[In this sponsored feature, part of Intel's Visual Computing site, former Monolith head Jace Hall discusses Chadam, a new Unreal Engine-powered animated series using the engine for surreal, intriguing -- and initially non-interactive -- means.]
Although the term "convergence" has been bandied about for years, the advances in video game engines today are finally opening new doors for Hollywood creators. Epic Games' ubiquitous Unreal Engine 3, which powers everything from Gears of War 2 to the upcoming BioShock 2, is now making the migration to Hollywood through Chadam.
Based on the cutting-edge paintings of acclaimed California surreal artist Alex Pardee, HDFilms is creating a 10-episode, 50-minute Web series that Warner Bros. Television Group will distribute. The franchise will debut as a computer-generated Internet series and evolve into television and video games. Because the entire project is being created within a game engine, it will allow for a near-seamless crossover from linear to interactive entertainment.
And that's not the only convergence that's going on with this project. HDFilms, the digital production house creating Chadam, was founded by Jace Hall, the former head of game developer Monolith Studios. Hall oversaw the development of a diverse slate of games, such as Blood, TRON 2.0: Killer App, Condemned 1 and 2, and F.E.A.R. 1 and 2. During his game development days, Hall was competing with Epic Games' technology, as well as id Software's Quake engine, as his studio licensed out its Lithtech engine to game developers.
"In order to do my job correctly, I had to understand exactly the entire feature sets of all of the engines at all times and their rate of progress and how they worked," explained Hall. "In terms of using the Unreal Engine personally, I've never had to do that because I've always had my own technology. But I understand how Unreal works, where it's strengths and weaknesses are; that was my job of the day for many, many years. As we looked at this project, I was able to easily evaluate what technology makes the most sense for what we were trying to do and Unreal Engine 3 was the clear winner."
What HDFilms is trying to do -- and they're close to completing the job -- is build a digital pipeline utilizing video-game engine technology that will allow this team to create stories using computer-generated imagery for the Web, television, and movies.
"This is an amazing development," said Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, and the man who created the Unreal Engine technology. "For decades, non-real-time graphics packages evolved to meet the needs of cinematographers, while real-time game engines grew up independently to serve gaming. We've now reached a tipping point where the two come together, and the workflow of the real-time tools is so effective that digital artists can create better results more quickly in a game engine than in an off-line rendering solution."
Marti Resteghini, vice president of HDFilms, said the tools of Unreal were designed for storytelling. After all, video games, as a medium, are essentially highly interactive stories.
"It's only recently with the huge upswing in video games as a creative pool for feature films, that Hollywood has become aware of this," said Resteghini. "But the truth is, from Pitfall! to BioShock, games have long been focusing on heroes (or anti-heroes) and their journeys, which is what movies are about. With added software like Unreal Matinee, Unreal has become a hybrid of game engine and traditional rendering software that creates a virtual environment similar to a Hollywood sound stage, complete with moving characters, lighting, camera, lenses and sets."
HDFilms found that one of the key advantages of using video game technology was that it kept the costs down and allowed a core team of three to create the bulk of the work over an 18-month development cycle. At the height of production, when the team was heavily animating content, that team number rose to 12, including some outsourced work. Like Hall, everyone on the production team came from the video game industry. In fact, one of Chadam's storyboard artists, Jon Mayshak, worked at Epic Games on Gears of War in the same capacity using the same Unreal technology.
"Chadam's creator, Alex Pardee, and our editor, Stephen Reedy, did not come from the game space and often needed to coordinate with our director, Landon Pascual (also our lead designer), for the final episode renders," said Resteghini. "However, the Unreal Engine and its filmmaker-friendly tools have made it very easy for all of them to communicate between the mediums."
The team also took advantage of Intel hardware for this project. They used an Intel Core 2 Quad processor Q9550, with a 2.93 GHz render station with 8 GB RAM and 64-bit Microsoft Windows Vista. In addition, they had four Intel Core 2 Quad processors Q6600, with a 2.40 GHz workstation with 4 GB RAM and 32-bit Windows Vista. Even the team's editor used an Apple Mac with an Intel processor to piece the story together.
"Our lead designer found Intel -- economically, technically, and support-wise -- by far the leader on the market," said Resteghini. "We built all of our computers from individual parts paying close attention to the specs of each piece and how their function played into this project -- knowing we were going to demand a lot from UE3, Intel was our immediate choice."
Resteghini said that since the Chadam models were made in Asia, the Intel standard made the technical conversation between the team's modelers, designers, and animators much simpler, especially during the more complicated stages of production, such as key-framing and the cleanup of the motion capture.