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Creating a Short Film Entirely in Unreal Engine

Loïc Scalbert told us about the workflow behind The Seeker project, shared how the character animations were created, and talked about what makes Unreal Engine great for filmmaking.

Introduction

Hi! My name is Loïc Scalbert, I’m 31 and I’m a Real-Time Filmmaker and Unreal Engine Generalist based in Belgium. I created my first short films quite early, around 12. Basically, it was a series of JPEG images from characters drawn in vector design software (such as Illustrator). Between each frame, I moved the vectors to create some kind of motion. Then, my dad assembled everything to create a short MP4. Such a good time! Then I quickly jumped into Blender.

I studied 3D and VFX at the IAD, a cinema school in Belgium, and succeeded with a Master's Degree.

I then worked for four years as a 3D artist, digital compositor, and matchmover. In 2015, Unreal was set free to everyone and I fell in love with it. I knew right away that I wanted to work with it, whatever the project was, with the dream of one day being able to use it to tell stories and merge it with my passion for movies.

In 2016, I quit the VFX industry and started to work for a company that creates high-end visuals for architecture and design: Miysis. At that time, they were looking for a 3D artist to join their new real-time department. The goal was to create cutting-edge applications and experiences with Unreal Engine 4. One year later, I was in charge of the department.

In November 2020, I was contacted by Epic Games to take part in a challenge/masterclass about storytelling in Unreal Engine. The goal was to create a short film on a specific theme while using as many free assets as possible. It was the perfect opportunity to finally merge my passion for cinema with the one for real-time technologies.

The deadline was really short. We had only five weeks to create a story, set it up, and deliver it. To help us, we had access to some recorded sessions of the Unreal Fellowship Program and we had some mentors that gave us feedback and helped us to meet the deadlines.

“The Seeker” won an honorable mention! While working on this project, I finally realized that Unreal Engine was mature enough to support film creation. I also realized that there was an industry looking for this kind of project. In May 2021, I left Miysis to start a new adventure at Appeal Studios as a cinematic artist. One year later, I’m still working there as a Lead Cinematic.

Unreal Engine

In 2013, I started to learn Unity during my spare time. I learned Javascript and some basics about real-time 3D. I developed some small game prototypes but it didn’t go any further. I was still working as a 3D artist while keeping an eye on Unreal Engine.

In 2015, I moved from Brussels to Liège (another city in Belgium) for personal reasons. I was working at Mikros and everything was fine. Then suddenly Unreal Engine became free, and I fell in love with it!

At the same time, a local company (Miysis) was looking for people working in Unreal Engine. I had been using it for a few months only but I decided to apply anyway. To put all the chances on my side, I created a little first-person archviz tour and configurator with some basic blueprints inside. You could move inside the project and configure some assets’ material. And I got the job!

At that time, there weren’t as many tutorials as we have now. I had to refer a lot to the forums, Unreal’s documentation, project breakdowns, and making-ofs to learn how to behave in a production environment.

Unreal Engine is just amazing. For seven years now, I’ve been using it almost every week. Its learning curve is really smooth, and Blueprint helps a lot for people like me, who are not comfortable with C++.

With all the projects made at Miysis, I had the opportunity to learn a lot about several sides of the software (lighting, FX, blueprint scripting, layout, builds, project management, etc.)

Since 2015, Unreal has only gotten better and better with tons of new features, tools, plugins, assets, collections, and tutorials. Everyone can download it and start creating things. It’s just insane!

The Seeker Project

I started to work on The Seeker in January 2021 in Unreal 4.26. We had the choice between two themes: discovery and car chase.

It’s the story of a man somewhere looking for something. Where are we? When are we? Does it really matter?

Due to the really tight deadline (we had only five weeks to create the film), I had to be really efficient. My inspirations come from several movies, books, and universes. The three most important are Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars. I especially love the feeling of despair, loneliness, and emergency that we find in those movies.

