Image courtesy of Netflix

How Netflix series The Silent Sea recreated the Moon with Unreal Engine’s ICVFX tech

A widely acclaimed sci-fi mystery thriller, the Netflix series The Silent Sea stands out for its impressive, hyperrealistic recreation of space. Following successful Korean hits such as Squid Game, The Silent Sea also made it to the number one spot on the weekly Netflix Top 10 lists for non-English content. Westworld—a VFX studio located in South Korea daring to go beyond existing pipelines—is behind the show’s stunning visuals. The Silent Sea wasn’t Westworld’s first Unreal Engine project, but it was the first time they adopted in-camera VFX (ICVFX) using LED walls. The setting of the series, the lunar surface in outer space, has garnered rave reviews for its realism.

Making scenes more immersive with high-quality lunar surfaces

Having successfully enhanced the quality of Sweet Home, another Netflix series produced using Unreal Engine's virtual production features, Westworld was fully aware of the power of the engine and decided to leverage it for this challenging project.

The sci-fi thriller drama dared to venture into a setting previously untapped by Korean dramas: the Earth, outer space, and the Moon, in an apocalyptic near future with depleting sources of water. In order to realistically generate an unknown environment of space in a variety of immersive scenes, Westworld created a 30-square-meter lunar surface set and used LED walls to connect with the virtual environment prior to filming. Unreal Engine’s ICVFX toolset made it possible to seamlessly blend both physical and virtual sets.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Using Unreal Engine in Westworld's production pipeline to improve quality and productivity

Previously, Westworld had used Clarisse—a program for large-scale environment creation, look development, lighting, and rendering—to create a vast environment. However, for The Silent Sea, which required the entire environment in 3D, Clarisse demanded a lot of time and resources to place and render countless 3D assets. What’s more, Clarisse does not enable the user to see the actual result until the rendering is complete. To combat these limitations, the studio brought Unreal Engine into the production process. This meant they could preview the environment during the creation and boost the quality of the final work.
Image courtesy of Westworld
Changes in Westworld's environment creation pipeline
First, Westworld imported 3D assets and textures for the lunar surface into Unreal Engine to work on layout and lighting. Next, they previewed the environment created within Unreal Engine by rendering through Sequencer and adjusted the final layout and lighting.

Once the data had been cleaned up in Unreal Engine, Clarisse created the final rendered images for the VFX work. For this, Westworld used L Exporter, its proprietary in-house Unreal Engine plugin, to accurately transmit the settings between the platforms. L Exporter is a plugin that generates XML information so that static mesh, transform, lighting, and attribute data from Unreal Engine can be matched with those of Clarisse. Compared to previous environment creation work, Westworld was able to slash the time and cost of the entire process by adding the plugin and Unreal Engine to its pipeline. It also improved the quality of the final project by reflecting the needs of more clients in a shorter amount of time.

The power of Unreal Engine providing wide-range support for connecting with the real world

Westworld found Unreal Engine’s capabilities to be especially useful on The Silent Sea, compared to any other project they have worked on. “As shown by the L Exporter, Unreal Engine's flexible creative environment enables the easy development, application, and customization of plugins and features necessary for completing the production process through Blueprint and C++,” says Joo Young Lim, Head of R&D at Westworld. “What’s more, Unreal Engine offers impressive scalability that brings broad connectivity with the real world and supporting features.”

There is a significant amount of hardware needed on site for an ICVFX production, and any small change to the project could affect all of the devices. That’s why the management of the entire system is crucial to prevent losses in time and cost.

The switchboard added in Unreal Engine 4.26 has been a big help in preventing these issues. Iterative work that previously had to be done manually can now be done with a single touch. This is thanks to centralized management that includes adding and changing rendering machines, checking and synchronizing project versions, verifying the synchronization state between hardware, and controlling take records.

“Supervising all this from one central point means that the studio can focus more time on the filming,” says Joo Young. The studio was able to successfully implement ICVFX as well as real-time previz using virtual cameras. This was possible using Unreal Engine’s Live Link, connecting hardware in real-time through various protocols —such as VRPN, DMX, and OSC.
Image courtesy of Westworld
In addition, Multi-User Editing and Color Correct Regions for a real-time editing environment saved the company a lot of time. During the ICVFX shoot, it was crucial to seamlessly connect the 30-square-meter practical lunar surface set and the virtual lunar surface set created in Unreal Engine. The texture and color of the physical set fluctuated depending on the lighting, camera location, and settings. As the schedule was too tight to adjust to these fluctuations, the connection between the physical and virtual sets had to be continuously edited during filming. However, as Westworld's professional colorists were able to edit and apply Unreal Engine assets in real time—responding to lighting and camera changes on site—they completed filming on time despite the tight schedule.
Image courtesy of Westworld
Real-time editing of LED walls using Multi-User Editing and Color Correct Regions
As well as enabling connectivity with the real world, Unreal Engine has lots of other features that Westworld found useful during production. “Through the Level Snapshots feature added to Unreal Engine 4.27, we were able to perform tasks, such as the control and restoration of level versions, much more intuitively than with the existing Perforce server method,” says Joo Young. “The thumbnail and comment features for each level effectively prevented any common mistakes in version control and restoration.”

Westworld was also able to reduce the build time for checking lighting changes from several hours to less than 10 minutes through GPU Lightmass using multi-GPU. “This was hugely helpful in making and applying lighting changes on the spot,” says Joo Young.

“Unreal Engine's powerful flexibility and scalability, marked by features like an open development environment, Color Correct Regions, and Multi-User Editing, have made an enormous difference to The Silent Sea’s production pipeline,” says Joo Young.

When it comes to the texture and color depending on lighting, camera location and settings, the studio is now able to instantly edit and apply assets on-site. The entire production team, including the director, cinematographer, and supervisors, can discuss the scene and make decisions on the spot. Traditionally, the team could only see the results after shooting with a green screen, post-production, and then waiting for a long rendering time. Unreal Engine's ICVFX technology is bringing the innovation of real-time into the pipeline so that the team can see and improve on the expected result on the fly.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Unreal Engine to transform the M&E production pipeline

Westworld expects that Epic Games will inspire big changes to the overall production pipeline in the M&E industry with its powerful product lineup of MetaHuman, Unreal Engine 4, and Unreal Engine 5. “In large-scale environment creation, Unreal Engine is expected to demonstrate speed and completeness incomparable with any traditional DCC tools,” says Joo Young. The studio is currently working on other ICVFX projects in addition to the pre production of large-scale environments and crowds using Unreal Engine.

Westworld continues to research and develop various uses of Unreal Engine. These include building a pipeline to port their own creatures into Unreal Engine and a data-sharing workflow between Unreal Engine and DCC tools using USD. In the future, the company will continue to push the envelope by creating top-notch VFX and high quality productions, combining the team’s creativity with the power of Unreal Engine. Check out the latest news from Westworld on its official website and Facebook.

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