(Image courtesy of Unreal Engine 5 demo / Epic Games)
Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: How Unreal Engine 5 sets a new standard for the future of entertainment

Computer-generated graphics are crucial to the entertainment industry in this modern-day, and the introduction of Unreal Engine 5 brings along new, ground-breaking technology with it. Take “The Mandalorian” for example, a film using Unreal Engine 4 to produce over half of its set, according to IBC365.

“The Mandalorian” behind the scenes. (Lucasfilm Ltd / Disney+)

To create the film, producers used a 360-degree LED screen to act as the environment around them, meaning that the surroundings of the actors were entirely virtual. According to Insider, using LEDs allows more realistic lighting and avoids many of the problems that would normally occur from using a green screen.

In order to produce the virtual set, Unreal Engine was run on multiple PCs to synchronize the pixels on the LED to the camera’s position, according to IBC. Because this was done using Unreal Engine, the lighting and effects could be controlled in real-time rather than post-processing, providing a more efficient workflow. 

 

Unreal Engine

Unreal Engine 4 has been a long-standing tool for artists to create environments and cinematics, and Unreal Engine 5 shows a promising future for the entertainment industry. Furthermore, it is a free software that can be used and picked up by anyone.

With lots of potentials, Unreal Engine can be used as a device for making various content like games and film. For example, the “Final Fantasy VII” remake and parts of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” were both produced using Unreal Engine 4, according to Polygon. 

Computer generated graphics in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. (Lucasfilm Ltd / Disney+)

In order to create most of the 3D models and visuals seen, Unreal Engine traditionally uses triangles made up of vertices, edges and faces, according to Vox. These are the building blocks of all 3D assets and will affect rendering speeds and workflow depending on the number of polygons present within the models.

Because of this factor, balancing visual detail with the polycount limitations is crucial in order to create environments within Unreal Engine, especially for games, which was addressed in Epic Games’ stream to kick off the release of UE5. The existence of these technical limitations plays a large role in the workflows of artists and game developers so that they can produce functional games and real-time renders. Up until now, these limitations have created many difficulties in creating assets and applying them in Unreal 4.

Roadblocks

In order to work with these polycount limitations while still trying to maintain decent graphics, artists have found ways to “fake” detail and geometry onto their meshes by creating LODs manually, according to Unreal Engine’s documentation. LOD stands for “level of detail,” according to Wikipedia, and it’s the process of creating less detailed versions of the mesh in order to substitute it when the camera gets further away so as to not waste computing power on details that would barely be seen.

The general workflow for this is to take an extremely dense mesh with all of its details sculpted into it, and then completely recreate a more low poly model that follows the general shape but leaves most of the small details out in order to use as little geometry as possible, according to Autodesk. Then, they go through a process of baking the details of the high poly mesh into either a normal, bump, or displacement map (though normal maps tend to be the standard in most cases). 

By creating a normal map out of this, they are storing geometrical data into an image texture. To do this, the normal map basically stores the height information of the X, Y and Z axis and combines that all into a single texture. Then with that information, the normal map allows artists to simulate depth on a flat surface while also responding to changing lighting. This is an extremely tedious and time-consuming process that takes entire teams to complete, but Unreal 5 promises a way to end the manual creation of LODs.

Dynamic simplification 

Introducing Nanite, Unreal Engine 5’s new geometry system. According to their stream to kick off the early access of Unreal Engine 5, one of its main goals is to eradicate the thought of hitting technical budgets for 3D artists and allow them to express their artistic abilities to their fullest.

To break it down simply, Unreal’s technical documentation of Nanite states that Nanite first analyzes meshes and breaks them down into clusters of triangle groups, and then these clusters are swapped in real-time at varying levels of detail based on the camera view.

Due to how Nanite works, you can now directly apply high poly meshes into the engine without manually creating LODs or even baking in normal maps. Nanite will automatically lower the level of detail as the camera gets further, which speeds up the workflow of artists tremendously. Especially for indie developers, Nanite allows a much less time-consuming process to implement their detailed meshes into the engine, allowing more work to be done by one person.

Furthermore, directly implementing high-resolution assets result in more lifelike and stunning graphics for the future of gaming. Tools such as Nanite, introduced by Unreal 5, will end up shaping the future for the entertainment industry, creating new workflows and bringing out even more impressive productions from here on out.

The environment created in Unreal Engine 5. (Epic Games)