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How I Created an Unreal Engine Short Film

By: Rebelway

In this interview, Guido Ponzini shares how he created a viral short film in Unreal Engine.

Recently, Guido Ponzini shared an incredible short film online that was created using a mixture of Houdini and Unreal Engine. The short was super cool and inspiring, so we decided to reach out to Gudio and chat about his experience with creating the short film. 

If you haven’t seen the film already, here’s the video.

How did this project come about?

It started as a personal project and I tried to experiment in the automotive field where, as a freelancer, I usually receive many requests. I wanted to try to do something different than I normally do. Everyday I see a lot of amazing rendering involving Unreal, cars, and other vehicles. So I decided to try a different approach, by working more on storytelling and moving VFX. These two fields are barely touched in these kind of experiments.

I have been amazed by the reaction after I published it: it won the FWA of the Day, Motion Designer Award of the day, Digital Design Award of the Week, as well DDA Award of the Month (so we are running for the DDA of the Year) and it have been featured by The CGBros channel.

You used Unreal Engine to create this short film. Why did you decide to use that tool over a typical pre-rendered workflow?

I started to work in the 3D field with realtime engines, and that’s what I love. I also use offline rendering engines like Octane, Mantra, Redshift and Arnold, but I prefer to work in realtime if it’s possible. I planned some short movies where I can challenge some topics for realtime. In this case my first idea was to experiment with simple physical car rigs, realtime VFX in Niagara (that in this moment is my daily job), exporting method of cloths and dynamics with all the tools that Houdini offers. 

I’m working on a new short films where I would like to experiment with additional topics just to learn something new.

Unreal Engine Short Film - Ship_02

What inspired the theme for this short film?

The COVID pandemic situation have been quite a surreal moment in everyone’s life. I still remember at the time of the outbreak I was working freelance in a studio here in Italy. I was at the telephone for exporting some assets, the situation was already quite complex, and I felt sick. I had an emergency surgery for some gallbladder calculus and few days after Italy entered in lockdown while I was in the hospital.

From there, I worked for five months at home, before going to France for Ubisoft. In this period I thought a lot about the amazing people that I met in all my life, and what inspires me most of them. They are practical, they are strong, and they keep going and doing what they are good at; living their lives day by day and loving each step.

I wanted to give a message with this little short film: we are always worried about the finish line and many times we do not enjoy the road; the amazing things that life gives to us everyday. I thought the Rally Car from that glorious period would be an amazing metaphor to narrate that. The car is so light but so strong, able to go fast in some of the hardest road ever made.

The choice of a Laboratory as main setting I think was particularly meaningful in such a weird period: we are forced to live our life in a different way, for a long period without going out from our home, so I thought that a restricted space where you wouldn’t expect to see a Rally car doing what it usually does, rallying, was a quite good metaphor of our last year.

Did you run into any technical or artistic challenges along the way?

A lot. The first and most important was to optimize the transition of assets between Houdini and Unreal: I experimented with all the tools that such an amazing software offer, from DEM to Skinned Mesh Lab Converter. The newest FBX Rop for exporting RBD is amazing as well, Alembic works perfectly together with Unreal.

Then I experimented a lot to get smooth sims inside Unreal Engien, including the car physical rig. I think this was one of the most important parts of the process. I am a huge fan of ballet, especially avant-garde and contemporary, like Pina Bausch and Tanztheater. Here gestures are a key element to trace the characters and the action: for me the movement of the car had a central role for the final result. For that, a physical rig with an high possibility for art direction was necessary, and to get it work with this idea of an inverse force from a treadmill was quite challenging. We tried to keep al the details focused without exceeding the time that we wanted to dedicate, mostly in our free time from work. 

Do you have any tips for people looking to create their own short film in Unreal Engine?

I think Unreal Engine is an amazing tool and right now is becoming every day more accessible. Elements like Baked Lighting, that were quite challenging in the production of short movies, are now substituted by the latest methods. Unreal Engine 5 seems to make an amazing job with high polycount models through Nanite, Lumen is incredibly promising, and Epic is packing its software with such pro-quality assets like the Quixel suite.

What I suggest, however, is to keep the focus on the story you are trying to tell: I see everyday tons of amazing content, perfectly crafted images, but I barely remember all of them. What I remember are stories or stills that narrates something. So try to focus on what you want to say, not on the technology. Technology is a tool, and can get old pretty fast. If you tell something personal, something that will express your art in a truly deep way, people will definitely remember it.

Have you considered sharing some behind-the-scenes tutorials about your process?

Well… There will a surprise quite soon 🙂 Meanwhile there was the HEX 5 Episode from SideFX in which I shared some setup I used for this short. 

Here is that video.

It seems like you have a passion for teaching and education. How has giving back to the FX community helped you as an artist?

Everyday I learn a lot from great people and in my life. I have been lucky enough to have amazing teachers, both in my previous musical past (I have three degrees at Music Conservatory and I have been musician for 15 years) and in my 3D journey. If I think for example at Rebelway, I will be forever grateful to Saber and Urban, they are incredible artists, amazing teachers, and they gave me the tools that I use in my everyday job.

What I believe, as a teacher, is that you give the tools to someone to become an artist, and this will help him/her to express the deepest feelings that he/she has, sharing them with all his/her audience. That’s one of the most incredible and precious tool that someone can learn.

You’re an FXTA at Rebelway, what are some common mistakes that first-time realtime artists make?

Some of the tricky things to start learning are materials, the rendering pipeline, and the difficult topic of optimization. Shading techniques, materials, and techniques for VFX especially are completely different from FX background in movies or advertising.

At the Realtime FX for Cinematics Course from Rebelway, we prepared a section with the commonly asked questions in order to support at the best the students with all the doubts that usually can arise during the sessions, and there is also a continuous support on Discord, so I think the transition into this world can be quite smooth for anyone interested.

Here’s a trailer from that course.

Where can people go to see more of your work?

People can find more of my work at the following links:

  1. Artstation
  2. Linkedin
  3. My Website

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