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Modern day gaming engines make it easier to bring VFX to Indian films, OTT shows

Modern day gaming engines make it easier to bring VFX to Indian films, OTT shows
Photo Credit: 123RF.com
19 May, 2022
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Filmmakers in India are excited about new game engines, which allow them to blend live action and computer-generated moving pictures to create new movies and TV Shows. While visual effects and computer-generated imagery isn’t particularly new, the film industry in India has long grappled with cost concerns, which have been the key reason for poorer quality computer generated imagery (CGI) in our movies.

Game Engines are software frameworks designed to allow video game developers to code and plan a game. They take care of visual elements like lighting, character movements and more. The same characteristics can, and have been, used in producing films and TV shows in the past as well.

Now, however, experts said that these new tools, like Unreal Engine 5 from US-based Epic Games and Unity Technologies’ Unity 2021, not only make it cheaper to use technology but also cut the production time, which reduces costs even more. Some of them even allow anyone to get creator licenses for free.

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For instance, in the March 2022 movie RRR, the filmmakers used Unreal Engine 5 to recreate forest fire and underwater action scenes. Bollywood director Vikram Bhatt also used it along with LED walls for his film ‘Cold’ and ‘Anamika’ series. 

Similarly, in a scene in Telugu movie Radhe Shyam, actor Prabhas steps out of a phone booth onto the rainy streets of London and approaches a cab. Instead of shooting this scene in London, the filmmakers put the backdrop of London on an LED wall — a giant screen that consists of smaller sections — and shot the scene in a studio in India in just three days.

Manoj Paramhamsa,  cinematographer for Radhe Shyam, said they couldn’t shoot the scene in London since it was winter at the time. So, while much of the film was shot in London, this part was done in India. 

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They shot Prabhas entering the booth in a studio in front of the LED wall and fed this footage into Unreal Engine, which helped provide the final output.

The merging of the real and virtual elements forms what is called the virtual production pipeline, which includes software tools such as previsualization that allow filmmakers to shoot, edit, and export scenes of a film before actually shooting them.

Paramhansa and others in the industry said that these engines are allowing them to display three-dimensional environments on LED screens, and tweak lighting and other elements in real-time, which wouldn’t have been possible with traditional methods like green screens. 

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These softwares allow a technique called In-Camera Visual Effects (ICVFX), where special effects are captured in the camera instead of the post-production process. The camera captures both the virtual elements of the LED wall and the physical elements of the shot, merging them automatically. It became especially more useful during the pandemic when crews couldn’t move from across cities, states or countries freely.

Paramahamsa explained that platforms such as Unreal Engine existed 20 years ago too, but it was the introduction of real-time visualization that really changed things. Further, filmmakers also take advantage of gaming features like Ray Tracing, introduced by hardware makers like Nvidia, which allows light in virtual worlds to behave more realistically.

He added that VFX-based scenes that earlier took 12 days to visualize and complete are now being completed in three days using real-time rendering. "The problem with filmmakers is time against money. In filmmaking, time is very critical, because the equipment, people, everything is expensive."

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Chaitanya Chinchlikar, vice president at film school Whistling Woods International concurred. However, he noted that lower cost doesn’t mean that every shot uses virtual production. He estimated that virtual production can lead to almost a 50-70% saving in both time and production costs. It also reduces the window between shooting and release of content, especially for OTT and TV channels, which don’t have the time required in post-production to achieve film-like VFX.

According to a March 2022 EY-FICCI report, revenue from VFX in India is expected to grow from 38 billion in 2021 to $58.7 billion in 2022 and $93.1 billion in 2024. Experts said the use of software-driven VFX is expected to grow even further. The report attributed this to increased adoption of virtual production in films, rising VFX budgets for content, and offshoring of global projects to India.

According to Chinchlikar, the virtual production pipeline is now becoming one of the fastest-growing content creation ecosystems, globally. Paramhansa said that increasing budgets will allow film-makers to outsource work to bigger studios, like the Moving Picture Companies (MPC), which have won awards for their VFX work.

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Arvind Neelakanthan, tech evangelist at Epic Games told Mint that the company has seen wide adoption of Unreal Engine 5 specifically in India, where studios like Technicolor are using it.

“Last year we were talking about how these tools could help the Indian film industries, but this year we can show more and more examples of Indian filmmakers using it in various capacities, such as previs, production visualization, in-camera VFX, and animation,” he said.