Image courtesy of Alexandru Popescu and Tim Ben Cole

Behind the lens of the Short Film Challenge Australia

April 7, 2021
Recently, we joined forces with all eight of Australia’s state screen agencies to create the first ever Unreal Engine Short Film Challenge Australia. We were thrilled to receive over 1,800 applications to the challenge, many from people with no previous Unreal Engine experience. We provided them all with two weeks’ free training on filmmaking techniques in Unreal Engine. They were then invited to team up and create pitches for their proposed projects. 

Sixteen of the best teams were each awarded $20,000 AUS and given just six weeks to make their films. The results demonstrate a wonderful diversity of creative storytelling and are a testament to the talent found in the region. You can see all of the finalists’ films on our Vimeo Showcase. Here, we chat with the makers of four of them.
 

Decommissioned

Set aboard the International Space Station, Decommissioned is an enigmatic and suspenseful short film in which an old spacesuit, repurposed as a science experiment, is jettisoned from the ISS into space, where it apparently takes on a life of its own. The consequences for astronaut Commander Diaz are terrifying.
 

Writer and Director Josh Tanner has been making genre short films for over a decade with Co-Writer and Producer Jade van der Lei through their production company Perception Pictures. This script had been in the works for some time, with the challenge finally providing the ideal opportunity to make the film, as Josh explains.

“We'd actually written that script three years earlier, and the competition came around and it was like, oh my gosh, this was going to open the doorway to that being made,” he says.

The challenge introduced Josh to virtual production techniques in Unreal Engine that were entirely new to him, including creating in-camera VFX on a budget.

“It was just rear projection, you know, consumer 4K projector, kind of the poor man's way of doing this,” he explains. “And it blew our minds. We were like, okay, this is it. This is going to work.”
Image courtesy of Perception Pictures
For Josh, techniques like these are changing the face of filmmaking. “It feels like virtual production in Unreal Engine is almost like a new art department, in a way,” he says. “That was just a bizarre experience to say, ‘Hey, can we turn the earth?’ It's like, on what set do you usually get to scream that out?”

Eggs Cannot Fly

The makers of quirky animated comedy short Eggs Cannot Fly had not only not used Unreal Engine before the challenge, they hadn’t even done any 3D work at all—making their achievement all the more remarkable. 

Created in a deliberately non-photorealistic style, the film tells the story of an egg who failed to hatch and his fight against the negativity of all around him who say he will never fly.
 

The piece was produced by LateNite Films, a full-service production studio with a reputation for creating innovative cinematic content of a very different genre.

“Day one was literally like, OK, how do you open Unreal?,” says Chris Hocking, Lead Unreal Engine Artist & Producer on the project. “Even just the terminology and the wording, it's not really our area of expertise at all.”

So when they reached the final and received their mandate to actually make their film, they weren’t at all sure they hadn’t bitten off more than they could chew. “I think we had about 30 seconds of celebration before going, ‘Oh...now we have to make this,’ ” says Writer and Director Natesha Somasundaram.
Image courtesy of LateNite Films
The COVID-19 restrictions could have made things even more difficult, but in the end, the real-time nature of the engine helped them get the job done. “We were all working remotely and the fact that we could just jump on a Zoom call, Natesha could go, ‘All right, this location isn't working,’ ” explains Chris. “We could jump on the Unreal Marketplace, grab some assets, start throwing it together and literally rebuild everything in real time.”

The experience proved immensely satisfying, and has opened up new possibilities for the group. “I think we made something really wonderful and something I never would have expected when we were starting out,” says Natesha. “For me certainly as a writer/director, it definitely opened up a whole new way of thinking because I can make kind of whatever I want now, that door is wide open.”

Weather Girl

Described by its makers as a retro-futurist, low-fi, sci-fi short film for young adults, Weather Girl is about Molly, a young girl who harnesses her untapped inner power as she reels from her parents’ separation and deals with an unhappy family dynamic. Molly’s powers include emitting vapor from her hands and electrical bolts from her fingertips. The film also features a phosphorescent mouse.
 

Writer and Director Stef Smith has long been a fan of sci-fi and VFX-heavy productions, but had previously found this genre inaccessible.

“I've always been afraid of working with VFX because the post-production pathway is so laborious and costly, and it's so time-consuming,” she says. “And so one thing that really appealed to me about this challenge was like, well, at the end of it, it's six weeks and we have to make something.”

Stef is the first to admit that she didn’t know what she didn’t know when she embarked on the challenge. “I went into this project knowing I didn't know a lot,” she says. “And then from doing the training at the very start, I was like, oh no, there's so much I don't know.”

The project ended up making use of in-camera VFX and finger-tracking techniques. It left Stef with the confidence to take on similar projects in the future.
Image courtesy of Stef Smith
“For me, the value of the competition was confidence building,” she says. “I learned a little bit more about how to use the tech, how to write for the tech. The scope of what it can do is pretty amazing.”

Cassini Logs

Finally, the winner of the $50,000 AUS prize is Cassini Logs, a stunning completely CG sci-fi adventure by filmmakers Tim Ben Cole and Alexandru Popescu. The film follows an aging scientist on a frozen world, looking to change the grim prospects of her colony by gathering pollen samples from one of Saturn’s moons using underwater drones.
 

According to its makers, Cassini Logs was written to be made in Unreal Engine using a fully animated approach, from the story to the character and set design, through to directorial choices and cinematography. The project, they say, would have been either impossible or taken a fantastic amount of time to develop using real-world locations or traditional visual effects.

The filmmakers treated the project like a film shoot, using the pre-production period to solve all the creative questions before beginning production.

“We did the edit in Unreal from the beginning and you can just dive in and adjust the camera, adjust the animation of the character, adjust the light blocking,” says Alex. “So we took advantage of all that in the previs stage.”

All that planning and preparation shows in the final film. The ability to quickly make multiple iterations to refine shots was also key to the quality they were able to achieve.
Image courtesy of Alexandru Popescu and Tim Ben Cole
“That's the great thing about Unreal,” says Tim. “It's so easy to iterate and take these shots and just sort of follow through in different levels of polish to get to a final pixel.”

Cassini Logs finishes with the intriguing line, ‘To be continued’. We can’t wait for the next installment.
 

    Want to make your own real-time short film?

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