Ben has over a decade of experience in the film, TV and games industries. He spent five years at the helm of Andy Serkis’ The Imaginarium Studios, where his credits included Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Tempest (RSC) and Star Citizen. He joined Epic Games in 2017 to focus on the ever-expanding use of Unreal Engine in the world of media and entertainment.
You started your career in the CG industry as a motion capture system operator. Can you tell us how you became interested in motion capture and what you did before that?
I was in a rock band in my twenties. When that didn’t quite work out, I moved to Vancouver and needed a job! I figured I could plug stuff in a music studio, so why not plug things in on a film set. I spent a couple of years on film sets as a Grip and Electrician and Production Assistant. I first started in motion capture for the film District 9. I had so much fun I knew I wanted to do more.
You’ve been in motion capture for a long time. What are the challenges of dealing with this business? What is the most interesting project that you have participated in and why?
Motion capture is a wonderful thing. It’s a real mix of the creative and technical, and also the real and virtual. My proudest project is a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Intel. We created a live avatar of the character Ariel in The Tempest, which we deployed using Unreal Engine.
You have worked at The Imaginarium Studios founded by Andy Serkis. How was the collaboration with Andy and what knowledge did you get from him, given his experience in performing motion capture performance?
I first met Andy on set of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I couldn’t believe how he inhabited the character Caesar. Andy is a visionary – he is a friend and a mentor. He has a huge heart – my greatest learning from him is his strong sense of empathy is what I believe makes him a great actor, director and person.
You work now at Epic Games as a Business Development Manager for Unreal. Can you tell us more about your responsibilities? What attracted you to go to Epic?
The interesting thing for me about motion capture is that it has always been the mix of story and entertainment across all media. At Imaginarium we used Unreal Engine to drive avatars in real time and I was blown away by the technology. I saw an opportunity in the convergence of games and film with Unreal at the centre. I feel very lucky in my current role. I look after non-games use of Unreal Engine in the world of media and entertainment.
Real-time engines have been present in the field of video games for a long time, but today we are beginning to see more of them in film and television. What are the advantages of working in real time that would motivate this transition?
For creatives, the ability to iterate quickly is key. It is fun to be able to experiment and change things, and conversely it can feel like an impediment if you are restricted in that iterative creative process. Working in real time allows for more iteration. Using a game engine like Unreal also means that you can add elements of interactivity to what might otherwise be a linear experience, plus you can publish to multiple platforms. Let’s say you want to make a cartoon. You can set out to publish to multiple platforms with this cartoon. Episodes for YouTube, a VR experience, an app on your phone. All of this can be accomplished from the same tool using the same content pipeline.
All render engines (real-time and non-real time) tend to be photorealistic, but we are aware that real-time engines in some situations have not reached that level. Is the restriction in the hardware of the user (eg. television stations) or are the render engines themselves the reason why they have not yet developed sufficiently?
There have been restrictions in both, historically, but the rate of change is astronomical. Who would have thought that real-time ray tracing would have been available so soon? Graphic cards and compute power are advancing so quickly and we are aligned with all of the right partners in order to take advantage of it.
Today, it’s possible to perform a large portion of VFX production in Unreal engine (animation, shading, lighting, compositing). Can we expect Unreal to be an all-in-one package one day, where we’ll be able to perform even the most complex VFX scenes?
We’re always working to advance our tool set. Our compositing framework is getting an overhaul at the moment. Eventually I believe that we will get to the stage where you can use Unreal Engine for even the most complex of VFX scenes.
Digital avatars are certainly our future. From your point of view, where will the first ones find their practical application?
We’ve seen digital doubles in film for a while now and that won’t change. I can tell you there is interest from a huge variety of industries. I think photorealistic simulations for training is a big one. Personal training: imagine having a digital avatar to practise for a job interview, crisis i medical training.
If digital avatars, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence are our future – does that mean that one day we will watch Hollywood blockbusters in a virtual reality, rendered in a real-time machine, with movie characters played by AI instead of humans?
I think that that is inevitable. But will that be the most popular form of entertainment? Personally I am fascinated by the human element of artistry and creativity in what I consume. I have heard AI music composed in the style of Bach, which is an incredible feat, but that is enjoyable because it mimic’s great original artistry.
In your opinion, what is the biggest disadvantage of real-time engines right now? Where is the solution to the problem?
I think the greatest disadvantage to any 3D software is the lack of ability to collaborate. We’re aiming to solve that by putting collaborative tools into the editor.
You was in Belgrade to share your experience at CGA Belgrade conference. How do you feel about Serbia? How do you see our talents?
I have a long-standing relationship with Vladimir and 3Lateral, goin back to Ryse: Son of Rome in 2012. They do fantastic work. I’m very proud of the 90 minutes of cut-scenes we did together for Battlefield 1. I have only visited once before, when we brought Andy Serkis to Novi Sad. We had a wonderful time! Serbia seems to have a lot of talent in the world of performance capture. Dejan Momcilovic (Mocap Supervisor at Weta) and Petar Milacic (Sr TA at Animatrik) are two greats I have worked with in the past.
What word of advice would you give to a young emerging artist coming from Serbia about getting the attention of the big guys? Do they even have to think about it or just do their best at work?
Work hard and keep trying! For VFX and art showreels, focus on quality over quantity.