Boundless Use of Unreal Render Engine

In the universe of computer generated imagery the push for “realism” often possesses a great challenge, especially if we add to it strict deadlines, creative notes and tight budgets.

On the other hand, the audience is becoming more and more demanding of Visual Effects as high end blockbusters have set the bar of expectations and budgets extremely high.

So is it possible for an indie VFX studio to deliver the same quality results in time and budget?

The answer is – YES! With the NEW TECHNOLOGY!

When does it take more time to adapt workflows and pipelines? When you are BIG. This is a great benefit in being moderately small like Koala FX.

And a great example is the series on Amazon Prime “BOUNDLESS”(dir. by Simon West) which we recently did VFX for: a 15th century drama about Ferdinand Magellan and the first European navigation from the Atlantic to Asia. Exciting!

As Mangelans armada travels through the Atlantic ocean we had to fully generate all the environments and that meant a lot of ocean. As the main UK vendor we’ve done approximately 500 shots in a little less than 2 months. HOW? We started from the classics:

1. Houdini to create the cloud formations. Matching spectacular Shelly Johnson’s (Captain America, Jurassic Park 3) lighting references and also take artistic directions.

2. Rendering 360 HDRIs for every light scenario. However, rendering hundreds of shots of ocean simulation with traditional methods would have taken ages. This was obvious to us early on in the project. So we started testing UNREAL ENGINE. There are many great benefits of unreal but there are just as many issues using it in a high end studio pipeline.

We tested and tested and… decided to use UNREAL for all of the shots that the water was not clearly in frame (A LOT!). The water renders were almost there and whenever the ocean was a bit out of focus it was indistinguishable from Houdini renders. It looked UNREAL!

And this is how 85% of the ocean shots went through it: faster, cheaper and identical quality.

BUT! There is always a but… And we are keen to share those ones with you too (to know what to watch out for!)

The key challenges we had to face in the UNREAL pipeline was:

  • matching the lighting between Arnold Redshift and Unreal
  • getting proper camera info in unreal
  • getting workable AOVs out of unreal

For traditional rendering software we used just our HDRIs to light the ocean, However to achieve similar lighting in UNREAL we have to add lights and grade our HDRI. To make sure the lighting was accurate we were showing one frame render from Houdini and used it as reference for UNREAL.

A similar issue appeared when we had to match the camera film backs with added overscan. UNREAL was lacking all this input. We ended up using a similar approach as above. Using stills from a traditional render engine and comparing the results. We did use the golden eyes of our Supervisors for it – priceless and old as the world asset we never underestimate.

Finally, the biggest challenge was getting proper AOVs. UNREALs AOVs at the moment are definitely not up to standard for film production. However, we decided to concentrate on getting the two most important things for our specific task: Depth pass for depth of field and Specular for the highlights in the water that will influence the bokeh.

As a result – UNREAL renders ended up being 10 TIMES faster and the same quality for the task.

So what is UNREAL? Does it have its valid place in the film VFX realism world or not?

We say – it definitely is a strong promise of a brighter future where a lot of VFX film budgets will be much more accommodative to widen the horizons of Creative possibilities.


  • Would like to learn more about how we optimize our workflows
  • Make unreal very real
  • Need help in pre-production to ensure accurate VFX breakdowns and costs
  • Trying to get creative understanding of the best use of VFX resources

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