Andrew Hamilton's full UE4 project in Sweden
The first project in this series comes from Andrew Hamilton and his UE4 film Memories of Australia. Hamilton was born in Australia but moved to Europe in 2005. Hamilton grew up in a small town outside of Perth in Western Australia. Today he works at Embark Studios in Stockholm after working at DICE (EA Digital Illusions). He is an art director and digital environment artist. This project started with a trip back to Perth.
FXGUIDE: What content did you collect on your return trip to Perth, which I thought was Christmas 2019?
AH: I have been working with photogrammetry since 2012. So it's almost a muscle memory to grab a camera when I'm on my way to natural wonders. During the Christmas break, I had the opportunity to take some time and record content that I could use to build an Australian biome. Making a love letter, a little homage to growing up in Australia, has been a project in my head for a few years now, and I'm glad I finally found the time to do it.
I used the same type of camera and equipment that I have used since I started working with photogrammetry in 2012 – a Canon 6D with a 24mm lens, a color card and a matte blue sheet or board. I like to keep it as light and simple as possible so I can jump around easily, especially in conditions where time is limited. I took all of the nature content that you can see in this project myself in Australia and did photogrammetry scans of ground surfaces, trees, tree trunks, leaves, cliffs, etc. Photographing reference photos is also a big part of these excursions. The biggest challenge in creating these biomes is not so much creating the content as it is reconstructing the location from the few pieces collected. Visiting places, taking references and videos, but most of all soaking – the feeling, the heat – really helps to bring this experience and emotion into the pictures.
FXGUIDE: In your work, you rely on the use of sequencers. Can you please explain your workflow?
AH: The sequencer tool in Unreal is a crucial part of the puzzle. The ability to layer components and camera movements in film quality has helped tremendously to give this short film a light thread that conveys emotions that would otherwise not be present in still images.
My use of sequencer begins with giving the cameras I have arranged in the scenes movement, moving the cameras towards the main features, guiding the viewer through each frame and switching between the shots in a natural way. One of the key features was the built-in camera shake options that can be placed over cameras to give camera work a realistic and natural feel and to reproduce the imperfections of navigation with a camera by hand. Finally, I would overlay assets to be animated, assign custom animations – or basic keyframe movements along an axis – to breathe life into many of the shots.
FXGUIDE: Have all assets been generated from Maya, Substance or have you used the marketplace or another library?
AH: All of the nature content that I created myself is based on my photogrammetry scans from Australia. The high-resolution scans are carried out via RealityCapture and processed via Maya. Maintaining all of the content within and within the same biome is critical to maintaining consistency, rather than sourcing from and working on different biomes. When the content is captured by a single biome, little work is required to ensure that the entire content is coherent. With correct PBR calibration and setup, everything fits together harmoniously.
Below is an image that shows all of the content. It is not a large pool of assets. This amount of assets is intentionally minimal to provide just enough variety of content without overwhelming the need to manage many assets. I only capture assets that are critical to the re-creation of the scene, and focus on features that are not overly unique or have an appearance that can be rotated and reused many times without noticeable repetition. By including only the key components, the imagination fills the gaps in missing parts or additional variations.
I gave a GDC lecture in 2016, in which we go through the photogrammetry process in detail about our work for Star Wars: Battlefront (2014). Some processes and workflows have improved significantly since then. However, the mindset and focus in capturing photogrammetry content remain largely unchanged.
FXGUIDE: Has the project been provided with a storyboard and if so, how exactly did you stick to it? Could you discuss the narrative development? For example, was every shot designed in that order?
AH: I had originally planned to build a rather small Australian biome without the narrative elements, but after I was there and immersed myself in the biome that I was supposed to recreate, a lot of ideas quickly emerged on how to put it all together, and me started making a light narrative to create a flow through the content. The main focus of the story was on the brothers' adventures in one day in nature. Each shot started with a memory of my childhood, and I took intended shots with reference and my own location photos to find a sequence that they could put together, with one thread being the journey of light. Starting from the hot, burning morning to a sudden thunderstorm, the calm after sunset and the pitch-black starry night. The intention was to capture the unique experience and nostalgic emotion of these great adventures.
FXGUIDE: Can you give me an overview of the timeline and how long it took you in each of the main phases?
AH: This was a project that I put together in my spare time whenever there was inspiration or time. Of course, it was quite a scattered production over a few months, but I would estimate that if you had worked full time it would have taken about 5 weeks. Most of the time has been spent creating the content yourself, but the real fun starts with composing the scenes. After I started this phase, it picked up speed pretty quickly as I approached the finish line. Much of my time during this production was learning new tools, many of which I had never researched before. Animation was a new area for me, working on the Kookaburra and other pieces was an enjoyable challenge. On the unreal side, newly explored areas were less time-consuming than expected, and learning was surprisingly smooth – importing animations, sequencers, and lighting. Unreal is a very well-rounded and user-friendly software with processes that are very intuitive and well documented.
FXGUIDE: What version of UE4 did you work in? – I think you mastered 4K? (3840 × 1646)
AH: This project is based on Unreal 4.24 and was created as a real-time video game art that needs to be significantly optimized and uses tricks and hacks to create the illusion of quality that would otherwise not be required in high-end offline rendering. There is no ray tracing or other expensive features, just standard features that you can find in today's games. Content supports LODs (Level Of Detail), simplified shaders and other standard optimization functions. While the final video for presentation is rendered at 30fps at 4K, it actually runs the same quality as you see it on my aging GTX1080.
