As someone who has only dabbled in the world of motion graphics and animation, peeking behind the scenes of any higher-end CG animation work is always a treat. 

There is so much artistry contained in every frame as entire worlds are created with the click of a keyframe.

This is the case with the short film Irradiation, an animated narrative short by filmmaker Sava Zivkovic, which tells the story of a scientist exploring a mysteriously radiated site—and he begins to experience strange visions along the way.

And while the film itself (which was recently featured on Short of the Week) is definitely worth checking out, for any fellow animation-interested filmmakers, the accompanying behind-the-scenes peek into the process is quite interesting as well.

Let’s take a look at both as we explore the fascinating world of CG animation and the challenges of cinematic lighting.

The Challenges of CG Animation

As you can see, Zivkovic’s film is a dark and beautiful sci-fi short that instantly recalls some of the more superbly crafted worlds of Chernobyl, Arrival, or perhaps Annihilation

Its dark composition is a great cinematic choice as it creates ample space to explore some mysterious, trippy, and psychological themes of fear, death, and decay.

But what really makes this film tick? And, more specifically, how does one even go about beginning to build something so intricate and audacious?

As Zivkovic reveals in the behind-the-scenes featurette below on his process for the film, the world of CG animation is indeed a very tricky endeavor.

Not only does it require great artistry for character and world design, you have to first set all the shots and outline all the elements and pacing in a rudimentary pre-viz, which is helpful and necessary, but quite tricky when it comes to one main crucial element of filmmaking… lighting.

Cinematic Lighting in Unreal Engine

In Zivkovic's filmmaking journey, he talks about his frustrations with trying to work with lighting in this pre-visualization phase. 

Sure, it’s great to work with rudimentary forms to help save time with compositions and renders, but its lack of lighting control is a huge hindrance to the filmmaking process overall.

This is where Unreal Engine came in, as it was a true revelation and game-changer for Zivkovic’s process.

“With Unreal Engine everything is real-time and right in front of you. You’re seeing reflections and shadows, you’re seeing light in all of its glory and in real-time, bouncing off of complex animations and materials…”

Zivkovic goes on to talk about how using Unreal Engine truly opened up his cinematic eye, so to speak, as he was able to really explore new ideas for how to compose, frame, and “shoot” his animated film with the entire world at his disposal.

I love his specific ideas of using reflections (which he previously would not have been able to see) as new shots and compositions to consider, as well as how seeing shadows in real-time could mean new angles to explore and visuals to either use or further conceal.

Pre-vizCredit: Sava Zivkovic

Character Design and Asset Packs

From there, Zivkovic goes into how he was able to create his characters and story.

And while it’s always an option to create characters and worlds from scratch, many times animators go with asset packs as a way to start their creative process, as they build from either basic or already complex designs.

For Irradiation, Zivkovic started pulling characters, ideas, and inspiration from asset packs from the website Big Medium Small as his narrative story began to come into view.

(And if you’re interested, for his film Zivkovic used the characters and assets from the Post-Apocalypse collection, which you can find here.)


Exploring Possibilities with Motion Capture

Zivkovic even takes us behind the scenes of his motion-capture process. He was lucky enough to have access to a studio that was set up to record some state-of-the-art motion capture with real human performers.

These performers, as you might suspect, are critical in bringing animated characters to life in a way that simply can’t be recreated by computers.

Zivkovic also stresses that having real performers in your animated films can really help you, as a filmmaker and director, to explore new and more complex ideas in regards to performances and movement.

If you have access to motion capture studios (or at least authentically captured footage to serve as a base), these performances can be the missing piece for turning a stiff-feeling animation into a fully realized character.

Motion_captureCredit: Sava Zivkovic

Decision Making in Real-Time

Finally, Zivkovic wraps things up by talking once again about how instrumental Unreal Engine was in his ability to unlock himself from the static pre-viz process in which he was used to before.

With a program like Unreal, you’re completely free to explore any environment as you can edit backgrounds and interactive set elements on the fly.

You’re also free, as Zivkovic puts it, to unlock the camera and move it around however you might like to explore different angles and compositions. All in real-time.

Unreal_engineCredit: Sava Zivkovic

Zivkovic even rigged up a makeshift virtual camera in his home office to take his virtual filmmaking experience into his own hands. 

Many of his shots have this distinct hand-held personality that makes it feel like a filmmaker is there in the scene, bringing you deeper into the narrative.

"This short film has marked the first time I’ve used Unreal Engine for a project like this, and the experience is best described as… well, absolutely unreal," Zivkovic told us. "I’ve never had so much fun and creative freedom in my 13+ years of experience of trying to make images move, and I’ve tried to capture why I think Unreal Engine is the future, at least for me, in the accompanying process video. I strongly suggest you give it a watch if you’re interested in how this incredible tool is changing and shaping the future of both indie and professional virtual production."

Overall, regardless of your animation (or simply motion graphics) knowledge or expertise, watching a behind-the-scenes featurette like this can be a great inspiration, as well as a cool look into how CG animation is further shaping the future of filmmaking.

How do you feel about CG animation and cinematic lighting? Have you checked out Unreal Engine yet and its unique compositional controls?

Let us know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!