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Epic Games’ Unreal Engine takes movie production to the next level

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Fortnite brought Epic Games to the forefront of the video game world, but the company’s Unreal Engine may transform industries through its visualization technology.

The Unreal Engine is the Cary-based company’s 3D suite of tools including rendering, cinematic editing, physics simulations, networking, animation, landscape and terrain tool. It can be incorporated across industries, from video game creation and film production to architectural development and modeling.

It’s been used to render real-time sets on Disney’s “The Mandalorian,” animates The Weather Channel’s mixed-reality storm segments and was used to create the NFL 100 tribute that aired during this week’s Super Bowl pregame show.

The technology was first used in film production for Steven Spielburg’s “Artificial Intelligence” in 2001, to help visualize the Rogue City. It has since been used for movies such as “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “War of the Planet of the Apes,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” and will be used in “The Batman,” which is currently in production.

Now in the fourth iteration of Unreal Engine, Epic can produce real-time renderings, visualizations and animations, with extreme realism.

“People are really just starting to tap into virtual production and in-camera VFX [visual effects] workflows,” Senior Marketing Manager Dana Cowley says. “We’re seeing a creative reawakening in filmmaking.”

Tim Sweeney formed the business in Potomac, Md., in 1991, then moved its office to Cary in 1999. With investments from China’s Tencent and several private-equity groups including KKR and Kleiner Perkins and the runaway success of Fortnite, Epic has been valued at more than $15 billion. The company, which Sweeney still controls, has several hundred employees in Cary and is expanding its Triangle operation with the potential for having as many as 2,000 employees.

Cowley says the tools make it easier to communicate ideas across different parts of the filmmaking process, including visualizing set designs, exploring different camera angles or positioning characters.

Unreal renderings can also be projected on backgrounds or any type of screen to use high-resolution digital visuals in real time. That’s a change from traditional green screen backgrounds that are edited later. The live action shots use LED walls running Unreal Engine graphics during filming.

Say a superhero was battling a computer-generated imagery (CGI) monster during a movie. With older production methods, actors would play out the scene, pretending to fight with whatever is eventually edited onto the green screen. Unreal Engine allows studios to project a near movie-ready monster on screen for the actors see and to interact with while filming. Cowley says this helps studios cut down on production and editing time.

In “Rogue One,” Unreal Engine made history by working with CGI in real-time. The team used the tech to render the K-2SO imperial droid during filming, bypassing the pre-rendering process. “Rogue One” earned more than $1 billion at the box office and was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the 2017 Oscars.  

Sticking with Epic’s mantra of keeping costs for developers low, Unreal Engine is available for free for non-video game creators, with no royalty payment. Those who release commercial games built with Unreal Engine are charged a 5% royalty fee once they realize $3,000 in revenue per quarter.

“In the early Unreal Engine days, creators had to purchase an expensive license, and it was out of reach for a lot of folks,” Cowley says. “As we were building Unreal Engine 4, we realized that we had the opportunity to change the business model by releasing the tools for free and making the source code available on GitHub. After that we saw an incredible spike in adoption.”

As of March 2019, 7.5 million people had licensed Unreal Engine 4, she says.

The Engine sells for $1,500 as part of the Unreal Enterprise Program. For partnerships with major studios such as Disney, the production team will approach Epic and each license is customized to suit those needs. 

“For us, we feel it’s a bit of a digital ecosystem between the store, Unreal Engine, and Epic Games services,” Cowley says. “Between offering the tools and building games people enjoy, it’s an interesting melding of the world.” 

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