Virtual production is gaining traction in the film and online game industries, generating exciting opportunities for real-time 3D artists. But what exactly does a real-time artist do? How do you get started in virtual production? What real-time 3D technical jobs are out there, and how do you get them?
These questions, and more, were answered in CG Spectrum's recent webinar How to become a Real-time 3D Artist (scroll down for the replay). Featuring real-time mentors William Faucher (Real-time TD and Unreal Artist), Deepak Chetty (Epic Games Unreal Online Learning Producer - Film/TV/Virtual Production Track), and Simon Warwick (Department Head of Foundations), these experts delve into why real-time artists are highly sought after, real-world examples of how real-time virtual production is currently used, and the skills you need to become a real-time 3D artist.
What is a real-time 3D artist?
A Real-time 3D Artist harnesses traditional skills found in one or more areas of the production pipeline, focusing on content or asset creation in a real-time environment such as a game engine. The basic skill sets are the same, but the media varies from real-time to non-real-time production.
Unreal Engine is the most commonly used program used by real-time artists. The physical accuracy of settings and values is built into the software, accommodating a natural transition into the virtual world.
Unreal Engine is certainly at the forefront of virtual production at the moment, there isn’t a single other engine that can even come close to competing with what Unreal offers. -William Faucher
What is virtual production?
Virtual production is analogous to traditional production. The main difference is that renders occur in real-time. Virtual production allows real-world and digital platforms to converge, meaning digital revisions and/or additions can develop alongside any physical changes. Its real-time capabilities are considered one of the most important innovations since digital cinematography replaced analog film cameras.
The democratization of real-time software has recently brought virtual production into the spotlight, but it’s actually been around for a while. Virtual production is probably most well-known for its role on the set of Disney’s The Mandalorian.
Real-time production on The Mandalorian. Credit: Disney
A real-time 3D artist creates and renders 3D graphics in real-time, using a game engine like Unreal Engine, for video games, virtual production, and other content creation. This may involve modeling, texturing, animation, and lighting for in-game characters and environments.
In virtual production, depending where a 3D artist works in the pipeline will determine their duties more clearly. During pre-production and post-production, a real-time artist can help with the visualization of a production, creating previs, postvis, stuntvis, and more. During the production stage, real-time artists can work on set, assisting with various elements and duties involving the LED volume.
What skills does a real-time artist need?
To be a successful real-time 3D artist, it’s worthwhile broadening your skillset beyond a solid understanding of Unreal Engine. The mentors suggested brushing up on the following skills:
Problem-solving (possibly the most critical skill to accompany content creation)
Good foundations in art, like those of a DOP (Director of Photography)
An understanding of animation and animation rigs
Basic knowledge of film production processes (e.g. scripts, concepts, sets, storyboards)
A general understanding of cameras and how changing their values will contribute to how you might block, light, and shoot a scene. Practice with a camera (even your phone camera!) and explore settings like manual exposure, shutter, aperture control, focal length, sensor size, and field of view.
Because virtual production is non-linear, having a grasp of the traditional production pipeline and its various stages is beneficial.
How is real-time being used?
Real-time is paving new, improved workflows for the film and online games industries, and bridging some of the gaps found in a traditional production pipeline. It’s been adopted as a tool by filmmakers and content creators to visualize at the pre and production stages what they’d usually only be able to view in post.
On large-scale productions live real-time virtual sets are displayed on LED screens. These virtual backdrops with interactive lighting replace the traditional green screens, helping to contextually immerse the talent within a setting and rendering them in final pixels.
Real-time also aids in expediting the concept art stage. With access to ready-made assets and lighting set-ups, content creators are now able to mock up a proof of concept within a few hours — something previously unheard of in this line of work!
Outside of film and online games, real-time is applied across a range of industries for a variety of reasons such as:
Installations and projections for events for exhibitions and concerts for more interactive and immersive experiences
Marketing and commercial purposes such as fashion shows (see Deepak’s virtual fashion show for GCDS as part of Milan Fashion Week)
Environment and theater design.
