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Epic battles in space; the expansive alien terrain of a world completely unlike Earth; a futuristic city on a planet far, far away. These are scenes and images that, in recent years, we’ve only been able to see in major sci-fi blockbusters with $100 million-plus budgets. There’s a new technology, however, that can create these grand scenes right here on Earth and at a fraction of the cost.
That technology is Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, a real-time 3D creation platform initially developed for video games. Film and television makers have started using it for productions, using an LED backdrop to project a realistic virtual background on a soundstage. Jon Favreau uses the Unreal Engine for scenes in The Mandalorian, for example, and Taika Waititi will be using it on Thor: Love and Thunder as well.
The technology, however, won’t just help productions with Disney-sized budgets; smaller films also have the potential to use the Unreal Engine to bring fantastical and futuristic worlds to life.
The upcoming sci-fi film Gods of Mars is paving the way on that front, and — with the help of the Unreal Engine — will be the first to make their production entirely virtual.
SYFY WIRE talked with the production’s creative team — director Peter Hyoguchi, writer Don Hewitt, CG supervisor Dan Lauer, and production designer Fon Davis — about how they’re using video game technology to create realistic, film-quality scenes at a fraction of the cost.
“The original way that I wanted to make this movie was we would make miniatures for every single set and environment, and then we'd shoot in front of a green screen,” Hyoguchi says about the film, which takes place in 2099 on a terraformed Mars and follows a team of mercenaries looking to take out a cult leader who has convinced a mining colony to revolt. “And then I was introduced to the Unreal Engine, and the whole idea of the Unreal Engine as a 3D world being projected onto screens in a soundstage, and using an augmented reality node that sits right on top of the camera. It’s like a game controller, essentially, that's your point of view of the world. And the world sort of bends around to keep that perspective. And I thought, 'What if we scan the miniatures and put them in that?'"
Hyoguchi applied to Epic Games’ MegaGrant program, a $100 million fund established to promote new endeavors that use the company’s Unreal Engine technology. Gods of Mars received a grant, and then also reached out to other hardware and software manufacturers like Nvidia, Lenovo, and ASUS to see if they would sponsor the effort. All of them agreed, intrigued by the new way Gods of Mars was making a movie.
The film is currently in production, and the team is experimenting with how to best blend traditional practical and VFX methods to create realistic scenes. “For many designs, we are getting away from a video game look by first physically creating miniatures of the assets that we need,” Davis, who oversees the creation of the practical miniatures, explains. “Using this mix of traditional artistry and cutting-edge technology, we can ensure that the digital objects look as real as the physical objects in the movie without the expense of building everything full size.”
The Unreal Engine has also allowed them to be more ambitious in the scenes they can shoot and the scope of the world they can show. The whole script, in fact, was rewritten once they realized the extent of what the new method could do.
One rewrite, for example, allowed them to create a sprawling Martian shantytown made out of shipping containers. “Originally, we were going to shoot in a real shipping container, and have just a very simple backdrop to get the whole idea of what that would look like. We would only have one angle of the whole environment,” Hyoguchi says. “But now we have several scenes that really explore that shantytown and it’s actually a lot cheaper than building it... it was probably the most enormous expense that we had in the whole movie. And now we're doing it using the Unreal Engine, and it’s much more expansive, much more dynamic. And you get to explore the world in more detail for a lot less money.”
Even though the production is still in the R&D phase, they’ve put together a 13-minute behind-the-scenes documentary outlining their process to date, which you can check out below:
Even the scenes in the mini-documentary, however, are still a work in progress. Hyoguchi and his team are learning as they go, and — with the help of the new technology — are able to test ideas and throw away things that don’t work before they spend too much money. “We can catch the mistakes and the bad ideas early on, and adjust them before we pay an actor to show up or rent out a whole soundstage,” Lauer, who oversees the film’s VFX, explains. “So over time, the time we actually spend shooting should be a lot more efficient.”
These efficiencies and savings from using the Unreal Engine, however, could impact the industry beyond Gods of Mars; it could, in fact, empower smaller-scale productions to dream big. “Virtual production is a game-changer for everyone but especially writers,” Hewitt, Gods of Mars’ screenwriter, says. “For the last few decades, we had to ignore epic sci-fi unless you somehow own some underlying IP. That's because the price tag, $150 million-plus, made studios and financiers super gun shy. But if you can make an epic sci-fi for $10 million, well that changes everything. Now we can take the chance, studios can take the chance.”
The first 10 minutes of Gods of Mars will be released in early 2021, with the feature premiering sometime later in the year.