It was September 2019, and I was prepping for my next live action feature film 'LUNAR' and decided to download Unreal Engine to do some basic Previz. Very quickly I realised this was starting to look more than Previz, as I was getting shadows, reflections, dynamic lighting, particles etc. all in real-time plus, I was able to use Mixamo motion capture data easily with character assets and it was just me doing this! Not a huge team or any costs involved!
So, a light bulb moment happened instantly – why isn’t anyone producing actual commercial content out of Unreal Engine?
I needed to find a commercial project to push this notion, and it must have been fate – I got an email in Dec 2019 from a graphic novel company asking if I would be interested in directing a proof of concept for them based on one of their comic book properties – 'THE THEORY', they were developing into a TV Series. So, I pitched them to do it as an animated series. At first, they were hesitant, because they wanted live action, but for the budget they had, there was no way we could do that to the high quality (big giant mecha robots on alien worlds!), so I did a quick test scene in Unreal Engine 4.22 to show them what the quality would be like, which would not only manage their expectations but also boost the confidence in myself knowing I will be able to pull this off. They saw the test and were blown away, and I got to work on it with CG Artist (Andrea Tedeschi), Ronen Eytan (Technical Artist), Edward Patrick White (Music and Sound design).
Here is a link to watch it: https://vimeo.com/408580148
After it was released and got so much PR from Epic, Nvidia and animation sites etc, I was approached by a studio in Hollywood called Pathfinder Media, to pitch on an animated feature film based on a popular video game IP – Mutant Year Zero. I remember seeing the Unreal Engine logo when the game loaded up, so I arranged with the executives at Pathfinder to hook me up with the video game developers in Sweden called “Bearded Ladies”, and they shared the game assets with me. With the assets we put together a test scene to depict my vision for the film and they all loved it.
So, this was around May 2020, and we were ready to go into production of the animated feature film… but then COVID hit hard in LA, and financer's were holding back on the financing of the project and Hollywood hit the brakes on pretty much everything.
But my execs at Pathfinder really wanted to continue and not lose momentum so they released some soft pre-production finance for me and my team to design concepts, build assets etc, but within a month or so we realise that everything we were doing in Unreal Engine was final pixels, so it wasn’t really conceptual work we were doing, but actual sequences. So, we decided to put together a sizzle trailer of the sequences we were creating during this soft pre-prod stage. The final sizzle was delivered in 4K and of a duration of just under 4 mins. It was released via IGN in Aug 2020, and during that time trade press were announcing a ton of animated projects being greenlit due to the fact that streamers and distributors needs content, and live action was paused. so, animation was the only projects that were viable in the pandemic climate.
Here is the sizzle trailer for Mutant Year Zero: https://vimeo.com/449431259
And it was at that point, my reps in Hollywood were referring to me as a Director and producer of animated projects in Film and TV – that became my official transition point, due to the fact that I had spent the entire 2020 doing animation at a feature film level, gaining tons of PR around those projects and my hands on approach to directing animation means I can be setting up the shots myself, doing all the camera moves myself using a rig and my iPad live linked to Unreal engine to get those hand held shots and bringing in artists to focus on the stuff I can’t do such as building assets, rigging, blueprints and pipeline. It’s one of the big reasons why Real Time CG allows for such fast speed of productions, because there isn’t that going back and forth with feedback, and as a director I have so much control and not need to be frustrated with wait times and review process (which also saves a ton on the budget). Lastly, it’s all final pixels! Meaning no rendering in passes and no compositing, so I can make as many changes as I want, render out and the edit is updated – that is a game changer in the world of production and deadlines!
Here is a link to the Epic games spotlight story on how I use Unreal Engine as a hands-on director: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBZoI9x3Tag&feature=emb_title
This is all thanks to the power of real-time CG in Unreal Engine, empowering me as an independent filmmaker to create commercial content and not wait for a greenlight or not have to build huge infrastructure and raise massive financing for a big team … and most obviously, not having to wait for huge render times!
It’s safe to say, I now have the animation bug, and will be directing and producing more projects. In fact, at the time of writing this blog, we are in full production on my animated feature film – RIFT, a sci-fi action in the veins of AKIRA meets THE RAID, and we are aiming to deliver by end of 2021 for release in 2022.
Looking back, the best decision I made was to learn a new tool as a filmmaker, and not be complacent, but to always lean and not be afraid to jump into new territory, because this new territory of real-time CG production has kept me busy working as a director; telling high concept stories in a pandemic climate where it’s very tough and risky to get live action productions going.
Fun Fact 1:
Haz’s debut feature – THE BEYOND, was shot on locations all over UK including the old Escape Studios facility in Shepherds Bush.
Fun Fact / Trivia 2: - The CG Supervisor on Haz’s current animated feature film in production is Andrea Tedeschi, who first worked with Haz on his short film SYNC back in 2014 when Andrea was studying VFX and Compositing at Escape. Since then, Andrea has been involved in all of Haz’s films.
Hasraf ‘HaZ' Dulull started his career in Video games and Visual Effects for Film and TV, before transitioning to directing and producing with his breakout sci-fi indie feature film ‘THE BEYOND’, which was released by Gravitas Ventures, and premiered at #2 on the iTunes charts before trending on Netflix. His second feature film ‘2036: ORIGIN UNKNOWN’, which starred Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica, Another Life) earned a limited theatrical release in the US before landing on Netflix.
He was later hired to direct the pilot for Disney’s action-comedy mini-series ‘FAST LAYNE’ and was also credited as creative consultant on the entire series. He then went on to direct three additional episodes when he wowed Disney channel executives with his vision for the 8-part series. Other credits include directing the short bridge film ‘DESCENDANTS - UNDER THE SEA’ for Disney and directing a segment in the sci-fi horror anthology ‘PORTALS’