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Superman Awakens: Creating a Short Film with Unreal Engine 5

Antonis and Stavros Fylladitis told us about the production process behind their fan-made short film Superman Awakens, discussed how they created environments and characters for the film, and detailed how they set up various lighting scenarios.

Introduction

Antonis Fylladitis: Hi, we are Antonis and Stavros Fylladitis. We are from Greece, specifically from an island called Lemnos. We were always into everything that has to do with storytelling and visual arts. From comics, and video games to of course films, spending countless hours watching and re-watching 80s and 90s action, sci-fi films, and cartoons. It was our go-to form of escapism.

Stavros Fylladitis: As the older sibling, Antonis pursued his interest in 3D animation and moved to Athens. Meanwhile, as the younger one, I followed in his footsteps, learning from him while still in school and during his visits back home.
Once Antonis graduated, landed various jobs in Greece's 3D industry, from video games to arch viz, before joining the TV commercial sector where I joined him after finishing school. We enjoyed the work but knew our hearts belonged to the reason we began learning 3D – to create feature films.

Antonis Fylladitis: Eventually, we left our jobs and pursued our passion for storytelling in feature films. Stavros joined DNEG London and worked on blockbuster films like Assassin's Creed, Pacific Rim: Uprising, LIFE, and Thor: Ragnarok. 

Meanwhile, I joined Illoura (Now Method Studios) in Melbourne, where I was part of the look dev team for major productions such as Jumanji, John Wick 3, and Game of Thrones.

As we were apart for the first time, we yearned to work together again and create something that was truly ours. We moved back to Athens and created our first CG cinematic, PROTEUS, which kickstarted the launch of our brand name, FLOATING HOUSE.

For the few years to follow we landed many TV ad projects but, our love for cinematography and storytelling was still burning within us. We stopped everything and, for a few months, went back to our roots to rediscover our passion.

Our versatile background allowed us to gain experience in every stage of a VFX pipeline and enabled us to tell a complete story without the need to gather a large team. That played extremely well with the rise of Unreal Engine 5.

Using Unreal Engine 5

Stavros Fylladitis: We wanted to get back into making CG cinematic pieces and we were starting to see promising works from other artists. Many friends of ours were telling us to give Unreal Engine a go so we thought it might be the time to do so.

Antonis Fylladitis: We strongly believe in the benefits of starting with a small project when learning a new 3D software. By having a specific goal in mind, we find that we can learn the software more efficiently by exploring the application and figuring out how to achieve our desired outcome. This approach is far more effective than simply following tutorials without a clear objective in mind.

Regarding the advantages? Speed. Firstly we thought that it might be just fast when it comes to rendering sequences but it blew us away how fast you can manipulate environments, assets, animations, FX many more. You have so many tools that you hardly leave the engine to do something somewhere else.

Superman Awakens

Stavros Fylladitis: We are huge fans of the old-school Superman (Kingdome Come universe) and the art of Alex Ross and we were so frustrated that we haven’t seen anything like this on the big screen. So Antonis had the idea to give it a go for a few seconds of a demo. Just the old-school Superman, no fancy uniforms, everything as close as possible to the comics. 

Antonis Fylladitis: Our main inspiration in this film was of course the work of Alex Ross. For every frame that I was creating the first question that I was asking myself was "Could this be a painting by Alex Ross?"

We approached the film first and foremost as fans, then as cinematographers, and lastly as CG artists. We believe this mindset took made our film stand out in this day and age, by staying true to its origins.

The Production

Stavros Fylladitis: The whole project took us around 5 months. From the very beginning to the end. This might sound a lot, but on the other hand, makes sense. All aspects of production were running smoothly, but when it came to working with Unreal, it was an unknown tool for us. For every action that we had to do we had to google it first, so you can imagine how slow things were moving in the beginning.

Once we started getting the hang of it, things started rolling much faster. That's when we saw the actual power of Unreal.

Antonis Fylladitis: The whole project started with me making a few rough thumbnails. Then I converted those to a storyboard, I put them into a sequence player with some heroic music in the background and that's when I knew that we had something going on. It gave us the confidence to jump into Unreal and start making the previz.

