Lights, camera, graphics: How Epic helps Hollywood

Agent Smith stands silent sentinel over one office in Epic’s packed-to-the gills Cary, North Carolina headquarters.

While many of the rooms that house cubicles and desks also include a heady potpourri of science fiction and fantasy swords, figures, masks and collectibles, Agent Smith stands out. Even compared to the one-story slide that ends at the feet of a nearly two-story Unreal Tournament Malcolm statue, the stone-faced Smith stands out.

He is one of many Smiths created for use in one of the concluding scenes for “The Matrix” trilogy, a scene that required a city filled with the antagonist. After his big screen moment, he eventually landed here, quietly watching over the work of the man who helped to give his character so many spectacular moves.

Kim Libreri, chief technology officer at Epic, has a long history of working on visual special effects, which includes time on “The Matrix,” basically making that movie what it was through a mix of practical and computer-generated artistry.

“I loved working at LucasArts. I have a lot of friends there, but I could see that the whole world was about to change.”

Libreri says the team working on “The Matrix” movies “broke every computer graphics standard in the film industry.”

After “The Matrix,” he went on to work at Industrial Light and Magic and that lead to his move to Lucasfilm where he was the senior vice president of technology working on, among other things, the mothballed Star Wars 1313 game.

For about two years, Libreri worked alongside Paul Meegan, Epic’s current president, who was the president of LucasArts at the time.

“We were making an effort to bring back to LucasArts the core of what everyone loved about ‘Star Wars,’ like ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ and make really authentic games,” Meegan says. “We'd gone through the process of building 1313 and it was about at that point in time, of course, that the Disney acquisition happened.”

Through a mutual friend, Meegan met with Tim Sweeney to discuss moving over to Epic.

“Tim explained the vision he had for Epic going forward, really transitioning the company from a retail game developer to a company that brings its game directly to the players, and that was something I was really interested in doing,” Meegan says.

After that meeting, Meegan came aboard and he found that there were a lot of similarities between working at Epic, where the games and the engine that drives them are made under the same roof, and working at LucasArts where the movies and games and the special effects of ILM are in the same building.

While Libreri spent more time in movies than in games, consulting even recently on movies like “Jupiter Ascending” and “Super 8,” his move to LucasArts and ILM was empowered by what he saw as a possible future where computer graphics might one day cross the uncanny valley.

He saw what Meegan was doing at Epic and saw the potential of Epic’s games and its engine, and he decided that things were about to change in entertainment and he needed to move to Epic to help that happen.

SequencerSequencer

“I loved working at LucasArts. I have a lot of friends there, but I could see that the whole world was about to change,” he says. “VR was about to happen. Real-time graphics was getting to a point where ... you could put images made in a game engine up on the big screen and it would basically hold up.”

When Meegan approached Libreri, he took the job because he saw the worlds of film and gaming colliding.

“Epic is going to be very important for many people across all media in the future,” he says. “It's not as if we're like saying, ‘let's get away from what makes Epic at it's core — a games engine for games.’ It's more about, as entertainment and games change and we become more at the center of that, being at the place that is responsible for evolving entertainment in general.”

While Epic worked to help empower a different sort of creator — the people behind movies and television — they also worked to improve the way video games tell stories. That biggest shift was announced during GDC in March when Epic unveiled its new cinematic tool: Sequencer.

Sequencer allows you move cut scene snippets around on a timeline, swap out lenses, tweak the lighting and set focus in a way that Libreri says amplifies the audience’s perception of the scene.

“The long and short of it is it's a tool that's much more familiar to anybody that's done traditional editing,” he says. “A lot of the capabilities you'd expect if you were making an animated feature or live action movie, cutting your own amateur movie with footage you'd shot on video is way, way more familiar in Sequencer. We have lenses that now behave like real camera lenses with proper focal lengths. Proper film formats.”

“We have lenses that now behave like real camera lenses with proper focal lengths.”

These are all good tools for game makers, but they also happen to be good tools for movie and TV show creators.

“We're talking with a lot of visual effects companies, previs companies who do feature film stuff,” says Michael Gay, Epic’s director of cinematic production. “Episodic TV as well, so we definitely wanted to create a tool that caters to content creators, whether that's games or feature film previews or episodic TV.”

Already Epic is seeing some results to those conversations with TV and movie makers. There are a slew of indie movies made with the engine and Gay believes the engine is quickly approaching the point where it can provide photo-realistic feature film quality effects in real time.

“Well, at least feature film animation out of the engine in real time,” he says. “So you apply that to something like Sequencer where you can quickly iterate through this stuff and you see how quickly you can turn this stuff around.”

Kim Libreri says that there are three or four animated television shows that Epic knows of that are likely to go into production this year.

“They’ve been waiting for Sequencer to make it a bit easier,” he says. “There’s an animated movie that we heard about too. It's not a Pixar-level thing, but we'll see.

“I think we're going to start seeing our engine used in live television broadcasts. Wherever you see green screens or in sports matches where they want to overlay crazy creatures, like you know, have a dinosaur from “Jurassic Park” run across a football stadium. You're going to be seeing our engine used for that sort of stuff.”

During this year's Game Developers Conference, Epic showed off a fascinating use of the technology: a live performance capture that had an actress up on stage performing her role as the Unreal Engine interpreted it and rendered it in real time. It was like watching a digital version of a high fidelity puppet show.

“There's no reason why, in the next couple of years, an animated movie can't be something that is rendered on demand and generated on your cellphone with your specific preferences.”

“For film production,” Libreri says, “I think that using the engine for live action as a final, you know we're going to make a spaceship on a star field, the technology is getting quite close where you're going to be able to do that and it looks realistic enough. But I don't think we'll see final shots going through our engine for, I don't know, two or five years from now.”