FXGUIDE: Was there a lot of post-processing on the pictures?
AH: With the intention of being exclusively video game art, there is no post-composition or evaluation in the project. Unreal has the ability to run these types of runs at runtime, with the ability to professionally evaluate and adjust a range of lighting and post-processing functions. In this project, I only slightly increased the contrast in Unreal. Otherwise, the picture should be as clean as possible and rely on the natural light in the scenes.
FXGUIDE: Did you mention that you experimented more with animation, was it with the car / animals, or did you refer to the physical simulations of matter, water and rain than you mentioned?
AH: Animation was a completely new area for me in this project, which I have never researched in the past. The project included two types of animation: assets that were fully manipulated, skinned, and animated in Maya, and then imported into Unreal, and second, basic animations of assets, such as the vehicle or canoe, that essentially move along a spline entirely in Unreal . There are some examples where the two approaches are combined, e.g. B. all birds flying in the air. These are manipulated and animated in Maya to simply flap their wings. They are imported into Unreal, where they are animated as a keyframe along a spline in the air.
Elements such as water and rain are effects that were created entirely in Unreal. The water surfaces are fairly simplified shaders, which are essentially two normal cards that scroll against each other to create the illusion of waves, even though they are a completely flat surface. The rain is built up with a number of components using the UE4 effect tools. There are drops in the air, splashes on the floor and a fine mist. All of these parts together, although very cheap and simple as individual pieces, together form the illusion of more complex solutions or quality.
FXGUIDE: This project is so personal, can you refer to a favorite recording?
AH: The close-up of the Kookaburra singing on the branch should be my favorite. Not particularly because it's the greatest or most revealing shot, but because it is the culmination of a number of new discoveries – working with Sequencer in Unreal, manipulating, skinning and animating Kookaburra in Maya, animating other components in the scenes , such as branches, lighting techniques and, above all, the timing of animations with audio and music make this recording a smooth and rewarding transition to the next larger Vista recording. I was sure that I had the knowledge I needed to complete when I left, but I'm glad I stuck to it!
FXGUIDE: Was the lighting primarily a parachute, how many lights were used in general? I would imagine some area lights, but the lighting seems so natural.
AH: The lighting for all shots is surprisingly simplified. Since this is real-time gameplay, I've kept the lighting features to a minimum to avoid expensive features or solutions. The aim of the lighting was to keep it as natural and simple as possible and to avoid stylized gradations. Each shot consists of unreal standard features, including dynamic lighting with a single directional light that represents the sun, distance field occlusion, SkyAtmosphere, SkyLight, a single sphere reflection volume that spans the entire scene, and a PostProcessVolume to make the exposure easy lock. For bounce lighting, there are 2 or 3 pictures that use the global lighting of the screen area. However, for most shots, the bounce lighting is faked by activating the "Lower hemisphere is one color" option in SkyLight and setting the color "LowerHemisphere" reddish. Tint, which is the bounce light of the red dirt seen on most shots is. This cheap solution is great for this content, since a strong red jump in the biome is generally required.
A special unreal lighting function that I used extensively in this project is Contact Shadows. This is a screen area feature that casts short, sharp shadows out of the geometry. One way to further improve this function and to significantly increase the illusion of details is to set up asset shaders so that they support contact shadows on surfaces themselves. Detail that would otherwise only be available from a very detailed network. As a result, contact shadows are essentially “thrown” out of the height field texture, not just out of the low-resolution network geometry, which creates the impression of a very detailed object. If you combine these sharp contact shadows with the standard cascade shadows with soft / low resolution, you can create the illusion of a shadow penumbra effect without the cost of expensive ray tracing.
Below is a before and after result. Notice the sharp details shaded by the tree bark while maintaining the soft, speckled lighting across the tree:
Here's a wireframe of the tree to illustrate a relatively low density of the rendered triangles. No tessellation or displacement is used for any of the content:
And the height field (baked from a scan with high polyphotogrammetry to a low poly tree network) that the contact shadows “throw” out of the shader and create the illusion of details:
FXGUIDE: Finally Andrew, I just enjoyed cinematography – I know that you are primarily an art director, but could you discuss the choice of lenses and the fluidity of the camera?
AH: I chose a custom 21: 9 ultra-wide system in Unreal to create a very cinematic feel. Since I included many wide-angle shots in the project, I wanted to maximize these views with the widest possible lenses. I wanted to create a very slow and calming flow of cameras through each scene that went from one to the other without abrupt transitions. I often jump from close-ups with a small aperture to maximize the depth of field, to a view with a much higher aperture to create clarity, and back to a close-up to create a rhythm. Switching between extreme close-ups and wide-angle shots was often a challenge to reduce drastic cuts, but in combination with slow and smooth camera movements, it turned out to be natural. It's all digital art, of course, but I wanted to make sure it felt as human as possible. That's why I used Unreal Camera Shake to give this shot that imperfect, shaky feel, just enough to break away from excessively smooth splines-based camera movements.
Next in the indie series is Chalk Wars IV. If you have a large personal project that you would like to discuss, please call us on the contact page.