'District 9' director's stunning new project brings cinema and gaming closer together

Whether it’s depicting prawn aliens in giant mech-suits or creepy heavy-breathing robots, it’s fair to say Neill Blomkamp has a penchant for cutting-edge CGI.

Blomkamp, director of District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, has teamed up with the video game engine Unity to bring us his new short film ADAM: The Mirror, a sequel to the original ADAM film put out by Unity last year

As well as having breathtaking graphics, the piece hails a new world of possibilities for filmmakers and brings cinema and gaming closer together. It gives creators scope to play around with visuals in real-time without waiting around for CGI to render, and for their work to be easily adapted to new platforms like VR and IMAX. 

Originally Unity made ADAM as a demonstration of how their game engine could be used to make animated films after they noticed a demand for filmmaking capabilities from their users. Blomkamp and his experimental film studio Oats saw the film and were very impressed.

Unity later got in touch with Blomkamp to ask whether he’d be interested in expanding the project. As you can imagine, he was a very keen bean.

He told us, “I proceeded to kind of write a bigger story around [ADAM] once we figured out the bigger world that it took place in, then we set about making two films that are a little bit bigger.”

The two new films, entitled ADAM: The Mirror and ADAM: The Prophet follow the story of an amnesiac cyborg living in a dystopian wasteland, so pretty much right up Blomkamp’s sci-fi alley. The first of the two films is available to watch now on Youtube and it’s next-level gorgeous.

So what exactly does it mean to film real-time in a game engine?

Simply put, it gives the filmmakers unbelievable flexibility compared to traditional animation. They can make changes and interact with those changes in real-time rather than having to wait ages for layers of CGI to render. But according to Blomkamp this streamlined flexibility isn’t even the most exciting part.

“The most appealing part of it we actually haven’t done yet. That whole piece, the burning desert landscape, the inside of the outpost, all of those assets and environments and characters and setups, exist now forever on our drives at Oats.”

This means that everything they’ve made for the film is endlessly re-usable.

“So if we wanna tell another story inside any of those setups all we have to do is get actors out to the mo-cap stage for a day and that’s basically gonna be the cost of telling a whole new piece, other than sound design,” he said.

The real-time graphics rendering gives Blomkamp and the VFX artists incredible creative license to radically change scenes at late stages in the production.

“We could take the film and we could switch the wardrobe on characters, or switch the characters, or change the time of day. We could just make it night and hit the play button,” Blomkamp said. “Weird stuff like that is gonna yield some really interesting creative outlets.”

In the press release for the film he described the technology as a kind of “virtual sandbox,” meaning it lets filmmakers play around with their creation to an incredible degree.

Cyborgs gather round the robo-fire to hear why their minds been transferred into robotic bodies in 'ADAM: The Mirror'

Cyborgs gather round the robo-fire to hear why their minds been transferred into robotic bodies in ‘ADAM: The Mirror’

Image: Unity

This technology also has huge potential for audiences.

Unity is putting out ADAM: The Mirror for two-dimensional viewing on YouTube for starters, but it could go a lot further.

The piece is potentially VR and IMAX compatible, Blomkamp told us, “with the click of several buttons [the film] can be imported into a 3D visor and watched […]  it’s running at 30 frames per second, and you need about 60 fps for presence in VR so we may have to economise on a couple of things to get it up to 60 fps. But other than that, that entire short is basically viewable in VR, that’s how cross-platformable it is.”

It would even be possible, if you had a computer properly equipped for it, to put out a version of the film where the viewer could choose where the camera looks just by moving the mouse.

Despite Blomkamp describing himself as a “video game philistine” (reason being he only plays first-person shooters) this piece represents a huge innovation in terms of how we look at game engines as tools. “This is literally the future of how we can tell stories cinematically. People associate it with games but it’s moving into cinema,” said Blomkamp.

Along with the success of walking simulator story-based games like The Stanley Parable and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, ADAM further bridges the gap between cinema and gaming. The interactivity, both in its creation and in the potential viewing experience, is a real innovation. Moreover the level of detail in the CGI is stunning, and the mere fact that this technology could facilitate the making of such gorgeous scenes is reason enough to celebrate it.

So plenty to look forward to with the next instalment in the series ADAM: The Prophet, in which according to the Unity press release, “gives viewers their first glimpse of one of the villains in the ADAM universe.”

Considering how spooky the heroes seem so far, we can only imagine how frightening the villains will be.

WATCH: Short film shows what ‘District 9’ would look like in an 8-bit world

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