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Unity is the little game engine that could revolutionize animated movies

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The new Cinemachine automates much of the process away, leaving you free to be creative

Image: Unity

This week, I attended the Unite Europe conference in Amsterdam, where more than 1,400 current and aspiring game developers gathered to see the latest tools and innovations from Unity, the company responsible for one of the most popular and widely used game engines. But my big takeaway from the event was less about gaming than about moviemaking: the new Cinemachine component that's coming to Unity's 2017.1 release feels a little bit revolutionary. It grants amazing directorial and cinematography powers to even neophyte users like me, and it goes to the heart of Unity's stated mission of democratizing development. It's like the stuff Epic Games talked about with the Unreal Engine back in 2015 made real today.

The web has made the pursuit of a career in the creative arts much more accessible and feasible for a lot of us. Illicitly downloaded copies of Photoshop have served as the starting point for many digital artists, with online communities providing encouragement, collaboration, and tips on improvement. For others, like myself, the web's provided opportunities to publish our writing and receive immediate feedback from a critical and insightful audience. What I see in the new Cinemachine in Unity is a similar lowering of the bar of entry for anyone interested in developing animation or cinematography skills.

What's cool about it? Let's put together a list:

  • Firstly, you're not left stranded with a blank canvas. Unity's Asset Store is full of free 3D models and environments — including the hugely impressive Adam character that starred in a technical demo last year — and the engine itself is full of generic animations that you can apply to your characters. So without even a hint of programming knowhow, you can have an avatar moving and doing things inside Unity.
  • In 2017, Unity is adding a timeline view, which is going to be familiar to anyone who's ever experimented with music or video creation. Your entire game can sit on multiple layered timelines with triggered or timed events, not too dissimilar to how your GarageBand samples are arranged on the screen. To make an actual game, you'd need to get your hands dirty with some coding, but the overriding appeal for me is that I can see myself animating a short movie without ever resorting to that. This NLE (non-linear editor) view is deeply familiar to me, having played around with FruityLoops and Sony Vegas in the past, and I'd imagine a lot of other people would find it easy to get started in.
  • Cinemachine automates a ton of camera parameters to give you a more realistic and atmospheric presentation. Want camera shake to simulate handheld recording or the point of view of a moving character? It's there for you, adjustable to the exact degree of wobble you're looking for. Want to switch from a dolly shot behind your character to a fixed tracking view mounted on a wall nearby? Insert both on your timeline, then drag the edge of one of those timeline clips over the other and they'll seamlessly blend with a gorgeous panning transition. Seeing that during the Unite Europe keynote was the big "wow" moment for me.
  • For those who like to tinker with the look of their photos or video, Unity is now an absolute delight of granular toggles and sliders. You can tweak saturation in just the shadows or just the highlights, or you can adjust the color balance with a helpful new visualization, and the whole thing again requires no programming expertise. Basically, it's cinema-quality post-processing that just happens to live inside a game engine.
  • More than anything else, the appeal of Unity as an animation engine is in its combination of high-quality graphics with instant playback and review. You get to see exactly what your scene will look like and you can adjust it immediately if anything feels off. It takes much of the process out of being creative, which is as essential to newcomer hobbyists as it is to professionals looking for efficient ways to iterate on a project.

Adam Myhill, the creator of Cinemachine, joined Unity earlier this year following an extensive career in cinematography and game engine design. I spoke with him at Unite Europe and he was predictably bullish on the breadth of potential uses for Cinemachine and the new timeline, pointing out that he'd received very positive feedback from Disney's CTO, who is apparently a very hard person to impress. Myhill is bringing a film creator's sensibility to Unity's toolset, and his changes are essentially filling in the blanks for people like him, directors of photography and fellow camera obsessives.

There's a good chance that established animation studios such as Disney will soon start to experiment with releasing animated shorts created entirely inside of Unity. Well, almost entirely, as they're still likely to be creating their character and environment models in other software, but the animation and cinematography duties can now be handled by the new Unity with Cinemachine combo. The most exciting thing for me, though, is not what big companies can do with these tools. I'm geeked about the potential of inexpert users like me picking up the Unity engine and turning out our own creations. Unity is free to use until you start making substantial money out of it, so the barriers to entry are going to be as low with this 2017.1 release as they could possibly be.