How Two Filmmakers Used Unreal Engine to Create a Gritty Sci-Fi Thriller

Cassini LogsCredit: Cole/Popescu
Filmmakers Tim Cole and Alexandru Popescu won the first-ever Unreal Engine Short Film Challenge. Here's how they did it. 

When thinking about the future of filmmaking and what the production process could look like, several things come to mind: higher resolution, wider color gamuts, HDR, cloud-based file transfers straight from set, and augmented reality. But workflows are already much more sophisticated than that today. 

When the original Avatar came out, the attention went to the innovative 3D technology used to film the actors. Since, we've seen Spielberg use VR in Ready Player One, Scorsese de-aging actors for The Irishman, and dozens of projects from Rogue One to The Mandalorian using Unreal Engine to create life-like sequences through virtual production.

Tools like Unreal Engine have become the backbone for many large-scale productions, but it doesn't take a Hollywood-sized budget to use them, or a tremendous amount of know-how to start creating captivating projects with them.

Filmmakers Tim Cole and Alexandru Popescu are perfect examples of that as they created the short film Cassini Logs, a story that follows Cassini, a 60-year-old scientist alone on one of Saturn's moons trying to understand her parents' sudden disappearance. After completing a two-week course to learn how to use Unreal Engine, and taking six weeks to complete it, the short won the top prize in the first Unreal Engine Short Film Challenge

The two creators spoke with No Film School to share some insight on their process and what it's like to use the program for independent projects. 

No Film School: There are so many different areas of the creative process people can jump into. What drove you to the visual effects side?  

Tim Cole: For me, I’ve always loved the immediate results of working on computer games and real-time rendering. I am also a big film buff, so I feel pretty lucky to be alive at a time where technology is advanced to the point that game and film are merging and overlapping. To me, it sort of feels like new mediums of storytelling are emerging, and I find that really exciting.

Alex Popescu: The passion for visual arts and technology was what pushed me towards the visual effects industry, and I’ve been fortunate to work on some fantastic projects throughout the years. However, when I first started playing with a game engine, I realized it is such a great opportunity to practice a different side of filmmaking, and at the beginning, it was all about cinematography and editing. But as soon as I introduced characters into my sandbox, the storytelling aspect became addictive, so I started to write small pieces and try to direct them. After a few years, taking on the challenge of increasingly complex projects, I am starting to feel like it’s all coming together, and I’m really keen to see what will come next!

NFS: With the contest, there was a two-step process where you were part of a free two-week online training course for Unreal and then pitched an idea. Can you talk about the course? Was it a ground-up course or something else?

Cole: I think for us we were lucky that we had experience using Unreal for cinematics. So if anything the contest felt like a good fit to test out some different workflows and try to tell an original story.

Popescu: Yes, the technology is extremely powerful, but it can definitely be overwhelming at first. So the training courses were crucial in order to frame the first steps for the filmmakers that were just discovering the medium. Our team was quite experienced in Unreal and had already completed a few projects using this technique, so we were able to focus on the story development in those early phases.   

NFS: Contest aside, would you say the Unreal course is worth attending for those starting out if it pops up in other parts of the globe?

Cole: Unreal in general is a great tool for anyone interested in filmmaking or animation. Being able to adjust cameras and lighting and even edit together shots live is something you can’t really do in any other software, and it is perfect for control freaks like us! There is so much free material online to get you started, and I recommend diving in.

Popescu: Absolutely! Even if the goal is not to create the final output from Unreal, it is such an amazing tool when it comes to previs. It works great to take the step from 2D storyboards and experiment with lenses, framing, lighting blocking, or edit blocking.

A still from Cassini LogsCredit: Cole/Popescu
NFS: How did you come up with the concept for the pitch?

Popescu: We’ve been developing this idea around Cassini’s character, but we were in the early stages of defining the world and the stories within it. When we found out about the competition, we decided to write a five-minute script that would serve as a teaser for Cassini but also introduce some of the unique elements of the world. The goal was to raise a few questions, but not try to answer them all, in order to tease the larger story. So that is what we pitched, a packed short film, combining a few character moments, with a strong design language and ending with a short action scene.

NFS: To you, what is the story of Cassini Logs about?

Popescu: The film revolves around Cassini’s relationship with her drones. It holds the clues to the greater story. Seeing how she behaves around them should offer a glimpse into her state of mind. The idea of loneliness was something we were keen to explore, and how that can lead to attachment to inanimate objects. A bit like how you start talking to your plants after you’ve taken care of them for a long time. 

Cole: I think we realized quickly there’s only so much you can fit into five minutes! So yes, Cassini Logs is just part of a larger story, but I think the time constraint forced us to distill the film down to the most important themes. For me, it boils down to risk versus reward. Cassini’s age implies the sacrifice of time she has made to prove her theories about this place.

NFS: You had six weeks to put together the short. Can you talk about how you planned the shots? What needed to be practical and what could be made with Unreal?

Cole: We had a rough previs edit assembled in Unreal Engine early on, so that allowed us to identify tricky shots and also important beats to hit. Six weeks is really tight so we had to build priorities and make peace with the fact that some bits weren’t going to make it.

Popescu: The deadline was extremely tight! And the script was extremely ambitious. So we knew from the very beginning that planning was key. We started preproduction as soon as we could, finishing all the designs early on. This allowed the character team to deal with the complexity of building Cassini, and the environment and props teams to spend the time on each of the unique sci-fi elements.

