Neill Blomkamp on Game Engines, Making 'District 10'

How the sequel to Short 'Adam' might inform 'District 10'

Neill Blomkamp tells Glixel he'll make District 10, a sequel to 2009's critically acclaimed District 9, in the next few years "unless I die." But how he might create that film is the most interesting element of our discussion with him. The director, producer, screenwriter and animator says that he and his team at Oats Studio have been quietly working on sequels to "Adam," a Webby Award-winning short film created with the Unity game engine and rendered in real time in 2016. The tech could inform the creation of that next District film and, if Unity has its way, empower a transformation in movie making.

The first of the two Oats-created Adam sequels, titled "The Mirror," will be released tonight during the Unite Austin 2017 keynote, and its sequel, "The Prophet," will release later this year. 

From Games to Movies
Unity, already a dominate force in the creation of video games, decided about four years ago that it wanted to get more involved in film making, Sylvio Drouin, vice president of research labs at Unity Technology, tells Glixel.

“Games were becoming more cinematic and films were becoming more interactive,” he says.

So Drouin wrote a white paper on the need for the expansion and Unity ended up flying a bunch of people to Copenhagen to create a high-level task force to address the issue and the use of real-time computer graphics rendering for film. The 2016 short Adam was a demonstration of both that philosophy and the tech Unity created to empower it.

Convincing Blomkamp to take over that effort in the sequels to Adam was an important, but logical next step.

“We need directors like Neil who like to push the boundaries of film,” Drouin says.

The original Adam was released in 2016 as a short film to demonstrate technical innovations on Unity. It won a Webby Award and was screened at several film festivals including the Annecy Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. That first short opens up on a world in which prisoners are turned into robots and ejected into a desert wasteland. The story – coupled with the highly unusual method in which the short was created – won over Blomkamp and his team when it first hit. So when Unity came to Blomkamp about continuing the story of "Adam," it wasn't hard to convince him.

"This is the first piece we ever took on board that came from somewhere else," Blomkamp says. "Within Oats, we were interested in real-time rendering because of the concepts we had in the company."

Oats was founded as an indie film studio that experiments with the latest filmmaking technologies. The concept behind using Unity was that the turnaround can be much quicker with this sort of technology – which allows a creator to essentially shoot an entire film in a virtual setting – allowing for more creativity and responsiveness to new ideas in the process.

"When the first Adam piece came out, we all passed it around the company and really enjoyed it," Blomkamp explains. "Oats has been approached a bunch of times to work on existing IP, but this is the only thing we took on that is from the outside, that was pre-created and gave us the ability to work on it and take it further."

Unity contacted Oats in 2016 and Blomkamp set about writing a "bible" for "Adam" and its world based on the first short and where he thought the story could go. From that came the two smaller stories of "Adam: The Mirror" and "Adam: The Prophet." "Adam: The Mirror" picks up after the end of the events of Adam where the cyborg hero discovers a clue about what and who he is. "Adam: The Prophet" gives viewers their first glimpse of one of the villains in the Adam universe. Depending on how the audience responds – where it ends up in the "geek sphere," as Blomkamp terms it – it could inform where Unity wants to take the piece and whether Oats will decide to facilitate that decision.

Put another way, if the reaction is right for both Unity and Oats, "Adam" could turn into a feature film.

If that were to occur, "Adam" would be the first film created by Blomkamp, known for movies that seem to effortlessly blend real-world shooting with realistic computer graphics, completely in the world of computer graphics. It likely wouldn't have a single live actor on its screen. Blomkamp imagines both the negatives and positives of that possibility. "There would be some very interesting sides, ancillary elements to the film that the audience could download and explore," he says.

Live Movies
Because of how a short like "Adam" is created, each time it is viewed, it is a "live experience." In other words, while a person viewing these shorts will always see the same thing on a service like YouTube, they could also download the entire thing and literally go into the creation, watching it unfold in different ways.

"Because you are creating a film in a real-time engine, the film is always live," he says. "It will take a second for the audience to grasp that. It's not flattened, condensed. It's always live. We can release it to be experienced in virtual reality because it is live or experienced in the same way Counter-Strike lets you watch the action."

That means, if a creator wanted to, they could set an audience loose inside a film, allowing them to decide where to stand to watch the experience unfold.

But what does that mean for a director, I asked Blomkamp, if they lose the ability to present scenes in the way they want, from the angles, capturing the performance specifically as they see it in their mind.

"I think for me as a traditional director, I want the audience to experience the way I want them to experience it," he says. "'Adam,' the way it is represented on Youtube is the way I set about making it. But if you were to create an experience that you design to be lived in, you could build it from the ground up to be a Tarantino-esque conversation around a table."

How would a film like District 9, which was released in 2009 and relied heavily on computer graphics, be impacted by today's use of Unity to create films?

"If you are shooting a live-action traditional film, the best thing you are going to get out of Unity is when you're on set you are going to be able to have computer graphics elements visualized on set,” he explains. "D10, which I probably will make in the next few years unless I die, probably won't be that revolutionary, but hopefully Unity will support it."

Instead, he said, it's the stuff that directors and producers aren’t thinking of, like "Adam." That’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s the sort of creation that shows that District 9 represents a reliance on 100-year-old technology, he says.

Besides, Blomkamp adds, he sees the technology behind games and movies heading in the same direction. Not that they'll eventually merge, though.

'I don't know if it is as black-and-white as film and video games merging," he says. "I think it could be more a case of something grown out of the basic elements of an interactive experience, of either one or another. I don't think you can take the 20- or 30-year-old idea of video games and the 100-year-old idea of films and merge that into something that works. I think it come out of someone experienced with both."

Blomkamp does believe that the era of the flatscreen, of the television and traditional movie screen, will come to an end. He has a lot more faith in augmented reality then virtual reality, he adds.

"Personally, I'm not sure how long virtual reality is going to be around. I think augmented reality is going to be massive and revolutionary."

While Blomkamp is happy to see them released to the public, as for this and other creations made by Oats with computer graphics, he really has no interest in what they do with it.

"I'm a selfish artist," he says. "We put out the Oats stuff because I knew me as a 17-year-old would love to get my hands on the 3D assets. I'm interested in being out in that culture, but I don't really care what’s created with it. I just want to work on my own stuff."