What is the difference between a real-time artist and a regular 3D artist?
The main differences between a real-time artist and a regular 3D artist are the workflows and software they use.
A regular 3D artist generally uses software that requires offline processing for its renders. They commonly work at the start and end of a traditional linear film production pipeline whereas a real-time artist can also be required during on set filming (e.g. when filming requires an LED Volume). Real-time 3D artists follow more non-linear virtual production workflows, with a capacity to render their work in real-time.
Virtual production’s non-linear workflow has created some exciting opportunities for real-time artists and content creation, including:
Artists can mock up a concept in a few hours and see changes in real time.
The iteration process (e.g. experimenting with VFX in film) begins much earlier in the production schedule.
Content creators have the power to generate high-quality imagery from the outset of production rather than further down the line, traditionally in post.
Assets such as 3D models are cross-compatible and may be implemented from previsualization through to final outputs.
William offers photography as an analogy to explain the difference between traditional production workflows versus virtual production workflows. Unlike analog (film) cameras, digital photography enables you to see your photos as you’re taking them, which means you can learn from your mistakes faster and adjust your shots accordingly.
If you want to be a real-time 3D artist and work in virtual production, learning Unreal Engine is important, even for established filmmakers. You can get started learning how to operate the software today by downloading Unreal Engine for free.
The good news is that, according to the experts, the learning curve is not too steep when it comes to navigating some of Unreal Engine’s basics, like the layout. There are dozens of free Unreal Engine courses through the Unreal Online Learning platform. For more personalized career training and mentorship from an established real-time artist, CG Spectrum’s Introduction to Real-time 3D & Virtual Production is a great place to start. The even better news? You don’t necessarily need VFX experience to get started!
Is there a demand for real-time artists in films and games?
Real-time artists are sought after right now, making it a very exciting time to get into virtual production. Here are some reasons to consider becoming a real-time 3D artist and why this role is currently in demand:
Real-time artists have the ability to create photorealistic images at an incredibly fast frame rate, and you don’t need a supercomputer to generate the content.
Real-time artists support film and game makers in creative decision-making early in the production process.
Post-production vendors receive a more reliable idea of what they should be creating, giving the client more creative control and ensuring better communication throughout the pipeline.
Real-time artists bridge some of the gaps between pre-production, production, and post-production.
There is less chance of scope creep if you’re solidifying everything in pre-production.
Virtual and physical sets can be built concurrently with live production which shortens the timeline.
How to get started as a real-time artist?
Becoming a real-time 3D artist requires knowing how to confidently navigate a game engine, like Unreal Engine or Unity, even if you're an established content creator or artist.
While there are various free real-time courses accessible online, CG Spectrum's virtual production courses distinguish themselves by offering tailored career mentorship from highly experienced real-time artists, with different courses to suit your skill level.
Utilizing tools like Unreal Engine, Maya, Motionbuilder, and Substance Painter, you'll get to create incredible 3D environments through learning world building, lighting, and camera principles. Work with characters, rigs, digital humans, and motion capture and apply the new skills in your virtual production tool belt to bring their stories to life on a stage volume or in one of the many other jobs as a real-time 3D artist. Your work throughout your studies will also ensure you have a polished film-quality cinematic shot for your portfolio to impress future employers.
There is a HUGE demand for Unreal Engine artists and with UE5 right around the corner, now’s the time to get as big of a head start as possible. -William Faucher
Want to work in virtual production and create awesome content as a 3D real-time artist?
If you want to become a real-time artist, check out CG Spectrum'svirtual production courses. As an Unreal Authorized Training Center and Unreal Academic Partner, CG Spectrum courses, led by real-time experts, teach you the skills you need to get you industry-ready.
Shoshanah has almost a decade of visual effects production experience, coordinating VFX teams in Australia and London. Her credits include Mad Max: Fury Road, Ant-Man, John Wick: Parabellum, Game of Thrones, and Christopher Robin. She now enjoys getting to write about the film and games industry.