Behind the Scenes: The Reddest Rose

Introduction

This project essentially came out of me wanting to have some kind of final outcome for all the work I was putting into learning Unreal Engine 5 for videos. I wanted to take advantage of UE5’s beautiful Lumen lighting system as well as Nanite. Nanite is a new system that allows lots of extremely high detail meshes to be present in a scene without completely destroying performance. This, in combination with Quixel’s extremely realistic photoscanned assets, which are now built into UE5 in the form of Bridge, means that it is possible to relatively quickly create ludicrously high detail scenes that run in real-time without completely bricking your PC. It’s amazing.

This post should hopefully outline the creative process in broad strokes and give a bit of insight into how the video was made.

(Watch the video here)

 

Initial Concept

The idea was to create a teaser trailer for a film or game that is never going to release, so the trick was figuring out how to imply a sense of a wider narrative without actually writing one. 

I knew that that I wanted it to be a little bit sci-fi and have an overall tone of eeriness and mystery. For a first project in Unreal I didn’t want to spend too much time designing a huge number of locations so I settled with two: one scene-setting totally natural location and the location where most of the ‘action’ takes place, with a giant ancient-looking structure built into the natural landscape. 

 

 

Pre-Production

The first step was gathering image references for the tone and overall visual look I was trying to achieve and then creating a (very) rough storyboard. Getting the initial outline written down was essential for keeping a consistent tone and visual style in mind for every stage of the project. 

Collection of reference images from various sources
Project storyboard showing off my microsoft whiteboard drawing skills

Creating the Base Environment

This stage essentially involved setting up the project in Unreal and creating a basic landscape. I added some broad details by painting on some height details using some premade heightmap brushes and applied an auto-landscape material which blends different textures depending on the steepness of the landscape incline. This breaks up the monotony of the background elements slightly. The last part of this initial setup was adding in some giant faraway mountain assets to hide the edges of our world and really emphasise the sense of scale.

Top-Down view of the film world
Visible harsh seam where objects intersect the landscape without Virtual Texture Blending
Much cleaner blend with Virtual Texture Blending

Blocking The Scene

Now that the basic environment was built, it was time to start adding in the principal shapes for each actual shot and building the composition. For the first shot, this meant the foreground rock and background tree, as well was the background rocks that act as guiding lines towards the tree.

Main objects composition using the rule of thirds, with a reference mannequin for scale
Secondary background composition using straight lines of the rocks to direct the eye to the subject: The tree

Additional Details With Megascans

With the main compositional elements present, smaller megascanned objects were added for detail, mostly small rocks and moss. These break up the monotony of the flat landscape and add in the detail necessary to obscure that it’s not actually a real photograph. The major detail to truly blend together the assets with the landscape was to implement virtual textures. These partially overlay the texture of the landscape over the texture of the asset at the seam where the two overlap and makes this threshold less obvious. This has the effect of making the objects feel like they truly belong in the scene and aren’t just two digital meshes phased partially through each other.

Some of the assets from Quixel Megascans that were used in the project

Decals

The penultimate visual detail for the environment setup was to add decals. These are essentially stickers plastered on top of the geometry of the scene to add additional variation and detail. They were mainly used with the giant concrete structure to add cracks, grime, plants and other imperfections that really made it seem like three building had been part of the mountain for a long time.

Stucture with decals hidden
Structure with decals visible

Lighting and Weather Effects

Overall, setting up the lighting was extremely simple thanks to Lumen, UE5’s new real-time global illumination solution. All that needed to be done to set it up was placing a sky and a  directional light in the scene to act as the sun and then all the lighting would dynamically react to how the clouds and fog was set up.

I knew that for this project I wanted a lot of fog and cloud to really emphasise the mysterious and isolated tone I was going for. My basic formula for this was to have densely overcast clouds using Unreal’s built in volumetric clouds and a lower thick fog that began at the ground and thinned out about halfway up the mountains. This created a really nice effect where there was a gap of relative clarity where the peaks of the mountains could be seen between the two thick and impenetrable atmospheres above and below.

Additional Fog details were added in certain places through the use of fog planes, 2-dimensional semi-transparent planes with fog textures on, hand placed throughout each shot.

The Metahuman

Metahuman Creator is Unreal’s ultra realistic digital human creation software. With it, I was able to edit one of their presets to create a new character to bring into Unreal Engine and act in my newly finished movie set. The facial animations were done via Unreal’s live link face app, which uses the facial tracking cameras in newer iPhones to capture your facial movements and stream them directly to the Metahuman in Unreal. With some manual smoothing and adjustments to minimize jitter caused by dodgy WiFi, the end result looked pretty decent. Making the character’s hair react to the wind meant creating a force that would push the hair with various intensities in a certain direction.

Customizing the character in Metahuman Creator
Graph showing the varying force acting on the hair to simulate wind

The Camera

The standard cameras in most 3D software are generally the biggest detail that gives away the fact that your scene is not real. This is because they don’t act physically: there is no depth of field, no lens distortion, no film grain, no chromatic aberration in high contrast areas and no slight camera shake when moving. As backwards as it might seem, adding back in these imperfections is absolutely essential to making the scene feel like it was captured on a real camera.

Graph showing the varying force acting on the hair to simulate wind

The Soundtrack

I wanted the underlying soundtrack to complement the overall tone of the visuals and then have a massive Hans Zimmer-esque horn sound to accompany the red glow from the structure. I’m not a proper composer by any means but a few helpful FL studio plugins and it ended up as something I feel fits fairly well and enhances the general feeling of the video.

A failed attempt at soliciting someone much more talented to do the soundtrack

Narration

One of the main goals of this piece was to create the implication of a wider story and narrative without explicitly stating anything. A good chunk of this is carried out by the music and visuals but I felt it needed something to really act as a narrative hook and tie the whole piece together. I eventually ended up adding a poem reading over the top, At an Old Grave, 1841 by Jonas Hallgrimsson, which I felt was sufficiently foreboding and cryptic enough to match the desired tone. This part was read by the incredibly talented Jarrett Raymond who absolutely nailed the atmosphere of the piece.

Colour Grading and Final Details in DaVinci Resolve

The last and final part of the process was the colour grading, which makes an absolutely huge difference in turning flat full images into dynamic and atmospheric ones. It played a big role in really emphasising the cold isolated tone in a visual way through colour.

Final imperfection effects like film grain and chromatic abberation at high contrast points were also added to give a few last details.

First Shot with no colour grade
First Shot with colour grade
Ungraded
Graded
Fusion Nodes adding the final details
Example of subtle chromatic abberation at the edge of contrasting areas in the image

Final Thoughts

This project was a ton of fun, and I learnt a massive amount about Unreal Engine and I’m still a bit in awe about how much simpler it makes things that would previously have been basically impossible. I’m looking forward to using it in a lot of future projects.

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