Veselin, please tell us about yourself for our audience? How did you start to make the Unity movies? What are your personal and/or team achievements and collaborations?
Veselin Efremov: Drawing and computers have been a passion of mine since very early childhood. I started combining the two in the mid 80's on a Bulgarian 'knock-off Apple' computer when I taught myself to write simple drawing programs.
After high school during my years in University, I started work as a graphic and web designer until I managed to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine and join the games industry in 2001. I worked as an art director in games for over 10 years on a variety of projects – hardcore indie PC games, AAA, mobile, etc.
In my last job in the industry, we were using Unity, and that's how I met some of the wonderful people there. Their demo team was based in Stockholm, where I was, so I visited often, and eventually came up with the idea for what became "The Blacksmith." I pitched it to them, and they liked it, so I took a leave of absence from work and went on to do that. The team was really tiny for that project – I was writing and directing and was the only artist, and we had one programmer and one animator and a producer. And that was it. We outsourced some of the content, of course, but the core development team was just us.
The Blacksmith came out in 2015 and turned out to be quite a success. My friends at Unity asked me to stay, and I couldn't be happier. We had the opportunity to expand the team and increase the ambition for the next project. 'Adam' was released in 2016, and the reception was amazing.
By the time we wrap up a project we really want to do something different, so after toying a little with the idea to tell more stories from the 'Adam' universe (we even had the first draft of a script in place, also some concept art) we decided to try to do something interactive in a completely new setting, and that became' Book of the Dead'.
Our latest project is 'The Heretic,' and it should be out really soon.
Please tell us about the creation of the 'Book of the Dead' Demo and 'Adam'? I heard that you used a specific approach creating the 'Book of the Dead' to make it look so realistic.
Veselin Efremov: Scoping is one of the most important elements of our productions. Coming up with the idea that has the potential to be exciting, to take advantage of new technological features, but also to avoid shortcomings and ultimately be doable by a small team, is crucial for us.
The idea for 'Adam' came from a set of restrictions and opportunities. At the time, we had neither the capacity nor the technology required to attempt making a realistic human. In our previous film, 'The Blacksmith,' the titular character by design is not quite human – a deity with white chalky skin, and his opponent's face is mostly hidden by a helmet. So robots seemed like a natural choice for telling a story without real people. There were other tech advancements in Unity at this point that allowed us to have shiny reflective surfaces and nice sharp details, which we mostly avoided in 'The Blacksmith.'
So – robots! I wasn't too excited about robot characters; I never liked stories about AI where it's portrayed just like normal people with the same kind of feelings and emotions but rejected from society for being different. It can be a nice allegory, but it has been done so many times, and never seemed particularly plausible to me. So, we went in a different direction – these are actual people, but they have been stripped from their bodies. And from that, the ideas just started flowing naturally, questions about identity and humanity and society, and so on.
The biggest practical challenge, I think, was to be able to convey to the viewers that this was a living person. When your eyes tell you it's a robot, it's hard to argue. We tried to constantly reinforce that idea - waking up, looking around, breathing, inspecting his arms and face, trying to get it off, being unstable in this foreign shell of a body, and so on. The sound was very important as well – we were very careful to stay away from tropes like whirring motors on the joints or overly modulated breathing.
Going from the relatively barren concrete-and-metal world of 'Adam' to 'Book of the Dead' was quite a leap for us. Again, trying to avoid rendering realistic humans, we decided to make it in the first person, with the story being told on two separate planes – one visual and one audible, that mostly overlap but sometimes separate as well. I think there were a lot of nice ideas there and I'm sad we never managed to show them. Puzzles based on optical illusions and perception of the world, slowly recovering memories, unreliable narrator, and many more. We really wanted to make something that felt both as a game and film at the same time – everything was edited as a film with different shots, but the camera would have one continuous motion between the cuts; focus was being pulled based on the story progression, lighting and grading would change, and so on.
In the end, we showed only a small teaser that barely scratches the surface of this project.
In terms of the look, we took advantage of the new rendering pipeline that Unity was developing at the time, and that allowed us to make things look way more realistic. The way light behaves and materials are rendered is so important when trying to depict a forest. We also partnered with Quixel, a company that specializes in amazing high quality scanned content, so we were basically using real objects – rocks and roots and grass and shrubs and trees, and so on.