Last year, the company behind the Unity game engine released Adam, a proof-of-concept short film designed to show off its cinematic creation tools. It doesn’t have much of a story: it’s just a robot escaping a prison. But Unity Technologies earned enough of a response to justify developing the story into something bigger, and its representatives turned to Neill Blomkamp’s Oats Studios.
Blomkamp, the writer-director of Elysium and District 9, launched Oats earlier this year as an experiment. He wanted to develop his film ideas without waiting years for the attention and resources of a typical Hollywood studio. Earlier this summer, he released a series of videos — Rakka, Firebase, and Zygote — along with several other shorter films, all of which could potentially be developed into more extensive projects down the road. Meanwhile, Unity unveiled a new version of Cinemachine, software that lets creators direct their own CG short films. Cinemachine is designed to make minute adjustments in colors, lighting, shadows, and camera placement, all while rendering the graphics in real time.
Sylvio Drouin, Unity’s Head of Labs, says work began on the first Adam film four years ago. People in the company anticipated that some elements of the film and gaming industry would merge, he says, and realized it was “time to start working on making the Unity engine and editor compatible with film technology.”
Adam was part of that effort, says Isabelle Riva, head of the company’s Made with Unity division. She says the company’s philosophy is to allow teams to innovate and come up with projects to test out the graphics engine on their own, rather than giving them a top-down mandate. Most teams move on to other challenges, but in Adam’s case, “we thought it was a potential IP, because the response was so strong.” She says the team “thought ‘wow, maybe this story needs to continue.’”
Blomkamp says Unity got in touch with him while he was working on his three Oats tentpole films. Oats’ staff had seen Adam, and were intrigued by the real-time rendering and the world Unity came up with. Unity handed the project over to Blomkamp, who wrote a story bible about Adam and his world. From there, Oats used Cinemachine to produce a pair of short films that build off the original 2016 film: Adam: The Mirror, and Adam: The Prophet.
The original Adam introduces the title character, a prisoner who appears to have been uploaded into a robotic body. He’s awoken and released along with his fellow prisoners. They’re greeted by two mysterious robots who erase their records and lead them off into the desert. Adam: The Mirror picks up right after, following the former prisoners as they’re brought to a safehouse. There, their rescuer tells them that they used to be part of something called The Consortium, which wiped their minds. The reason behind their imprisonment is unknown, but they meet with The Mirror, an individual who can read who they used to be, and describe their histories and crimes. Adam, it turns out, was a political dissident. The film answers some questions left by the first film, but like Oats’ other shorts, it illustrates a broad world that hints at a much larger potential story to come.
Unity recently screened Adam: The Mirror as part of its Unite Austin 2017 Keynote, and Adam: The Prophet will appear at some point this fall.
Chris Harvey, Oats Studios’ VFX Supervisor, explains that the main appeal of Unity’s engine is the real-time rendering, which lets filmmakers adjust on the fly. “Literally, you could put a hat [on Adam], hit play, and watch the film with that,” he says. “
The advantage for Oats is that the software helped streamline the studio’s filmmaking efforts. “The biggest thing for me was the cameras,” Blomkamp says. “If you’re working live-action, you have no choice but to work with what you shot six months earlier.” And if a shot comes across badly, directors are stuck with the results, unless they have the time and resources to go back and reshoot. With Unity, Blomkamp explains, he can make shot adjustments immediately. In this particular short film, he says Oats started the film with harsh overhead lighting, but later changed the position of the sun, which led to softer, more appealing visuals.
But what stands out about this short film is that it’s such a visible jump from technical demo to entertainment property. While the short film is ultimately an experiment, it fits alongside the other films Oats released earlier this summer as snippets of a much larger world. Whatever the future holds for Adam and his fellow escaped prisoners, there are clearly plenty of places Blomkamp can take this story.
Oats Studios released a third installment on November 30th, which shows off a new facet of the world: a cult of human survivors who are seemingly immune to the toxic environment, and are hellbent on destroying the robotic bodies that The Consortium created. Like the rest of the studio’s films, it shows off a small part of a much larger world, one that could be ripe for a larger film down the road.
Update November 30th, 2:50 PM ET: Article has been updated to add third Adam short.