Embracing change - Moving from pre-rendered to real-time CGI

Ben Walker

by Ben Walker

Thu, 10/04/2018 - 15:27


Hi, I’m Ben Walker, head of the CGI Real-Time team at Burrows. Until two years ago I had very little knowledge of real-time graphics; that’s when I made a decision to make the career leap from being a still-image artist into my current real-time role.

A big sideways career move can be a scary experience. But to be a success in a fast-moving industry such as ours I don’t believe you can ever stand still for long. I’ve worked in automotive visualisation for over 10 years, producing brochures and ads for big-name clients. If you look at the technology we were using 10 or even 5 years ago, it’s obvious change has to be embraced if we are to stay relevant.

A few years ago Burrows were lucky enough to strike up a great relationship with the team at Epic. That association encouraged us to hire a small team of talented UE4 artists who were mostly straight out of uni. New to the industry they may have been, but the quality of their work reached across the studio to me.

I’ve seen enough CGI, good and bad, over the years to realize when something has promise, and the images on their screens displayed huge potential. There were elements missing and plenty to work on, but that’s the kind of thing I love to be involved with – helping to impart my experience (hopefully the good bits!) as we push back the boundaries of real-time technology.

So, with our small team of artists lacking a little in direction and leadership, and the position of head of Real-Time opening up, I took the opportunity with both hands.

I was confident then, and still am, that real-time is the future of 3D visualisation. Will it replace existing traditional pre-rendered assets? I doubt it, but real-time is certainly set to be a bigger part of the picture.

The switch to real-time brought quite a few fundamental changes to get our heads around. Try telling someone who grew up with V-Ray that you can’t use area lights or bounce cards (yet!). But I believe experience will prove an invaluable asset here.

As a 3D artist I am familiar with the need to produce alternative solutions. In the absence of one answer you simply devise another. For me using a real-time engine like UE4 was simply a case of applying the best available solutions. As soon as you realise what you can’t do, you quickly figure out a solution based on achieving the same effect with the tools you do have. Then it’s simply a question of refining your work, and the benefits of real-time technology become obvious. There’s no waiting for previews or renders, instead you get instant feedback, and the opportunity to push the quality that bit further.

Imagine dealerships allowing you to configure and personalise your future car while you are sat inside it, months before a physical vehicle is even available to test drive. Or imagine being able to fully explore architectural designs, or customise the interior of your new home, long before the first foundations are poured. These are the types of capabilities we are developing for our clients right now.

The need to adapt an established CGI studio workflow to a system that is compatible with a real-time engine produced an exciting set of solutions.

Our existing processes produced heavy 3DS Max files. We did not worry too much about poly count or optimisation. Putting those models into UE4 proved surprisingly easy for us at first. It’s only when we started incorporating globally configurable vehicles into the engine, that it becomes apparent there’s a big difference between a one-off showpiece and a repeatable, sustainable process.


Real-Time Circle.jpg


The benefit lies in automatisation of that process, making it relatively pain-free for everyone involved. Now that real-time is integrated into our pipeline we are starting to realize benefits beyond its initial scope. We’re looking at using real-time much earlier in our whole studio’s pipeline to speed asset production up and cut down on errors. I’m sure we will continue to discover new ways of benefiting from the solutions working in real-time brings.

The rate of development in real-time technology is also a massive bonus for me. It feels as though we are still only at the start of a revolution and that makes it a very exciting time to be involved in real-time graphics. Epic recently demonstrated real-time raytracing in UE4 and I can’t wait to see how that’s going to help us to push the visual quality of our work up another notch.

As I said earlier, standing still in this industry is a sure fire route to becoming irrelevant, but the progression taking place in real-time at Burrows couldn’t be further from that. It feels to me that new technologies are becoming available every week.

I’m not sure where the future direction of real-time lies, but I do know I want to be involved with it! For me CGI is truly at the heart of the future of 3D visualisation.

Ben Walker

CGI, Head of Real-Time