Image courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar

Depicting dogfights: how real-time rendering helped an Indian fighter jet series take off

10 de novembro de 2022
Most of us will never know what it feels like to fly a fighter jet. The thrill of ripping through clouds and battling foes at supersonic speeds is the domain of a select few. But that doesn’t stop us from dreaming about it! And Hollywood knows it. So much so that movies, TV shows, and computer games have been trying to place us in action-packed aerial dogfights since the days of Howard Hughes.

Now, the Disney+ Hotstar series Shoorveer, created by Samar Khan, is bringing cinematic aerial combat to Indian audiences, depicting the incredible exploits of an elite military unit in the face of an escalating threat.

It’s the kind of high-octane entertainment that CG was invented for, and the very thing Viga Entertainment Technology needed to hit their production schedule. To help, the team turned to real-time rendering, building a new Unreal Engine pipeline that blended the feeling of piloting a fighter jet with real-world physics.
Image courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar
With approximately 500 shots to create in just 16 weeks, it was a monumentally ambitious undertaking for the production team; it also represented a real leap into an newly embraced tool set.

"The amount of CG content we had to make felt overwhelming for a small team like ours,” says Vivek Reddy, Co-Founder of Viga Entertainment Technology. “This is where we really innovated, developing new procedures with Unreal Engine that kept the production on track and made these aerial combat sequences a true first for the Indian streaming market."

To complete its mission, Viga Entertainment Technology split production on Shoorveer into two stages. The first centered on an LED screen setup that could create close-ups of the pilots in their cockpits; the second involved creating the aircraft combat in complete CG. For the latter, the team worked on their realistic assets, animation, lighting, and camera movements all in Unreal Engine, making them a part of a growing VFX paradigm shift that continues to see global teams trade legacy pipelines for the benefits of instant feedback and nonlinear collaboration.

Taking off

But Viga Entertainment Technology were pioneers in more ways than one. Until now, Unreal Engine wasn’t considered a final-pixel technology in India, with many TV and film producers preferring to stick to tried-and-true methods. However, Viga had been hearing (and seeing) too many good things abroad, as production after production unveiled real-time treats around the world. At the very least, Viga thought it would help them channel the visceral thrill of aerial combat. So they decided to see if they could incorporate it in a way that wouldn’t bloat budgets or delay the production.

To smooth this process, Viga Entertainment Technology built an entire production pipeline around the engine, designing tools that would integrate it into other applications like Autodesk Maya, DaVinci Resolve, and Movie Colab, the studio’s internal review system.

All the while, they were planning ahead for their dream output. Like pilots practicing maneuvers, the production team undertook extensive preparations to get their workflow right and understand the physics of military aircraft.
The aim was to have several artists working on the same combat shot in parallel. And that’s exactly how it panned out. First, an animatic would give artists clarity on each shot, allowing them to flesh out technical details such as the aircraft's speed, the altitude, the lens settings of the camera, and so on. From there the layout and blocking phase could begin, artists would mark the space with splines and achieve rough air combat maneuvers (ACM), enabling the animation team to take the shot and create the final animation.

During production, Viga Entertainment Technology relied extensively on Movie Colab. The system meant that supervisors could track each shot’s progress and send notes to the right artist. Once approved, the animated shots were imported into Unreal Engine alongside rough camera movements.

“Keying the cameras directly in Unreal Engine was challenging, as the aircraft moves at an incredibly high velocity,” says Dharshan Vijayvenkatesh, a cinematic artist on Shoorveer. “Importing rough cameras from the animations made it much easier to achieve the final visuals.”

To make the audience feel the velocity, Viga relied on Unreal Engine’s Sequencer feature. With its intuitive timeline capabilities, the team could precisely time the action in a way that was suspenseful, authentic, and still clear to the audience.
Image courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar
Lighting, environment, cinematography, and FX artists could then complete their work simultaneously, without stepping on each other’s toes with Unreal Engine’s built-in Source Control feature. Viga had successfully developed a nondestructive (and quick) way to create big-screen aircraft combat for the small screen.

On top of the world

Fast-paced combat wasn’t the only challenge; there were also Shoorveer’s huge environments. This is where Quixel Megascans came in. With an extensive library of photorealistic 3D scanned assets and materials captured from around the world, Megascans meant that the team could incorporate production-ready content into colossal environments with minimal hassle.

“Some of our shots involved creating large-scale terrains with hundreds of trees,” says Gaurav Rajesh, Environment Artist on Shoorveer. “Rendering that in real time is not easy. Optimized environments, continuous profiling, and efficient levels of detail all made it possible.”
Image courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar
Among them were Nordic rocks, mossy boulders, and other gigantic rock formations, for which the team modified the base shaders and textures. On top of these assets, artists utilized the MW Landscape Material—available on the Unreal Engine Marketplace—for landscape texturing, together with custom heightmaps for the mountains and plenty of hand sculpting.

Where ready-made assets couldn’t be used, the team went out of their way to create custom assets that were optimized for real-time rendering. The detail was sparing on assets that appeared particularly far away, aircraft interiors were modular and only used where absolutely necessary, and foliage was split into two types: mesh-based foliage for near-field views and card-based ones for far-field ones.

New heights

After a few months, the mission was a complete success. Viga Entertainment Technology was able to develop and battle test a real-time pipeline that enabled it to depict aerial combat and emulate the real-world physics of fighter jets, all within a typical production deadline for streaming. They also became one of a raft of studios embracing the change and continuing the trend of using the latest technology to thrill audiences, and prove to the Indian market that Unreal Engine delivers. Not bad for a first attempt!
Image courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar
“The future is real-time,” says Sujay HG, Co-Founder of Viga Entertainment Technology. “This project could have consumed months just for rendering if we didn’t have Unreal Engine. With this technology, we could see the visuals as we worked on them. The speed at which we can see the fruits of our labor is truly ground-breaking. We are excited to see what UE5 continues to bring us.”

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