But as we were doing the previz, we realized how fast this engine is. Coming from offline renderers, we were very conservative regarding how we were going to approach our shots. But as we started to realize that there is no reason to treat this as an offline renderer, our productivity took off.

The Film's Environments

Stavros Fylladitis: For the environments, there is a mix of everything. I was getting the assets ready while Antonis was framing the shots.

For the first sequence, which we call the "Flashback" sequence, for the environments there were a lot of custom assets that I made in Blender, many assets were bought to save us time and of course, Quixels Megascans was the MVP. We used them in every imaginable way to give a touch of realism to our shots.

Antonis Fylladitis: For the metropolis sequence, the whole setup is based on the Matrix sample city. We used its buildings, props, and roads and for the final shots, we took the entire level as it is, and only the character was imported.

We are a team of two. Our goal was to create a cinematic piece whose scale was starting to look a bit scary. So we used every resource available that could save us time and get us the frame that we were looking for.

The Film's Characters

Stavros Fylladitis: All the characters are MetaHumans. And that was also one of the reasons why we gave Unreal Engine a shot. MetaHumans have crazy details, they look realistic, they come with an exceptional rig and they look fantastic in a real-time engine. I mean.. what else can you ask for?

Of course, as you can imagine, Superman’s model was the most challenging of all to work on. I started experimenting with MetaHumans at the very beginning of this project because we knew that we had to match the physique of Alex’s Ross Superman. We were not sure how to approach this and even didn't know if it was possible.

After a lot of trial and error, I created a sculpt. Based on that sculpt, I created a MetaHuman, and then, I adjusted it with some additional sculpting.

MetaHumans are awesome but they have a very distinctive look and it was very hard to hide that from our character. Antonis also had to step in and create his hair in Maya with XGen.

For the rest of the characters, we didn’t pay any attention to altering them. They are MetaHumans straight out of the box –  perfect for the usage we needed them for.

Setting Up Lighting Scenarios and Rendering

Antonis Fylladitis: It was tricky in the beginning to find a nice lighting scenario that could work for almost all the shots. Once I found a setup that I liked in one shot, from there on, I replicated that to the other shots and then started tweaking it to make it work for the given camera angle.

As for using Lumen, we didn’t use any tricks worth mentioning. The only thing I believe worth mentioning is that there are two shots (the lady in the car) that Lumen was giving us a bit of a hard time, and for those, we used path tracing rendering. It was a bit more expensive in render times but it saved us a lot of headaches.

The cameras were something that we had more or less solved from the previz stage. We were going for graphic shots, many of which were inspired by Superman’s comics.

For the first sequence, which had a dark and dreamy feel, we used cameras that are not easy to replicate in reality. This helped to emphasize that we are in a memory. 

In the Metropolis sequence, we changed too many shots that look like a handheld camera, grounding us in the fact that this is the real world.

Main Challenges

There were countless challenges during the production of this project, but one that stands out is the one which is making the character look good in broad daylight while also maintaining his heroic essence.

No matter how outstanding the quality of the MetaHumans is, they are still in a real-time engine that still has some drawbacks when it comes to SSS shaders.

Other than that, the other main challenge was the scale of the whole project. We are a team of two and we had to deal with 42 scenes. It took a lot of patience and many working hours. We tested a lot of shots that did not make it into the final edit and faced numerous trials and errors but learned a lot along the way. But still, we firmly believed that our project would be much more streamlined moving forward.

Tips on Using Unreal Engine 5 for Virtual Production

Think and use it as a cinematographer. Of course, you will need technical knowledge to set up some tricky materials or tweak the settings here and there for the best possible result, but you can find all this information online in no time.

Cinematography and direction are skills that you need to build over time, and at the end of the day, is your personal touch and taste that can make your work in Unreal stand out.

So think of a project that you would like to make, keep it grounded, and jump right in!

Antonis Fylladitis, CG Artist

Stavros Fylladitis, CG Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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