Filmmaker Tiziano Fioriti showed the workflow behind the H I M I L project, explained how AI was used for details, and talked about setting up firelight.
Hi, my name is Tiziano Fioriti and I'm a freelancer filmmaker and digital artist from Italy. When I was in my 20s, my artworks were featured in Exposé 5 – The Finest Digital Art in the Known Universe and d'Artiste Matte Painting vol.2. I work in the commercial and film business for over eighteen years: my job always gravitated around storytelling and environment design. I have worked on films like Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, and 300: Rise of an Empire and I consider myself a sort of digital craftsman: my main focus is based on visual exploration.
The H I M I L Project
Himil is a Longobard word that means sky, heaven. I consider HIMIL as a window into a firmament of stories that draw on an imaginary made up of legends and historical realities. Our project feeds on written and handed down testimonies in Umbria for centuries: always a land of saints and knights, the homeland of the Norse Lombard contaminations and our Latin origins. A legacy that has changed our way of eating and thinking.
The project is inspired by a true story that happened in the small village of Gualdum, in eastern Umbria (1237 AC) where a young woman called Maleficent was accused and convicted of burning down her village. We did a huge historical and cultural research (we’re still doing that!) and that was so much fun! I’ve put together a small team and group of friends with whom to share efforts and ambitions: the project was written and produced with Andrea Brunetti and is inspired by Matteo Bebi's historical novel Poi si fece buio. The development of the environment was done together with a great workmate Edoardo Ragni. We spent hundreds of hours with him for all stages of production. Original music and sound design were made by my brother, Matteo Fioriti, and costume and consultancy is by a great costume designer, Daniele Gelsi. If you like the project and want to follow it, you can do it here.
I drew dozens of boards to previz the story. Curiously, in the end, almost none of the drawn sequences were used for the final short movie: this is because even if there are amazing examples done by talented users around the world, the facial acting of CG characters in real time is not 100% nuts. I changed ideas many times, but it wasn’t a waste of time because I had the chance to work on the mood board in both the traditional and digital styles: I created some concept art and layout ideas with Procreate and overall Unreal Engine where I played a lot with Lumen and Nanite.
We decided to create a two-minute cinematic in Unreal Engine 5 as a proof of concept for the actual project. I have been working in UE for about six years and I consider it an incredible tool for next-gen filmmakers. A few years ago, with UE version 4.23, I created another cinematic based on an ancient Sicilian legend, called Essere Colapesce. That's when UE won me over. What we tried to do for HIMIL is recreate a specific atmosphere: we wanted the audience to identify with a person living in a small and dark medieval village in Umbria, way far away from the posh civilization. A raw and mysterious reality. For this reason, we opted for anxiety-inducing first-person storytelling. It’s her point of view, Himiltrude, in a dreamlike representation of her destiny and her fears.
As a small team working on a no-profit project, it was essential for us to have the maximum result in the shortest time possible. After all, this is where I feel most competitive, putting all the pieces together to create something I like. We had the chance to use amazing products from great companies like MAWI, Dviz, Quixel, and Sketchfab: this is priceless for people who is in this field for more than 20 years. The environment was set up from one of MAWI's great packages – their forests and procedural workflow were perfect for the needs of small companies. We customized it in terms of foliage and landscape to be able to avoid low FPS or unexpected crashes.
We used various types of assets, from Megascans to Sketchfab in order to select photoreal models coming from photogrammetry. We often had to clean them up in Blender but the result was nice enough to make them work. The trees in Unreal Engine still don't work perfectly (in terms of photorealism) so I was particularly careful to “exploit” them with cinematography and camera positions. Assets trees are from Quixel Megascans and DViz.
Specific assets have been modeled from scratch in Blender: for instance, the bronze statuettes that you see at the beginning are archeological finds from that specific Umbrian area that are said to bring bad luck. Sounds perfect for a witch, doesn't it?
Using AI for Details
The narration starts from the house of Himil, the alleged witch. It was important for us to include a certain amount of detail that could give this mood. After adding specific assets suitable for the context, we used Midjourney to generate a kind of secret alphabet. We created its alpha and we used that as decals in order to customize objects and walls. After a few tries we found what we were looking for. Thanks, AI!
Ambient, Fire Lighting & Smoke
There is no path tracing involved in the lighting, just Lumen. That was the crucial phase of the project. It’s thanks to that the atmosphere works and the narration succeeds in creating a credible story. We needed two types of light: a cold one for the ambient and a warm one coming from the fire. Since we wanted a foggy environment that would allow shapes and subjects to be distinguished, we used two different directional lights, using very low-intensity parameters. It was a shot-based workflow. This approach allowed us to draw the highlights without showing too much.
To create the firelight we created a function to be applied to the point light: our first attempt was to create a blueprint, but it was too heavy in terms of rendering and we could only see the result in play mode. For this reason, we created a Material function that had a random intensity in order to apply it simultaneously to multiple light sources with ease and without repetitions. Once the shots were rendered, we bought some real footage of fire on ActionVFX to use them in compositing.
Unreal Engine is an amazing visual tool but it’s still not the best for FX in general. You can import VDBs, but the weight of the scene became unmanageable. For this reason, I decided to put some elements in the comp so we used a pipeline that goes directly from Unreal to Nuke. The plugin was a great tool to manage a certain number of shots and to avoid rendering through the Movie Render Queue.
The first step was to render some EXR sequences, which, in addition to the camera and the beauty pass, also had Depth, World Position, and Cryptomatte. In this way, we could rebuild the real position of the scene objects through a point cloud and place the cards at the most precise point. This workflow was great to insert geometries for particles, fire, and background layers. I created an 8K matte painting of the real location and then projected it into a sphere with a huge scale. The Cryptomatte channel was useful to mask some objects and to get a clean background alpha (instead of a keyer node). This last detail was essential to give a precise identity to the place where the narration took place, the village of Gualdum (today's Gualdo Tadino).
Animations & Clothing
We absolutely needed to put black chickens into our story: from a symbolic point of view, it was a way to underline the dark nature of the story and of the main (invisible) character. We used Animalia's assets, changing their textures and materials and working a bit on the interpolations of animation. In the final scene, it is possible to see hooded figures waiting for the protagonist in front of a big fire. We needed motion capture but we had no time and resources so we decided to use animation sets from Mixamo. We modeled the tunics in Marvelous Designer. Textures and materials were created in Substance 3D Painter. Every artistic aspect of it was supervised by Daniele Gelsi, an incredibly talented historical costume designer.
While the storyboarding was underway, we started doing the first tests with the Unreal Virtual Camera (Live Link VCAM). Fortunately, the new application works much better than the previous version, it’s much more stable. In this way, thanks to an iPhone and an iPad, we recorded hundreds of versions of all the shots; we could establish the direction and photography in real time, being able to manage all the technical details of the used camera (focal length, sensor size, bloom, etc.) We didn't have a large environment to shoot, so for the shots where the camera needed the longest path, we added additive layers in the X or Z axes simulating a longer walk or run. This was absolutely the coolest phase of the whole process. A spark from the future.
Editing, Color Grading & Color Space
We set up UE in ACES. This method was obviously also set up in DaVinci Resolve, the software used for editing and grading. In general, I wanted cool tones for most of the sequences, but it was necessary for the look to get a hint of green: a vague feeling of nausea, perfect for a nightmare. The export was done in ProRes 4444 and the web version in h264 at 50mbps.
When you decide to devote countless hours of work to an unpaid but demanding project like this one, you need a guide, a comet where all the technical solutions are at its service: tell your story in the best possible way.
I hope you like it, let me hear your thoughts!
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