Already, film sets are using the engine to visualize creatures, objects and environments that don’t actually exist on the site.

In those cases, the director will have a screen that shows the actor and the Unreal Engine-powered rendering of whatever will be added in postproduction. The director can then use that to tweak the actor’s performance. In some cases, Libreri says, when an actor has to look into the eyes of a figment, the Unreal creation might be projected onto the set in the right place and then removed in postproduction.

AR/VR real-time camera tracking company Ncam uses the Unreal Engine for its jobs, which include work on movies like “Independence Day 2” and “Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.”

The use of CGI in more movies and television could also lead to new sorts of entertainment.

“There's no reason why, in the next couple of years, an animated movie can't be something that is rendered on demand and generated on your cellphone with your specific preferences, like the princess dress that you bought for your kid is the one she gets to see in the movie,” Libreri says. “Her house can be in the background. People will start to see the power of real-time graphics and we'll start to see experiences, more personable, more editable.”

There is a vast undiscovered country between what people call movies and what they call games, Sweeney says.

“Right now what you output is a video file or it's a game,” he said, “but everything in between is yet to be explored.”

Epic Games

A long walk

A single shareware game created by Tim Sweeney launched Potomac Computer Systems in 1991. Back then the company consisted of Sweeney’s parents' home and Sweeney. It quickly grew to encompass co-founder Mark Rein who brought more business sense and a desire to grow to the company. Soon after came 17-year-old game designer Cliff Bleszinski.

One man’s shareware mail-order business had become a game studio.

As a developer, the company didn’t just survive; it thrived. Under the hands of Rein and Sweeney, the company built a financial safety net out of a game engine licensing business. It saw four eras, four iterations of the company stretched out across 25 years of making games, building engines and entertaining the masses.

Today, Epic Games is a fixture in the town of Cary, North Carolina.

Cab drivers can tell you its history and know all about the regular trips developers and would-be employees make to the white concrete and blue glass headquarters wedged under an arc of chain hotels, movie theaters and apartment complexes. Area restaurants know, when you sit at a back table in the quiet corner discussing kills, graphics and virtual reality, that you’ve come from Epic to have a bite to eat. The company even has a driver, a man, other cabbies tell me in almost hushed voices, whose work entails ferrying job candidates back and forth between the office and the airport.

“They’ve been in business for more than 25 years. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

And even at its current size, Epic is bursting at the seams.

Sweeney’s desk is crammed into a back corner, no bigger than any other in an office that once seemed designed to hold just him. Now he shares the space with marketing and PR folk, all stacked side by side. Desks are set up in rooms once meant for meetings. The company’s major capture studio, which takes up a corner of the building, has been converted to a massive testing room loaded with PCs and games for the occasional large-scale alpha testing.

The halls of the company are always bustling.

Once during our visit, while walking toward a lunch room, it looked like class had let out: People were streaming out of different rooms, all headed in a hurry to new locations.

Epic’s headquarters is growing. The company is breaking ground soon on a neighboring lot to build new offices to help house the now 250 or so employees that work there. Up from 10 when Epic first moved to Cary.

“There has been immense growth over the last few years at Epic,” Bleszinski says. “It’s a tricky thing to do. You’ve got to give Tim and crew props over there.

“They’ve been in business for more than 25 years. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially in this industry.”

Sweeney knows the balance he’s constantly walking with the company, but he says, now three years or so into Epic 4.0, he remains committed to the plan.

“I’m more excited now about the future of Epic than I have ever been before,” he says. “That might seem unusual for a 25-year-old company, but we see more opportunities for the company now than ever before.”

Ever looking forward, Sweeney seems energized. The future of Epic, of the game industry, his future, all seem to be pointing toward a game he’s always wanted to make, one he described in a Kotaku article back in 2011 that allowed users to teleport through worlds of player and developer creations seamlessly.

“We went from PC shareware to PC retail, and then piracy crushed all single-player PC game sales before multiplayer had become too big in those days, so we moved to console drives there for about a decade then moved back to direct relationships.”

That game would be the game if it ever happened, something that was everything combined in a single sort of interface.

“I find this idea of the metaverse very compelling, but frankly we don't know what it is,” he says. “If you read ‘Snow Crash,’ it's this awesome computer medium that you get in and out of coordinating with each other using phone booths in the real world. All of this fiction was written before social network was invented. Before the internet had high bandwidth. Before computers were capable of anything like they are today.”

Epic 4.0 seems like the sort of company that could be home to that sort of game. And this era of Epic, this form of the company may actually be its last.

“We went from PC shareware to PC retail, and then piracy crushed all single-player PC game sales before multiplayer had become too big in those days, so we moved to console drives there for about a decade then moved back to direct relationships with customers,” Sweeney says. “It's funny — if you look at Valve, they just took that one path through their entire life in this industry. So there are alternative histories that come back to the same point, but it's certainly the right place to be now.”

There was a time, back when Bleszinski still worked at Epic, that he and Sweeney would take to the streets of the nearby Raleigh suburbs to mull over ideas and talk.

“We would go for a walk when the weather was good,” Bleszinski says. “We’d walk for maybe 45 minutes and talk about where the studio was going and where I wanted to go and where he wanted to go.”

Sweeney says he still does those walks when he’s picking over an idea or noodling out a solution to something.

“It’s so much better to be outside in the open, walking around the block, free of any office,” he says. “Everyone used to think it was really weird until the Steve Jobs biopic came out. Now I’m validated.”

When I ask Sweeney if he misses those walks with Bleszinski, there’s a long pause.

I can see him working over his answer.

He breaks the silence almost wistfully.

“Now I have a lot more people I can walk with.” Babykayak

You've read the story, now comment on what you think of the company, its games and its ever-broadening approach to entertainment.