Extra life: using game engines for creative projects
Game engines are breaking their restraints to offer innovative solutions for movie-making, animation and visualisation. David Richardson reveals the creative projects driven by game engines, and explains how you can get involved
Like the surge of a wave as it nears the shore, the momentum behind real-time rendering is building and getting ready to break. Once the goal is met, artists who are used to working with simplistic previews will be able to edit scenes and immediately see the results at final quality.
Ongoing developments in parallel processors on graphics cards and increasing support for multi-threading in off-the-shelf software are enabling your workstation to present greater detail while maintaining frame rates. Studio development resources are also increasingly being devoted to real-time rendering: through a partnership with Intel, DreamWorks is among the studios working on solutions that should liberate their animators from waiting for test footage to arrive.
The buzz behind real-time rendering gives the technology used in the games sector a greater relevance across the whole CG industry. Game developers are long used to working in real time: unlike animation or VFX-enhanced camera footage, games must be able to adapt to the player’s decisions as they happen.
The technology that makes it possible is the game engine, which combines development tools and automated behaviour systems with an interactive renderer. The term ‘game engine’ took hold in the 1990s, as 3D titles such as Doom and Quake came to dominate the market. Instead of coding a proprietary 3D engine from scratch, developers could license the most successful game engines from other studios. As well as generating a lucrative revenue stream for the makers of the most advanced systems, such as Epic Games and Id Software, the licensing model created a split between the development of game engines and the creation of the content to go inside them.
Set for a formal release this year, CineBox uses game engine technology to offer a pro-level suite for real-time pre-viz
Outside the games sector, the focus is on bringing real-time previews in the viewport as close as possible to the quality of the finished render sequence. Inside games, the emphasis has been on achieving the best real-time output possible, while accepting the limitations in render quality that come with that. Now, though, the limitations are becoming less obvious, and the gap between the real-time output of game engines and the pre-rendered output of 3D software is narrowing – and game engine developers are sensing an opportunity to broaden their scope and enter new markets.
Virtual production with CineBox
Movie production is one of the areas where game-derived technology could be about to make an impact. James Cameron famously used a virtual set presented in real time during the production of Avatar, walking around an empty set with a monitor showing him what the camera would be seeing once CG was added. The virtual production techniques of Avatar have created ripples ever since, with many more film-makers in particular using real-time technology for pre-viz.
Looking for rapid-iteration solutions that could cope with the load of its broadcast projects, Zoic Studios once considered Epic Games’ Unreal Engine as the foundation of its real-time system for generating final production frames. “We needed to figure out how to do 300 shots in two weeks,” Zoic co-founder Loni Peristere told the FMX conference this May. Zoic ultimately adopted the Lightcraft visualisation engine developed by Prevision, but the tests Zoic conducted with Unreal Engine gave game engine technology a foot in the door.
That door is about to be opened wider with the release of CineBox, a visualisation tool offering real-time lighting, layout and rendering. It’s based on CryEngine, the game engine behind the acclaimed first-person shoot-’em-up franchise Crysis, and comes from Crysis developer Crytek.
CineBox relies on CryEngine 3, the game engine used for a series of blockbuster videogames, including the upcoming Crysis 3
CineBox features a re-engineered version of CryEngine at its core, enabling the software to simulate physics, weather and particle effects in realistic terrain or cities; but numerous technical enhancements offer camera control, lighting and rendering beyond what CryEngine can offer. A sync option with Maya matches cameras, meshes and lights with your Maya scene, updating in CineBox as you edit the scene. Output is gamma-correct OpenEXR with full stereoscopic support. CineBox is already being used in studios as a beta release: Crytek cites Fox and Digital Domain as partners, and is gearing up for the software’s official release.
TV animation with Unreal Engine
Motion-capture and animation studio Vicon House of Moves (HOM) tapped into Unreal Engine for The Guardian Project, a broadcast and online short produced with Stan Lee for the National Hockey League. 30 superheroes, each representing an NHL team, saved the RBC Center stadium from villainous Deven Dark in a short that combined animated characters and live-action environments. HOM used Unreal Engine 3 to plan and render the short. “Game engines give you the ability to light and render scenes interactively in real time, even when you’re dealing with multiple characters,” says Peter Krygowski, director, HOM. “With the game engine you reduce the time it takes to make critical creative decisions because you have the ability to previsualise fully rendered scenes.”
Unreal Engine 4 adds visual scripting and real-time GI to its powerful toolset
HOM’s vice-president of production Brian Rausch says the use of a game engine offers the potential for future efficiencies as well as in-production savings. “On a project like this, you have to think down the road of potentially extrapolating characters and environments into game assets or a TV series, and flowing the CG creative elements between mediums. By building scenes in a game engine out of the gates, our options are much broader: the need to down-res files from broadcast to game, for example, will be mitigated.”
Opportunities for game engines are also opening up beyond the film and TV sectors. ‘Serious games’ are simulations created for real-world purposes, primarily training, using game engine technology. RealTime Immersive creates simulations based on CryEngine for government and commercial clients – as well as training tor the military, in a true case of life imitating art.
The US Army is one customer, commissioning a $57 million virtual platform dubbed the Dismounted Soldier Training System. Ground vehicles, aircraft and troops interact across a 360-degree environment featuring rain and wind effects. Trainees can learn to use equipment such as night vision and thermal monitors as they practise learned manoeuvres and hand signals.
Get started for free
If you want to find out for yourself what game engines can offer, there’s a healthy choice of options available at no cost. CryEngine and Unreal Engine both provide software development kits for integrating your 3D content and creating games and other interactive experiences. Epic Games divides its offerings into UDK, for non-commercial and educational use, and Unreal Engine, for licensed commercial use. The development tools run on Windows, and you can create finished executables for Windows and iOS. Both tool suites support FBX for imports, including skeletal meshes. The Unreal Developer Network offers documentation, level and code samples and a forum for discussion and sharing skills.
Shown using assets created in modo, Unity is a popular and capable alternative to game-engine coding
Crytek offers the same CryEngine suite with non-commercial, educational and commercial licences. The development tools run on Windows, as do the finished executables. CryEngine uses proprietary file formats for characters and other meshes; to generate these, you can use one of the free export plug-ins provided for 3ds Max, Maya and Softimage.
Other free real-time options include Unity, which provides its own real-time engine within a suite of controls suitable for non-programmers; and Blender, which offers an integrated game engine. Blender is open-source; Unity has a free edition and a licensed Pro edition with more advanced graphics.
on Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 at 3:11 pm under Features.
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Tags: game engine