50 Megatons of real-time collaboration: This student film made with Unity is getting noticed
How did a student film on a minimal budget find itself sharing the nominee spotlight with blockbuster productions like The Lion King and The Mandalorian at the VES Awards? By using an innovative, real-time workflow – just like the big studios.
For their diploma project, students from Film Academy Baden-Württemberg produced a live-action short film called Love & 50 Megatons. The final short was nominated for a Visual Effects Society Award for outstanding VFX in a student project. The love story explores themes of separation, nuclear destruction, and propaganda, in a production showcasing a unique combination of retro and cutting-edge techniques that blend miniature models with live-action.
The crew used virtual production methods reminiscent of those used in The Lion King and other recent hits to immerse real actors in their 3D environment, working with Unity as their real-time production platform.
In addition to the technical challenges Unity helped the students overcome under short delivery deadlines, they found working with the real-time platform helped their team work together and iterate faster.
Virtual set extension
Denis Krez, the VFX supervisor and compositor on the film, says the team first built a highly detailed miniature set, then photo-scanned the miniatures and converted them into 3D models within the Unity real-time platform. Once on set, they projected the scanned sets on an array of large displays surrounding the stage. They used live camera tracking to film the actors in front of the projections.
According to Denis, “Our technical director, Paulo, developed an app in Unity to control the light, with color and focus, so we could adjust the digital background as needed in real-time to get as many shots done in-camera as possible.”
Since the on-set crew could see the world around them, they were immediately immersed in the world of Love & 50 Megatons. Without using green screens and having to imagine the backgrounds, the process was much smoother and more focused.
Collaboration in action
The students found that the most important consideration in filmmaking is collaboration – and the courses of study at Film Academy ensured they get this experience first-hand.
“Filmmaking is a team effort,” says student Josephine Ross, VFX producer, and producer on the film. “For projects of the scale of Love & 50 Megatons, the project depends on many different team members contributing their professional knowledge. Nobody is a specialist in everything, and to get the best out of a film, a team has to come together with people who not only are technically great but also work well together.”
The tools they choose to use can make a big difference in collaboration, too. “Working with a real-time production platform like Unity on set makes a lot of things easier – especially communication,” says Denis. “We can instantly present our thoughts to everybody involved and easily play around with new ideas.”
The quick collaboration and communication extend beyond the concept stage and well into production, he says. “Occasionally, the actors approach me and ask for a quick view of the 3D scene to get a better feeling of the environment they’re supposed to be in.” In particular, both the director and director of photography can work more effectively compared to a green screen set, because they can see the final results in real-time and make better decisions based on that instantaneous feedback.
“Unity was essentially our real-time viewport for virtual production,” says Paulo Scatena, the technical director. “It rendered our digitally reconstructed assets – the miniature set – by tracking the position of the camera, so the display would always act as a ‘window’ into the virtual environment. It was the engine that essentially allowed us to extend the set, real-time, in-camera.”
Access to instant feedback allowed the crew to expand its creativity in the moment. “You instantly see what you get, and that’s especially valuable on a film set,” says Denis.
And when you need to make changes, it’s crucial. According to Paulo, “Good filmmaking is often about making a lot of mistakes, fast, until you strike gold. So the rapid revision opportunity that comes with real-time is a big selling point for a real-time production platform like Unity.”
Paulo also says the team put a lot of effort into making sure iterating was smooth and instant. “I built a remote control, Unity with TouchOSC, for Denis to operate color grading and focus settings for the projection screens. On a traditional set, you’d need to call for the gaffer to come out and change the lights. We could do it with a slide of one finger!”
In fact, they never wrestled with whether to use traditional workflows instead of choosing a real-time platform – their deadlines decided for them. “The workflow had to be real-time,” says Denis. “We never had a discussion about whether or not to use Unity.”
As students starting out in the world of film, the crew had about as much familiarity with real-time tools as with traditional ones, so they felt comfortable jumping into Unity. “It doesn’t matter if you just need a quick previs of a scene you’re about to shoot or if you need a photorealistic background.” Paulo encourages every filmmaker to get their hands on a real-time production platform. “Any type of production would benefit. It’s easy, it works in the budget, it’s the future of filmmaking.”
Behind the scenes
Watch the Making Of Love & 50 Megatons, made with Unity, and learn more about the entire production process on the Love & 50 Megatons website. When your studio is ready to explore real-time platforms in your animation pipeline, check out our on-site training sessions.
Discover more on how you can use Unity for short films on our solutions page.