Soon, we'll be able to make films with games technology
When Crytek released Crysis, it was widely claimed that the zenith of computer game graphics had been reached. Not because of limits on hardware performance in rendering the world, but because the sheer amount of work involved in creating the detail of that world had reached a sensible maximum. Procedural generation (ie computer algorithm-generated) 3D virtual worlds for both games and visual effects has been achieved to some extent and might offer at least some alleviation of the problem, but for a while, it didn't seem completely unreasonable to assume that there might be an absolute maximum limit of realism.
Knobbly 8-bit clubs
Then it finally (finally, finally) became time for Microsoft and Sony to forge new swords in the eternal battle for console dominance. Remember when it was Sega and Nintendo, and not so much swords as big knobbly 8-bit clubs? Things have come on a bit since then, and audiences apparently expect things to continue coming on. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Playstation 4 and Xbox One were duly invented, although detractors continue to point out that both are effectively commoditised PCs at the hardware level. Regardless, for new hardware, new software was clearly required, and some of the earliest public demos of either console used Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4.
The game Unreal, for which the first version of what would become the Unreal Engine series was written, dropped more than a few jaws in 1998. The demos currently being shown of UE4 (demonstrated in 2012 but not released until this month) are not unadjacent in quality to the sort of offline renders one might expect of a similar scene produced in any 3D software, although I must sound at least a note of caution. The scenes displayed, while very well done, understandably lack some of the really difficult tricks – hair and fur, true liquids, and true global illumination (though it is reasonably robustly imitated). Most of the characters have obscured faces. Even so, if one does happen to be doing a hard-edged sci-fi movie with limited reliance on organic phenomena, current Unreal Engine 4 demos indicate that one could probably do it quite effectively.
High Dynamic Range
Specific technical enhancements are too legion to list, but include lots of new high dynamic range stuff, subsurface scattering, enormous particle systems, and something that's at least very nearly global illumination, simulated using a voxel technique. I particularly like the temporal anti-aliasing, which is shown in the demo preventing flicker problems in postprocessed effects involving low-res convolutions of the rendered image. Perhaps what's most important, though, is the concentration of tools that's available to drive all of this technology. Gone are the days when writing a 3D video game required much concern over the low-level rendering of triangles. The thought occurs that one could execute complex scenes by creating a playable video game of the environment, and having people play it like a video game.
The Unreal engine calls the option to produce pre-animated cinematics Matinee. Nvidia have been promoting what's fundamentally game technology as a filmmaking tool for some time, and Valve's Source Filmmaker (made famous by the Meet The... series of shorts for Team Fortress 2) is another example. As the capability of realtime 3D approaches that of offline rendering, we can expect to see a lot more of this, and probably not just as a previz tool for higher-end effects.
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