Veselin Efremov:
"CGI allows tiny teams to tell their stories"

In the new exclusive interview ALMAMAT. IT Faces talked to Veselin Efremov, writer and art director of the Unity films "Book of the Dead", "Adam", "The Blacksmith" and "The Heretic". These short films have millions of views on YouTube. They are amazingly made and tell exciting stories in just a few minutes. All of them are CGI, computer graphics, and in some cases the team used the scanned objects from real life. The Unity Demo Team, led by Vess Efremov, consists of only 12 people – artists, animators, producers, programmers, etc.
Veselin Efremov

Writer-Director, Unity Demo Team ("The Heretic", "Book of the Dead", "Adam", "The Blacksmith"). Art Director, Crytek, Black Sea Studios. Stockholm, Sweden

PHOTO: COURTESY OF veselin Efremov

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.
"Adam: Episode 1" by Unity Demo Team. The video source: Unity, Youtube
"Book of the Dead - Unity Interactive Demo - Realtime Teaser" by Unity Demo Team. The video source: Unity, Youtube
"The Heretic: Unity GDC 2019 reveal" by Unity Demo Team. The video source: Unity, Youtube

Veselin Efremov: "I always refer to our shorts as big films, from which we've cut a small piece"

The cinema masters are criticizing the highly-CGI superhero movies. At the same time, the short films like 'Adam' or 'Book of the Dead' are the mesmerizing cinema – without any actors on the screen and lasting just several minutes. They leave the viewer with a feeling that he/she just saw something huge. The Unity Demo Team includes only 12 people to create films like these. This looks like a turning point in cinema history. Please share your thoughts on this?

Veselin Efremov: I believe CGI is just another tool, and I don't think there's a problem with it. It's a tool that allows talented filmmakers to tell stories in ways that weren't possible before. What can be considered a problem is when it's used in a way that is gratuitous and self-indulging. If it's poorly made, a digital effect can take the viewer out of the experience, or desensitize people to the spectacles. Somebody was commenting on a recent screening of Buster Keaton movies where the audience was captivated and mesmerized by the stunts and practical effects because they knew they were real. This is something we're losing nowadays, we just assume that nothing is real.

I don't think the critique towards superhero movies is necessarily linked with CGI. Scorsese uses a lot of CGI in his latest film. And in my opinion, there are some great superhero movies. I loved 'Watchmen' and Nolan's Dark Knight movies.

The turning point is that technology democratizes film-making. There are cameras and lenses that are way more affordable than before, and CGI allows tiny teams to tell their stories. Using game engines makes things even more accessible – working in a real-time environment allows for cheap and fast iterations where creators can try ideas quickly.

On the other hand, publishing platforms like YouTube have allowed creative people to reach enormous audiences. It's an amazing time to be creative.

The fantastic short films are clever and interesting – and predominantly apocalyptic. May they give us some hope also – or there will be no story to tell? May I ask you to mention your favorite CGI short films?

Veselin Efremov: That's an interesting observation, I wonder why that is. It might be something trivial, like production costs – it's way cheaper to tell a story of a single or handful of characters in a ruined environment, compared to, say, a city bustling with life. From our films, I think only 'Adam' can be considered (post-)apocalyptic, but it can ultimately be perceived as a positive and hopeful story.

It may sound absurd, but I'm not a fan of short films, so I'd very rarely watch one. Visually I was super impressed by "The Witness," which had such a fresh use of CGI. But again, I haven't seen that many.

One of the commentators said in YouTube comment to Adam: «I need 10 seasons with 20 episodes each telling the rest of the story. Make it happen!» What do you think: the films like 'Book of the Dead' are so memorable because they leave the viewer with a lot of questions and theories about the story and at the same time with a new cultural experience and a sense of completion – or it's a good idea to make the multi-season series?

Veselin Efremov: When we build the worlds of our projects, there's way more work done than what ends up on the screen. World-building is a passion of mine, and I think most stories benefit from a world that is larger and more developed than the needs of their particular narrative. In our case, the story always comes at a later stage, after a lot of the universe has been created. I always refer to our shorts as big films, from which we've cut a small piece. They don't start or end properly, there's a lot that has happened before and a lot that's coming after, and closure is only on a micro-scale.

We try to sneak in details of the world in conceptual designs where possible, but in general, I don't care much about explaining everything. There should be a sense of a big overarching story, but I don't think it's crucial for the viewer to know what it is exactly.

I usually lose interest once we finish a film and can't wait to start something new and different, but it also feels like a wasted opportunity – there are so many ideas that are already created in these worlds, and yet these stories might never be told. So I'd be more than happy to see them grow, but I don't think I'd want to be stuck in one project for a long time. Someone else would need to adopt the ideas and keep running with them.

What was the fastest, the most creative or the most surprising progress in Unity film creation, which you witnessed – what the person created?

Veselin Efremov: The beauty about real-time film-making is that everybody works at the same time, from day one. So we might be playing with cameras before we have concept art, or experimenting with lighting and grading before we know what the world looks like. You don't need to have a script to try things. Everybody gets to be creative all the time. We've had cases where there was only sound, and we've built the visuals around it. Some of my favorite shots were never planned, we just opportunistically discovered them while playing around. The traditional way of making films is very linear and not particularly collaborative. To me, it sounds like a horrible way to create things.

I heard an opinion that more fields become IT as far as the technologies and code become the way everything works. People question themselves about the automatization – what do you think about the proportion of threats and opportunities inside this phenomenon?

Veselin Efremov: During my professional life, I've seen countless examples of talented people wasting most of their time doing mundane non-creative tasks. I'm very happy that technology increasingly takes care of such tasks. Creative people should create, they shouldn't be doing mindless repetitive actions. The machines are great at that, and that's what they're designed for. Procedurally generated content, simulations, neural networks, automation and so on allow individuals to make things that used to require enormous teams or were even impossible before. ALMAMAT. IT Faces