“There are only a few films that change the way, as an audience, you view cinema,” says James McTeigue, Co-Writer and Co-Director on The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience. “The Matrix came at this intersection where people were starting to have this investigation around what's real, what's not real—how much our world will become digital.”
Released at a time that feels technologically quaint today—Google had formed barely a year before and dial-up modems were still the norm—The Matrix was a futuristic thunderbolt that struck a chord with a generation on the cusp of a new digital era.
For audiences around the world, the visual effects on the film were nothing short of jaw-dropping. Huge numbers of CG assets were synthesized in the world of a computer, including digital humans, digital fire, digital clouds, digital environments—but it took many, many hours to generate just a single frame of film using the technology of the day.
Fast-forward 23 years, and we’re at a point where a modern game engine can produce the imagery that the Matrix team generated on the movie two decades ago, but in real time, interactively in front of your eyes.
To demonstrate how it’s now possible to create the photorealistic simulated worlds depicted in the original Matrix films, Epic assembled a team of experts to help create The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience, a technical demo that blurs the boundaries between cinematic and game, inviting us to ask—what is real?
John Gaeta, Creative Producer on The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience believes we’re at an inflection point when it comes to building realistic virtual worlds. “Now with Unreal Engine, you can get much closer to the idea of The Matrix than you could do in film,” he says.
While clearly applicable for everything from film to games, the prospect of building ultra-realistic worlds has significance beyond these mediums, providing food for thought for creators who are thinking about where the digital evolution goes next. “We're trying to show you a tiny snapshot of what a moment in the metaverse could be like,” says Gaeta.
Creating a virtual city from scratch
The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience features a huge, bustling, and explorable open-world city that—like the simulated world of The Matrix—is incredibly rich and complex. When looking for references on which to base the building designs of the city, the team picked a range of styles, many of which included complex forms and intricate shapes.
As Jerome Platteaux, Art Director at Epic Games, explains, that’s something teams working on real-time projects might ordinarily shy away from, because it requires the processing of so many polygons. “It takes a lot of computer power to generate that much detail everywhere. That's where our Nanite technology for virtual geometry comes into play.”
Nanite is Unreal Engine 5's virtualized geometry system. It renders the vast city environment at unprecedented level of detail, from buildings with intricately carved moldings and reliefs, to chain-link fences, to dense traffic filled with thousands of cars, all modeled down to the nuts and bolts.
Despite the city’s complexity, a relatively small core team was able to create the experience thanks to a set of procedural tools including SideFX’s Houdini. Procedural rules define how the world is generated—from the size of the roads and the height of the buildings, all the way down to the amount of debris on the sidewalks.
It was important to the team that the city maintained the look and feel of the megacity in the original Matrix. “In the original trilogy, grids and things that are mathematical-feeling were subliminally intertwined in a lot of things,” says Gaeta. “So for Awakens, we wanted to have that feel again.”
Votch Levi, Senior Technical Artist at Epic Games explains that this meant they didn't want their metropolis to look completely like a naturally grown organic city. “We wanted it to look like something that would have grown in the Matrix, something that machines would have put together,” he says. “And that was something that Lana [Wachowski] had asked us to do, to make sure that a little bit of that pattern was visible.”
A wild ride with Trinity and Neo
One of the most thrilling elements of the demo is the wild car chase. The team used the original Matrix trilogy as a reference for the camera work in the cinematic part of the demo, focusing in particular on the high-speed pursuit in Matrix Reloaded.
“It was very important for us to keep the same language of camera that we saw in the original Matrix,” says Platteaux.
To achieve the same feel, the team even made sure the camera had the same amount of shake inside the car. “The mindset was all about, let's shoot this thing like Lana [Wachowski] would have shot it,” says Colin Benoit, Lead Camera Artist at Epic Games. “But going faster.”
One of the key things the team wanted to do with the demo is to show cinematic creators that you can make a cinematic sequence through high-fidelity simulation.
This opens the door to a completely new way of storytelling. Many of the action scenes in the demo originated with crew members driving cars around the city to capture exciting shots. “Maybe, there's better acceleration here,” says Platteaux. “Or maybe, the car can drift around there. When you're happy with the action, you can lock that action, and then refine and place your camera around the stunt.”
For a camera artist, the flexibility this workflow enables is truly exciting. “It was easy for me to put a camera on something and get all the beautiful final pictures in camera,” says Benoit. “If I put a camera on Keanu and he's talking in a car driving 70 miles an hour, I can move the camera around. I can change focus just like a live-action DP would have. It's pretty mind-blowing.”
The worlds of film and games collide
The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience beguiles by merging artforms in exciting new ways. Viewers become players as the demo morphs from cinematic to fast-paced interactive experience of car chases and third-person shooter action. Stepping between the two mediums is impactful because it is seamless.
“The first time people are playing it, they realize that they have control and it's interactive,” says Benoit. “But it looks exactly like the thing they were just watching before. That's the ‘aha!’ moment. People are like, ‘wait, wait, wait—I can play this? This is crazy.’ ”
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the whole project is that worlds of this size and visual quality are no longer the preserve of massive studios and multi-million dollar budgets. Procedural systems that take the time-consuming grunt work out of building complex environments, the power to process billions of polygons and render them out seamlessly, and free tools that reduce character-building from months to minutes mean even small teams can deliver experiences like this.
“With Unreal Engine 5, anybody can sit down and put together a photorealistic environment that they can then use as a backdrop for telling their own stories,” says Levi.
For creators, viewers, and players alike, that means the game has changed. “In terms of what it means from an entertainment experience perspective, who knows?” says Epic Games CTO Kim Libreri. “The possibilities are infinite.”
If you’re an existing Unreal Engine user, you can download Unreal Engine 5.0 from the Epic Games launcher. If you're looking to dive in for the first time, click the link below to get started. Either way, we hope you enjoy all the new features and upgrades, and as always, we encourage your feedback!