I also put a lot of love into my cameras. I spent quite some time thinking about the framing, composition, and blocking. I always try to say as much as possible in each frame. Each camera motion is thought through.

I’m particularly in love with long shots. The way they involve us in the current time, the way they show specific actions, motions, and characters all at the same time while keeping everything under control. Since the beginning of the project, I knew I wanted to create one.

The references for these kinds of shots were Birdman and Children of Men, which are masterpieces!

I also knew which kind of music I wanted to use. The BioShock games are the trilogy that definitely had an influence on me, especially the third one, Infinite. At the end of the game, when all the secrets and conclusions have been displayed, there is slow asynchronous piano music. I can’t explain why, but those few notes are always in my mind.

The Character

As explained before, everything was kitbashed for this project. The character comes from the free Paragons assets released by Epic Games.

The animations were captured with an Xsens Mocap Suit that I borrowed at Miysis (thanks again, guys!) Here are some pictures of the session. Look at the bike!

The mocap's data was processed in Xsens and retargeted on the 3ds Max Manny’s skeleton to “normalize” it.

In Unreal Engine, I retargeted the files on the Paragon character. Then, I used some animation layers to match the mocap with the props and environment. I mostly had to work on the fingers for the gun interactions and the legs for the bike.

The workflow was, once again, really effective, and it was quite easy to set up!

All the exterior shots were built with a landscape, some ground assets for the close-ups, and volumetric fog. Do not forget to use fog, it saves lives!

The interiors are made of a mix of several packs from the marketplace. Everything was rendered in HD with the Movie Render Queue on a 3080 and combined on DaVinci Resolve.

No Fog

Fog

All the exterior shots were built with a landscape, some ground assets for the close-ups, and volumetric fog. Do not forget to use fog, it saves lives!

The interiors are made of a mix of several packs from the marketplace. Everything was rendered in HD with the Movie Render Queue on a 3080 and combined on DaVinci Resolve.

Filmmaking

When it comes to filmmaking, Unreal Engine 5 is just the place to be. It is just so great and easy to tell stories with this software. The first version of The Seeker was done in UE4, but I’m currently working on the UE5 upgrade.

The sequencer is really intuitive, there are so many tutorials, assets, collections, and tools.

One that I particularly like is the one I used to create the long shot in the building. I used the Take Recorder and Live Link connection with an iPad to simulate a camera (once again borrowed at Miysis.) Basically, once my mocap was ready in Unreal, I was able to display the scene on an iPad. The iPad behaves like a camera. From there, I could start the recording and due to the ARKit technology, all the motions I made were directly recorded in Unreal Engine. It was just so amazing to see the instantaneous result. The camera motion was then cleaned and merged with two other motions directly built in Unreal.

The Take Recorder allows you also to do a lot of other stuff. For another project, I used it to record a car chase based on gameplay animations. Then, I had full control over the recorded data and could do everything I wanted with it. I also made a timelapse of the process.

Conclusion

The Unreal Engine 5 version is still WIP. The reason it is not done yet is simply because I have so many projects I want to work on. The upgrade to The Seeker will mostly be visual. I’ve nothing else to tell about it, and as I love to tell stories, it is not mandatory anymore to have the UE5 version.

My advice (which is not mine but comes from a book I read about Pixar) is "Story matters the most" because it is what entertains us. Whatever you are doing, always think about what you want to tell. Everything should converge to this point: framing, camera motion, staging, lighting, colors, acting, sounds, everything!

My second piece of advice is: do not wait! It is so easy to work with Unreal as it is a realtime software, you never have to wait. So as soon as you have an idea or you want to try something, just open the engine, put a camera, start a sequence and make things move!

Loïc Scalbert, Real-Time Filmmaker & Unreal Engine Generalist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

This content is brought to you by 80 Level in collaboration with Unreal Engine. We strive to highlight the best stories in the gamedev and art industries. You can read more Unreal Engine interviews with developers here.

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