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Neill Blomkamp: 'It's inevitable that the uncanny valley just goes away'

District 9 director talks about his experience creating the ADAM short films with Unity

The ADAM collection of short films have been an impressive demonstration of Unity's cinematic capabilities.

The game engine provider has been working on ways to combine its technology with that of the film industry, which led to the creation of ADAM - a Webby Award-winning five minute YouTube short that has been viewed more than 4m times.

Unity then teamed up with Neill Blomkamp, the movie director famous for District 9, Elysium and Chappie, to extend the ADAM story with two further chapters. The second seven minute short focused on the story's hero, a political dissident who has had his brain removed and placed inside a robotic shell. The third, out today, focuses on the world's sinister villains.

Watch on YouTube

The videos certainly demonstrate just how far real-time graphics have come in telling cinematic stories, but also some of the limitations. Specifically around the uncanny valley, and how there's something not quite right about the human faces. But Blomkamp is convinced we will get there.

"There's two components to that," he tells "The first one is that the software itself, as well as the computational power of whatever rig you're running it on, is going to get better and better. I think it is inevitable where a line is crossed where the uncanny valley just goes away.

"At the same time that is happening, you are also dealing with the changing population, which is just becoming more and more ok with the idea of real-time graphics - even if they are uncanny valley. You know better than anyone, there are millions and millions of gamers playing PUBG or Battlefield or whatever it may be, and they accept how that looks. It doesn't mess with their enjoyment of playing the game, or watching the cut scenes. I think that the population is more accepting of it, as well, as time goes on. Those two things working together equals lots of people being ok with real-time."

The changing audience acceptance of real-time visuals in storytelling is a key component to this. Blomkamp doesn't think we'll be seeing major real-time motion pictures anytime soon, but that as the modern gaming audience grows up, it is something that the big movie studios will consider.

Director Neill Blomkamp

"If you take a 13 year-old that's playing Call of Duty, when they are 60... I am sure they are going to be ok watching a film in real-time," he says. "Although who knows? it is sort of a question of when the demographic changes. Nothing is being implemented at this very second, so it's a case of watching the audience change and the tastes modify."

He continues: "It would be difficult to 20th Century Fox to agree to this way of making stuff, at the moment... in the future it will change, probably.

"The way big films are made is a response to what the audience says that they want. The more Battlefield players that are out there, who are familiar with the way that this looks, the more it will become accepted."

ADAM is an interesting project and something that's uniquely suited to Blomkamp's OATS studio, which is working on a series of impressive, VFX-heavy short films, hoping to find something that can be developed into something bigger. It's not too dissimilar to the creation of his District 9 movie, which was developed from his 2006 sci-fi short Alive in Joburg.

Unity has offered something compelling to OATS. Although the heavy lifting in creating the assets and the scenes are the same, the studio can then reuse or tweak everything in real time, and revisit the locations without having to rebuild the sets.

"Our lighting artists inside OATS, who come from a traditional background, were the most affected by working in real-time," Blomkamp notes. "The thought of going back to having to wait for ages and not update things in real time, was quite strange for them. They definitely felt it was something that they'd like to keep on using."

He adds: "It is extremely beneficial. I think that it will become extremely beneficial for other people over time.

"As an example of how demonstratively helpful it is, we want to be able to make stuff cost-effectively because we are an insane, weird studio and we have to make low-budget stuff. We have our own motion capture stage, so once we take the hit on building all the assets and setting-up the scene, from that point on, we can revisit that scene by bringing the actors back and doing new episodes as much as we want. The cost associated with doing that is only as costly as bringing the actors in for a day, because everything is set up. That is a massive difference compared to building bespoke one-off scenes in visual effects, that will have to be built from the ground-up. That is a very, very helpful thing."

Blomkamp would like to see ADAM become a feature film

To supplement his team of VFX artists, Blomkamp added additional games people to the team to help them with the real-time work, but ultimately says the process was 'relatively pain free'. He expects to use the system for other OATS projects going forward.

But what now for ADAM? The world has been created and the characters teased, so where does Unity and Blomkamp go next with the concept? And what does success even look like for a high-end seven minute short film that's available for free on YouTube?

"Ultimately, at some point it would be very cool to make an entire real-time film out of ADAM. The subject matter is uniquely conducive to doing that, which is kinda cool. That would define success. If you talk about it as an IP, or a story, I think ADAM has a lot to be mined in terms of themes, characters and ideas. That could be mined in game form, or film, or more recurring episodes like the ones we've already made. But I think getting to make a feature film out of it would be pretty cool."

Blomkamp has a long love for games. His movies always play with themes familiar to gamers (sci-fi, dystopian futures, action, aliens), and he has worked on creating Halo short films (plus the aborted Halo movie).

"I like games, but I'm not really making games," he says. "It's definitely a case of being interested in how to apply [the technology] to film. Uniquely for us, it is very applicable to OATS. If I didn't have this weird studio, it wouldn't have been as obvious to me because I wouldn't have really known how to use it, or what the application could be. In this environment, it suits us, basically."

The three ADAM short films total under 20 minutes in length

Film technology has long been used by games developers, and now we're seeing that go in the other direction. But what about the content itself? Much has been made of the convergence between the film experience and the game experience. Are we looking at a step closer towards that?

"I don't really know what that is going to look like myself," Blomkamp says. "It could look like a lot of other things we are already working on. For instance, if you made a real-time film, it could be experienced differently. You could choose different points-of-view to look from. Things like that. But it is still a passive experience. It doesn't have this tree branch, forking effect of different choices that you make. It's not clear to me right now how you merge film and games in terms of the structure of the story. But I think if you made a traditional film in real-time, that opens up options, that could be quite interesting. But it's mostly to do with point-of-view."

Of course, we are seeing some interactive experiences being tried in VR. Indeed, Elijah Wood's own production studio is creating a VR project with Ubisoft.

But Blomkamp is sceptical.

"I am not sure how around for the long road VR headsets are," he says. "I think real-time as a graphics platform is here longer than potentially an Oculus is. Oculus has to turn into something that is easier to use for people to fully adopt it."

You can watch the ADAM short films on YouTube here.

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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