There is an element to Unreal Engines that blends the line between live-action and CG animation. While virtual production tools can’t make animations look exactly like live-action, the process behind the production is starting to look indistinguishable. 

The awe-inspiring possibilities of virtual production tools like Unreal Engine are making animation possible for filmmakers of any budget level, and the technology and filmmaker’s understanding of that technology is improving with each project. 

Cinematic animator Sava Zivkovic has dabbled with the Unreal Engine and filmmaking before with his gorgeously dark short film, Irradiation, which we covered when it was released. Now, Zivkovic is ready to create an animated narrative feature Beckoning with Unreal Engine and a small team of fewer than 20 creators. 

While Zivkovic currently has a proof of concept for a feature-length animated film, Beckoning is dark and gritty as it tells the story of astronauts’ struggle to survive a witch-hunt led by inquisition knights after mistakenly traveling back to medieval Earth. The proof of concept is definitely worth checking out, and the process behind the animation is interesting for animators and filmmakers who are looking to create with Unreal Engine. 

The Unreal Process Behind Beckoning

Beckoning is a dark, gritty, mind-bender that masterfully puts the audience in the main character’s shoes right away. Zivkovic’s art-house science-fiction concept instantly calls back to some of the crafted worlds in The Revenant, Alien: Covenant, and The Northman

The concept’s stark white opening with the blank stare of the main character contrasted against the dark, earthy tones of the past mixed with the confusion of where we are highlights Zivkovic’s goal of visualizing the clash of eras where the future meets the past.  

Zivkovic has revealed that his process for the film and the unreal world of CG animation can be a tricky endeavor, but there is freedom within that space. Traditional live-action filmmaking elements like cinematography, camera angles, editing, and pacing no longer have to be meticulously planned during the pre-viz stage in animation. 

But Beckoning is different. Beckoning is bigger, and bigger projects require a team ready to help bring the concept to life. 

As Zivkovic reveals in this behind-the-scenes featurette below, the filmmaker highlights that larger teams and render farms are not necessary to create an animated feature. Instead, Unreal Engine makes it possible for small teams of 20 creatives or less to create an unreal animated feature. 

Smaller Teams for Long-Format Storytelling

In Zivkovic’s filmmaking journey, he breaks down how the small team working on Beckoning was able to use Unreal technology to approach long-format storytelling. 

Creating a short film is a job that a small team can take on, but a feature has many moving parts that need multiple people working on the same or similar elements to save time and energy. Zivkovic, however, believes that a small team can finally take on a feature without sacrificing time, energy, or talent. 

Unreal Engine became the game-changer in Zivkovic’s process last year, and now he is expanding his abilities to create something bigger. 

We spoke with Zivkovic about the project. Here's what he told us:

“With the democratization of Unreal Engine 5 and the amazing ecosystem surrounding it, we as independent filmmakers can now approach longer format storytelling. With Beckoning, I wanted to prove to myself that this is possible. I wrote a feature-length script and for the first step, I wanted to create a proof of concept short utilizing the aforementioned technology. With the latest addition of mesh to metahuman, we can now automatically achieve feature quality facial rigs in a matter of just a few clicks, something that once took a whole rigging department can now be achieved by a single rigging artist.”

Sava Zivkovic believes Unreal Engine gives small teams the power to animate features.'Beckoning'Credit: Courtesy of Sava Zivkovic

Designing the World of Beckoning

It was important to the team that the character’s concept art was translated into 3D animation. 

Using Mesh to Metahuman in Unreal Engine and a handcrafted sculpted face of the character, the team was able to translate the custom head sculpture to a fully functional human rig in a few clicks. 

This entire process was done by one person, lead rigging artist Lucas Salamon, but Zivkovic believes that a single person can service the facial rigging across dozens of characters on a feature production through Unreal Engine. 

Unreal Engine offers real-time performances across all different aspects of production. An artist can use the tools to create fine details to characters or the texture assets in preview, giving artists more time to make creative decisions rather than waiting for their project to render.   

Sava Zivkovic believen Unreal Engine gives small teams the power to animate features.The character render process for 'Beckoning'Credit: Courtesy of Sava Zivkovic

A similar approach was done for the landscapes in the concept video. Created by Hydra Studios, the high-end generated landscapes were easily modified while still maintaining a sense of realism that we have seen on big-budget productions like The Mandalorian, which also uses Unreal Engine for its landscapes. 

These two elements meet on the motion capture stage, where the virtual camera will show the characters and lit environments can show what the performance looks like in the virtual world. Through the virtual camera, the animation team at Take One has a direct link between the actor and Unreal Engine to finely tune the facial movements of the character with lighting context in real-time.  

With all of these efficiencies from character design to generated landscapes to virtual cameras on motion capture stages, CG animated production has never been faster, as fun, and more accessible to filmmakers across the world.  

Sava Zivkovic believen Unreal Engine gives small teams the power to animate features.Behind-the-scene on 'Beckoning'Credit: Courtesy of Sava Zivkovic

The Cinematography in Unreal Engine 

The efficiency of Unreal Engine doesn’t stop with creating characters or landscapes. 

Traditional 3D animation limits a filmmaker’s ability to work with lighting in the pre-visualization phase. Often, filmmakers are working with rudimentary forms to help save time with compositions and renders, but the lack of lighting is a huge hindrance to the filmmaking process as it is a key factor in visual storytelling. 

This is where Unreal Engine shines for Zivkovic. 

Zivkovic can now see completely lit environments that are not locked into place. This allows him to explore the shot and see the characters and lighting in real-time. Seeing all of the elements of the visual story together helps speed up the production process and helps with creative decision-making. 

“[W]hen it comes to scene assembly, lighting, and rendering, Unreal Engine offers real-time workflows that are completely changing the way we produce animation, allowing us to work almost at speed of thought, and significantly speed up the production,” Zivkovic told No Film School. “Yet again, something that used to take large teams and render farms can now be achieved by a small team, or oftentimes a single artist, on a single workstation.”

Because the shots are not locked into place, the freedom of Unreal Engine allows Zivkovic and his team to change the lighting, character placement, environment placement, or camera angle when they want to help establish the best shot possible for the mood and impact of the story beat. 

Sava Zivkovic believen Unreal Engine gives small teams the power to animate features.'Beckoning'Credit: Courtesy of Sava Zivkovic

The entire world captured and created for Beckoning is at his disposal, making CG animated work more efficient than ever. 

Zivkovic has shown us that today’s technology is here and ready to serve independent filmmakers who are creating in any medium of cinema. The foundation of any production is efficiency, and Unreal Engine 5 is more than efficient. Creatives at all budget levels can show up on set ready to shoot and create breathtaking edits from their homes. 

Have you worked with Unreal Engine? Let us know your thoughts on the engine in the comments! 

Source: Sava Zivkovic