The Cinematic Evolution: In-Engine’s Comeback

Game developers invest a great amount of time into evolving characters, designing gameplay and creating worlds. We like to take that and add a cinematic edge that makes games sparkle, beautifully, in their own light.

It’s a known fact that developing a game is a long and challenging process. Much like producing a film, hours, days and years are tirelessly worked to create some of the most exciting, imaginative and explorative worlds for eager gamers to spend their days and nights wildly investigating.

Back in a more retro time (the ‘90s) game devs didn’t have such an issue with their cinematic content, as they were happy to make their own, using it to detail story arcs as a gift to loyal gamers who’d made it to the end of challenging quests. Devs would clip their cinematic content together to create pre-rendered trailers, which are now looked back on with hearty nostalgia, like Blizzard Entertainment’s first trailer for Warcraft II.

In the noughties there was something of an animation boom, and the visual quality of cinematic content started to run at a pace that game devs couldn’t keep up with. Animation studios began to pop up, specialising in high-quality game cinematics to bridge the gap between video games and cinema. As a result of this, developers started to outsource their promotional work to the specialist animation studios, so that they were able to spend more time finessing their games, and less time worrying about trailers. A particularly game-changing trailer was Blur’s 2005 cinematic for Hellgate London, which set the path for the next decade of visually stunning, high-quality cinematic trailers.

Developers sacrifice a lot, pouring their hearts and souls into their work to make sure that it’s the best that it can be. So it could seem almost impossible to decide whether to release their techy child into the arms of a stranger to create promotional cinematic materials for it.

“Would a cinematic trailer do our game justice?”

“Will the studio understand the world that we have created?”

“Can our heroes be presented in their best light?”

“Do we have the time or budget to make this happen?”

“We’re not going to end up mis-selling the graphical quality… are we?”

I’m guessing that these are all hypotheticals that a game dev would ask when considering ordering a classic prerendered cinematic trailer.

Recent developments within the cinematics industry are helping to reduce the number of concerns a game dev might encounter, with the simply ingenious idea of creating cinematics within the game’s engine itself! This allows animation studios to create cinematic portrayals of gameplay and faithful depictions of characters all within the game’s own world… and they also have the added benefit of being output in stunning high-quality resolutions.

“It’s all the same world, we just add an extra edge.” -Tom Pullan, Lead Artist.

Ever since we produced our premiere in-engine cinematic, Lost, the studio has embraced the new pipeline and processes, finding it an interesting challenge to try and master the art. Whilst the studio is currently in the midst of working on our new series of in-engine cinematics for Rare’s Sea of Thieves, I had the chance to go around and chat to some of the RealtimeUK guys about their experiences working within the UE4 engine:

Ian Jones, Director:

“I wouldn’t say [directing] is necessarily easier [within the game engine], but it does mean you can hit the ground running.  We get to skip a lot of the conceptual phases of the work, because the look and a lot of the assets are already established.

“In-engine directing requires a different type of creativity.  It reminds me of shooting live-action on location. You’re given an environment to work within, a list of props and a cast of characters. You have to explore all of the possibilities and make the most of what’s available to you.  I often find that creativity is driven by the limitation within a task. Because we can’t build a bespoke set or create an ideal camera angle, we have to find creative solutions. This is what makes it challenging and fun. The results are often more interesting than if we’d started with a blank page.”

Tom Pullan, Lead Artist:

“We get presented with the latest game build… it’s not ready for popular consumption, and it’s still not fully developed,” explains Tom, “but it’s developed enough for us to take assets from it to create the cinematic trailer. We then use a sequencer tool, that’s typically used for cut scenes within the games, to put together the cinematic.”

“Our current client has created some beautiful characters, and parts of the cinematic require lip sync for dialogue scenes, so we’ve had to create more intricate facial rigs to make the characters more impressive. Refining the rig is a reasonably fast process, and it only takes a couple of days to get the characters looking really cool.”

Stu Bayley, Art Director:

“I find that the key to getting the best results is through iteration and refinement. From a visual perspective the more instant the feedback, the better the end result will be. And one big benefit of directing the art within a game engine, is the ability to instantly see the feedback of changes to layouts and lighting, which currently isn’t possible within non-realtime viewports.

“Working in-engine can speed up the cinematic process as we usually have to elaborate on the game’s cinematography and complexity of the animation and storytelling. This allows us to stay faithful to the established IP and focus on creating engaging moments in their world.”

Through the conversations that I had with Ian, Tom and Stu it was clear that the creative challenge of developing an in-engine cinematic is an exciting opportunity for the studio. The most potent talking point alluded to the imaginative freedoms that artists are allowed when working with real-time feedback, which is currently a topical developmental theme within the industry. Pre-rendered and in-engine software have entered somewhat of a transitional period, where their lines and capabilities are becoming blurred.

Unreal’s latest update illustrates this perfectly. Back in March they announced their new real-time ray tracing technology, which will see reflections and lighting behave dynamically within their engine, in the same fashion as lighting departments in a pre-rendered pipeline. The results are truly stunning, and it really does pose an interesting question as to what the future of game cinematics might look like… will specialist animation studios slowly be absorbed by game studios to bring their skills in-house, or will their niche skillset, adaptive instincts and learned experience instil confidence and affect a new wave of interest in their work and services?