While that was happening, I was furiously storyboarding. And we got into Unreal very early on. In a couple of weeks, we had a full previs of the film with temp assets and temp animation. So by the time we got to the motion capture shoot, we already had a very clear idea of what the film will be. We had great fun that day. Helen Cassidy was amazing, and we even finished early! We also did the voice recording with the fantastic Kate Fitzpatrick. Then everything else was Unreal, relying on our great team of experienced VFX artists. The real-time workflow allowed us to work in a very iterative fashion, constantly improving the initial previs we made until we got to final shots.    

The waters in 'Cassini Logs'Credit: Cole/Popescu
NFS: Water is one of those elements that can be very difficult to work with in the VFX world. How was working with it in Unreal? Did the darker color palette help sell the believability?

Popescu: Yes, we knew that would be tricky to sell. So the first thing we looked into was lighting, finding that right balance between feeling like you are deep underwater and having enough light in the frame to see what is happening. We studied a lot of reference and found an exposure balance we were happy with. However, it still didn’t “feel” underwater. That is when Tim went in and figured out all the tricks we could use, from lens treatment to limiting the visibility in-depth and tweaking the response of surfaces to light. And the finishing touch was the subtle FX work, from the bubbles to the heat distortion around the volcanic areas.

Cole: I have spent a fair amount of time developing effects for real-time water in Unreal, so that formed a good basis. It’s always a delicate balance between light and dark, visibility and murkiness. We looked at a lot of references to try and get it right, and a big part of that was letting go of detail. CG by its nature is crisp and perfect which does not feel right if you’re trying to simulate underwater, so we layered a lot of particle systems, defocus planes, and added post-processing layers over the top to get it closer to the look we wanted.

NFS:  Can you talk about one of the more challenging aspects of the short and how you pulled it off?

Popescu: In hindsight, we realize we got a bit too ambitious with the script. And given the five-minute maximum runtime for the competition, the pacing of the storytelling and the actual editing was quite a challenge. But this is where making the film in Unreal was a massive advantage. Sequencer is the engine’s editing tool, and we build our full edit live in the engine. This allowed fantastic flexibility when it came to trying stuff, as we could change shots on the fly, tweak cameras and animation, and then instantly see the effects on the edit. Working this way opened the process to lots of experimentation, and gave us the chance to fail a lot of times very quickly until we got to something we were happy with.

NFS: One of our favorite shorts of all time is Fede Alvarez’s Panic Attack. He set the bar in terms of sci-fi VFX shorts, and that was back in 2009. Cassini Logs has that feel when it comes to Unreal. But in the end, Unreal, Unity, Maya, 3Ds Max, etc, are all tools creators use to tell stories. Are there any tips you can share for creating more believable imagery when it comes to VFX/models?

Popescu: Reference! When Tim and I first started working together, it was one of the things we discussed a lot. How a lot of CG films don’t feel cinematic or believable, because some key principles are being pushed to the side. We tried to find grounding for all of the elements in the film by referencing real-world characters, locations, and objects. For example, in the sci-fi design of the suit and the props, we leaned heavily on arctic explorer gear trying to add the small details that make Cassini feel believable, and add our own twist on top of that. And the other massive factor was the cinematography. We studied tons of references from films we love, trying to understand the framing and lighting choices, really pushing to achieve a cinematic look.

Cole: I think when it comes to CG and VFX these days, literally anything is possible, but it can be a double-edged sword because it can lead to creating scenes that stretch believability and break immersion. With Cassini we tried to keep the camera moves simple and closer to what is possible in film. All the actions of Cassini and the fish are mechanical and manual which I think helps ground the film. CG images by their nature are crisp and perfect also, so part of bringing the film closer to something you can identify with is looking at lens distortion, playing with artifacts, and dirtying up the image a bit.

NFS: It can be tough for storytellers to stand out in crowded film festivals or contests. Is there anything you can point out you learned along the way?

Popescu: People relate to characters and stories, so we tried to make those elements as memorable as possible. There is so much content these days that recycled images just don’t click anymore.  So when we first started writing the film, it was all about Cassini and her fish drones.  And as we explored different ideas we started drifting away from that idea, until we realized that is what makes our film unique. We wanted it to be remembered as the sci-fi short film with the fish, so we did everything we could to strengthen that core story.

Cole: For me, film is such a visual medium. I think it’s important to pick your hero moments and really try to capitalize on them because, at the end of the day, they hopefully become the images that stick with people after watching.     

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3 Comments

"After completing a two-week course to learn how to use Unreal Engine, and taking six weeks to complete it, the short won the top prize". Then you take a look at the credits, and there are 10 artists working on different aspects of the production. Have they all never seen UE before and made this after two weeks course?

February 12, 2021 at 9:53AM

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yeah, it all sounds to similar to all these "rags to riches" type of stories! "See, Bezos started Amazon out of his garage!". It's trying to be motivating, but in the end it's not likely that these filmmakers came out of nowhere and won the top prize, i don't buy it. I feel happy for them, top notch film.

February 13, 2021 at 8:41AM

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Hey guys, thanks for the words, glad you like the film!

Our team was already very experienced with Unreal, and had delivered a few other projects using this technique before the competition. The success of the film definitely relied on having very strong artists on board, and also solid planning. While the 6 weeks production time was very intense, we also had about 6 weeks preproduction time before that. That time was used for storyboarding and then doing previz of the film, so by the time we got to shoot the motion capture performance, we had a rough edit and a good pass at the asset design.

The organizers offered the two week crash course for anyone that needed the training, and that was a fantastic starting point for lots of people.

February 14, 2021 at 8:50PM

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Alex Popescu
VFX Artist
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