Filmmaker Gaming reality

Hayley Welsh’s wall-art brought to the third dimension in Never Alone.

WHIMSICAL figures dotted around Perth’s walls have had their story brought to the screen with a short film created with software that usually makes video games.

Last year filmmaker Ben Matei heard the video game developer Epic had put out a challenge to create a short film in their “Unreal” game engine.

A toolbox for developing games, Unreal has been used to create everything from warzone shooters to hardcore railway simulators.

“The technology really interested me,” Matei says, noting the new Star Wars show The Mandalorian partly used the engine to create virtual sets. “The film industry has started to head [toward] virtual production, so I thought this could be a great opportunity to get my hands on the engine, learn how to use it, and apply it in a creative way.”

He just needed a story to tell, and inspiration came in the form of street artist Hayley Welsh’s intriguing critters daubed on local walls. 

“We came across Hayley’s work… [she] has a lot of beautiful street art with these characters dotted around Perth, and this one particular painting had a story. It was very clear: Here is a character in a pre-existing, well-fleshed out world. I didn’t know what it was, but I was compelled to reach out to her.”

They met up and a story firmed up around a lonely critter who befriends a balloon. 

Epic trained entrants how to use Unreal, and Matei embarked on a two week crash course to learn the ropes. Nearly 2000 participants entered the training, and then Matei’s pitch was one of six chosen to receive $20,000 funding to make the film in just six weeks.

“That’s an insane timeline,” Matei says. “They weren’t kidding when they called it a challenge.”

To achieve the more ambitious parts of his vision he put out a call on social media looking for people who’d had more than a couple weeks’ experience in Unreal.

One Unrealist who answered the call was Mark Thompson, a lecturer who teaches the engine at Northbridge’s SAE Creative Media Institute.

He came on board to grapple with the less user-friendly parts of the interface, writing code to build easier tools for Matei and the animators to move Welsh’s creations about inside the game, and adding dynamic effects like raindrops and puddles.

He also “put out the small tech fires” as occasional strange bugs popped up, like bits of the virtual landscape or clouds competing to jump to the foreground. 

“They would fight with each other,” Thompson says. “So that’s a whole lot of trial and error.”

The five-minute film is graphically beautiful but that came at the cost of a massive file size which meant part of the virtual production had to spill back into the physical world.

“Final file size was 100 gig,” Thompson says. That’s about 12 hours upload time on the average home internet connection. “It was faster for us to physically transfer the project via hard drive” and drop it to the next person’s house.

Matei says compared to traditional filmmaking, once the characters and landscape were built there were a lot of advantages to using a game engine.

“With a film, to go back and reshoot is extremely expensive. So once you get to an edit, you’re stuck, you have to make do creatively with what you have.”

With this project he could drop in flying cameras wherever he wanted, switch out lenses, or go back and make the character move differently.

Never Alone was recently shown at the prestigious LA Shorts Film Festival, and is watchable online https://vimeo.com/500639994

by DAVID BELL

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