×

EPIC Games Has a Daring Proposal for Hollywood: Real-Time Visual Effects

Two vehicles chase each other across the countryside in a high-speed race. One is driven by an experienced race car driver, the other one is controlled by a sassy artificial intelligence out to win her first competition. That’s the gist of “The Human Race,” a new branded short produced by The Mill for Chevrolet that prominently features the car maker’s new 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL racing a futuristic Chevvy concept car.

But in this case, AI and self-driving cars are just the icing of the cake for tech enthusiasts. “The Human Race” didn’t premier at an auto show Wednesday, but at the Game Developer Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. That’s because Chevvy’s latest car was entirely rendered in real-time, with the help of the Unreal game engine — foreshadowing how movie making could fundamentally change in years to come, thanks to real-time visual effects.

Unreal maker EPIC Games previewed the movie to a small round of journalists Tuesday. After first playing the short film in its entirety, EPIC CTO Kim Libreri handed Chevrolet marketing director Sam Russell a phone to change some of the movie’s aspects on the fly while the movie was running in the background.

Chevrolet marketing director Sam Russell used this configuration screen to change the look of the car in real-time. Courtesy of EPIC Games

Russell pressed a button, and the color of the car in the movie switched from red to blue in real-time, then to yellow, then to silver. Then, he switched the entire make of the car to be shaped like an 1950s Chevvy, all the while the movie was still running on the big screen, with the race continuing with a completely different car. “That was not a regular movie. That was a real-time generated movie,” quipped Libreri afterwards.

A big part of what makes this magic work is EPIC’s Unreal game engine, which computer game developers have been using for years to render their visual assets in real-time, and which Epic now wants to bring to Hollywood.

In the case of “The Human Race,” Unreal was combined with a virtual production toolkit dubbed Cyclops that folks at the Mill have developed in-house. And key to the production was the Blackbird, a special stand-in car that The Mill developed a few years ago to use in commercial shoots where it didn’t have access to the real thing.

The Blackbird a stand-in car developed by The Mill. Courtesy of EPIC Games

The Blackbird, which was featured on stage in San Francisco, looked a bit like a Mad Max vehicle that’s been plastered all over with QR Codes, and featured a number of cameras and other sensors to record information from a drive that can later be applied to a computer-generated rendering.

The Mill has used the Blackbird in the past for other car commercials, using traditional visual effects after the fac to replace the stand-in with the car that companies like Chevrolet wanted advertised, but not publicly seen on the streets during a shoot. The car itself is pretty sophisticated, complete with an electric engine that can be programmed to emulate the torque of any of the cars it is supposed to represent.

“The Human Race” was the first time that the Blackbird was used for real-time rendering — but The Milll’s global director of emerging technology Boo Wong said that the company intends to use this technology for future projects as well. “We would like to do this as soon as possible on as many projects as possible,” she told Variety Tuesday.

A scene shot with the Blackbird… Courtesy of EPIC Games
… and the same scene with the Chevrolet car rendered in real time. Courtesy of EPIC Games

EPIC is set to release a version of Unreal that will support this type of real-time movie rendering later this year, and Wong cautioned that it may take filmmakers a while to adapt to this new approach of visual effects, in part because real-time allows for much less cleanup after the fact. “Our artists have to be incredibly disciplined,” she said. “There is a bit of a mind shift.”

Then again, the switch to real-time visual effects doesn’t have to happen over night. Studios could slowly ease into the use of real-time effects by first using them for on-set visualizations, while still relying on traditional rendering after the fact for the finished project. The benefit of that could be that any images generated during a shoot could be reused for other projects, including AR or VR assets, explained Epic general manager Marc Petit. “We don’t like to throw any pixels away.”

In the end, this could be one of the biggest upsides of real-time effects: They could open up the opportunity for new interactive digital media, including videos that allow viewers to change key assets. In other words: A future in which the viewer can change the color and make of the getaway car is not all that far away.

More Digital

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Ends Long Strike Against Ad Agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty

    SAG-AFTRA has ended its 10-month strike against Bartle Bogle Hegarty after the advertising agency agreed to sign the union’s new commercials contract. The union instructed its 160,000 members in September not to accept any work for BBH, which had been signed to SAG-AFTRA’s commercials contracts since 1999. The strike came two weeks after BBH publicly [...]

  • FaceApp is displayed on an iPhone,

    SAG-AFTRA Warns Members About FaceApp Terms of Use

    SAG-AFTRA is warning its 160,000 members about the “overreaching and invasive” terms of use for the FaceApp mobile application. FaceApp, developed by Russian company Wireless Lab, uses neural network technology to automatically generate transformations of faces in photographs. The app can be used to make users appear older, younger, or change gender. The terms include [...]

  • J. Cole

    Apple Music Launches 'Rap Life' Playlist

    Apple Music announced the launch of “Rap Life,” a new global playlist focusing on contemporary rap artists and culture. It replaces the former “The A-List: Hip-Hop” playlist. Said Ebro Darden, Apple Music’s Global Editorial Head of Hip-Hop and R&B: “We flipped it to dig deeper into into the lifestyle [and to] keep pushing the culture [...]

  • Billie Eilish

    ARRI, Mobile TV Group Back New Venture Revitalizing Streamed Concerts

    A new venture looking to bring a fresh approach to live-streaming concerts has gotten the backing of hardware heavyweights ARRI and Mobile TV Group. Wide+Close is launching with the mandate of shooting music performances with film cameras and cinematographers in order to give the content a more cinematic feel. “We want to take concert filming [...]

  • Fortnite Battle Royale

    How 'Fortnite' Fans Can Earn Loot by Watching YouTube Videos

    Epic Games and YouTube have teamed up with a special offer for “Fortnite” players — giving players of the popular battle-royale game rewards when they watch “Fortnite”-premiered content on the video platform. The catch: You have to watch at least 20 minutes of “Fortnite” special content or live esports broadcasts to receive the loot. Under [...]

  • Roku headquarters

    Roku Plans to Expand to Brazil, Other Countries (EXCLUSIVE)

    Roku plans to expand to multiple new territories in the coming months, Variety has learned. One of the first new markets for the company will likely be Brazil. An international expansion could help Roku grow its customer base, which in turn should lead to growing advertising revenues. Roku executives have been hinting at plans to [...]

  • Google Stadia Pro to Include 1

    Google’s Stadia Game Streaming Service to Include Free Monthly Game

    Google has been busy sharing additional details about its upcoming game streaming service Stadia, clearing up some confusion in the process. Stadia’s pro subscription tier, which will cost $10 per month, won’t be a Netflix-type subscription service. However, subscribers will get free games at the rate of about a title per month. That’s according to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content