Recently, Sean and I got the opportunity to film a project in a state-of-the-art studio called LA Castle Studios out of Burbank, CA. This place is incredible. They have figured out how to bridge Green Screen Filming and Digital Environments together, in Real-Time. Most of the time, when you film on a green screen, you have to film first and add the environment later, something you’ll still be doing at home. But in Castle Studio, they have designed and patented a technology that allows the cameras to speak to the computers, telling the Digital Environment Software what direction the cameras are facing and then the software can move the digital environment around to match what the cameras should be seeing in the scene.
Without the technology at Castle Studios, you simply film your scene on a green screen, then later, you painstakingly match the digital environment with the camera movements throughout. This blog post isn’t about how make that technology at home, but it is about how to easily edit premade digital environment to use on your own green screens. Unless you have camera sliders or motorized mounts, you’ll want to film everything on a green screen Static. Now that means you don’t move the camera in any way throughout the scene. It’s also best to use multiple cameras so your scene doesn’t get stale.
Digital Environments give you the opportunity to create a world of your own behind you in your projects. If you’re doing a news/talk show style project and want the cool environments they use on TV shows, Digital Environments can make that happen for you. If you’d like to be in medieval times with your friends, Digital Environments can make that happen. Maybe you want to film in a dark and scary mansion, they can do that too.
Unreal Engine is the Program I use to create and edit Digital Environments. Unreal Engine is free. If you use it to make a video game for consumer release, I believe you must give them a percentage of your revenue, but for filmmaking, you’re all clear. You’ll have to download the Epic Games Launcher and then the Unreal Engine (I recommend 4.19 as of this writing) through the Launcher. Once you have both installed, open Epic Games Launcher and Navigate to the Marketplace on the Left. Once you're there, look for the Categories Tab on the Top and then navigate to the Environments tab and click.
There are a TON of premade environments on the Unreal Marketplace. Scroll through and find one or a couple that you like. Be sure to look around for others that are similar. You may be asking yourself, "if they are premade, why am I editing them?" Well, they're premade to be used as a video game, not to be used as backgrounds on a green screen. You need to remove objects that would be in front of the actor in the digital environment because when you film, the actor will always be in front of whatever if on the greenscreen. It looks weird when an actors are is in front of a potted plant or deck that's supposed to be 10 feet in front of the actor. You also may want to specifically design the area that you will be filming in so it fits exactly into your story or idea.
Once you've chosen your environment and bought it, you'll find it in your Library. You can access your Library by clicking "Library" in the menu on the left. Once there, find the environment you would like to edit and click the yellow icon that reads "Create Project".
When your project first opens, you may be confused to see nothing there. This is because you have yet to open the Map that the environment is located in. To Start, look for the "Content" tab in the lower box. This will bring you to the base file, in case the project opened up within another one. Once there, click on the name of the environment folder. In this example it happens to be "Classic Mansion".
In this folder you will see a series of other folders. Remember above when I mentioned you needed to open the Map that your Environment is in? Well, go ahead and click on the folder that says "Maps".
In order to load this Environment, I chose the "Demonstration" file. Sometimes it will be called other things, but the first file that looks like a set of objects is usually the one you're looking for. If not, try the others until you find the environment you're looking for. After double clicking on the file, it will begin to load the Environment. LET IT LOAD. It might seem frozen at times, but it is not. Depending on the power of your PC, it may take a while.
Once your environment is fully loaded, along with the shaders, take a moment to get to know the controls of Moving Around the world.
If you Click and Hold the Left Mouse Button, you'll move around as if you're controlling a camera, freely moving through the world.
If you Click and Hold the Right Mouse Button, you will Look Around, but stay in one place.
If you Click and Hold your Scroll Wheel, you will move the camera straight Up and Down or Side to Side.
When looking around, you'll first notice there are little cartoonish lightbulbs and spherical mirrors. Those will not be there in your final product. They are merely icons to inform you that there is a light emitting from that spot as well as reflection processes calculating the light for mirrors and other shiny objects.
If you navigate to the little arrow next to the word Perspective on the left side and click it, that arrow will drop down a menu. Navigate to "Game View" and check that box. Now all those lightbulbs and spheres will go away. When you want to change the lighting in your scene, you'll want to uncheck that box to make it easier for yourself. For this example, we'll keep that box checked and the lightbulbs out of our way.
Let's say we don't like this Knight right here. Maybe we want him somewhere else. Go ahead and Select any object by clicking on it with the LEFT mouse button. You'll notice it becomes outlined as well as the object is highlighted in your list of components on the right. We won't get into that list in this post. But once you have the object selected you should see three different colored arrows.
In order to move an object North or South (we need to use those as references to make this easier) we'll want to use the RED Arrow. If you want to move the object East or West, you would use the GREEN Arrow. If you wish to bring the object Up or Down, you need to use the BLUE Arrow. These are the X, Y, Z dimensions in your Digital Space.
What you just did was MOVE an object around. But if you want to do other things like scale or rotate an object, those options are in the upper right side of the viewport. The three images below show these options along with a short description. I would recommend hovering over each other these options as well as those next to them, in order to se the tips for each one. The Grid icon makes objects move in a grid-like manner instead of freely. The Angle icon makes objects move by specific degree angles. The Dot and Arrow icon will Scale objects by set percentages. The numbers next to each of those icons define your set parameters, they are customizable.
Now, what about when you find objects in the environment that you don't want at all. Like these boxes below. If you're lining up your shooting space and need to get rid of some items, it's as simple as deleting them.
What if you're trying to delete a Pile of Objects, not just one. Well, you could go and delete one by one. But that's really tedious. I like to select one, and then hold shift while selecting the others. This multi-select trick comes in handy So often.
Now that you have all the boxes selected, hit the "Delete" or "Backspace" key on your computer, either one will work. Poof, they're gone. Don't you wish cleaning your room was that easy?
Now, let's talk about Adding objects to your scene. Maybe you want to throw something in the background that you saw somewhere else in the environment, or worse, maybe you deleted an object on accident and now you need it back. At the bottom, next to where you clicked "Content" in the beginning, go ahead and click on the name of your environment. This one happens to be called "ClassicMansion".
Now that you're in your Environment's Folder, Look for a folder called "Meshes" and open that one by double clicking on the folder icon.
Scroll through the list until you find what you're looking for and I kid you not, it's as simple as click, hold, drag, drop. I went ahead and dragged two chairs into my scene.
Be sure to reposition your objects with the techniques I shared with you above. After you've got everything in place, go ahead and notice the red warning at the upper left. I've only moved around the Knight statue and added two chairs, but I need to relight 370 objects because now light will be bouncing off of all the objects different. The statue may now be blocking a candlelight and the chairs need to cast shadows of their own in order for this to look real. Go ahead and navigate to the "Build" option in the top with an icon that looks like a 3D Bar Graph. Click on Build an let the engine do it's magic.
Don't forget to save your work CONSTANTLY along the way. There's an autosave feature that may pop-up and scare you every once in a while. Let that run it's course but be sure never to forget to save all your work when you're done for the day.
I hope you understand the basics of editing an environment in Unreal Engine now and will enjoy creating many of your own custom scenes in the future. It's important to remember to share the makers of your environments in all the projects you use their material in. For instance, the original creator of the Classic Mansion is Anil Isbilar, you can find a ton of other cool environments and assets on the Unreal Marketplace by clicking HERE. If you've got questions about Unreal Engine or have different ways of editing Unreal Engine Environments, drop a comment below and join the conversation. Look out for future posts about setting up Cameras within your Digital Environment to capture the scene you'll use on your green screen as well as others for lighting the green screen and much more!