Blog Home Design How to Create Appealing Cut Scenes in Unreal Engine

A 3D environment isn’t just made of static renders. Tell your story with interactive and non-interactive cinematic scenes.

A cut scene, a term frequently used in the video game industry, is when a cinematic sequence break ups the gameplay to tell a story.

In this last part of our three-part series on Unreal Engine, we’ll be exploring the power of cut scenes for my personal project used throughout the previous articles:

Creating an effective cut scene isn’t exactly simple, as it requires skills in different fields. Think about a director presenting a new location or introducing a new character in a movie. In this case, the director needs to know how to properly move the camera, how to set up a correct camera setting, how to establish a nice shot composition, and so on.

Camera Movement
Some camera movements used in filmmaking. Image via Cinestudy.

In a video game environment where the player navigates, the cut scenes are the only non-interactive parts that usually finish a sequence by introducing a new one. Thus, they also tell a story by creating a bridge among the scenes.

In the past, the cut scenes in real-time were pre-rendered sequences triggered by the player’s events. Nowadays, the cut scenes are part of the real-time navigation and trigger actions in a scene (e.g. camera movement, a character’s action, etc.), without loading any offline sequence.


The Role of Cut Scenes in This 3D Project

In order to make the real-time exploration more dynamic and effective, you can always think about adding some cut scenes. Cut scenes are meant to be used sparingly, just whenever you want to convey a motivated connection between two scenes.

In this part, we’re going to explain:

  • The meaning of the single sequence as a way to tell a story in relation to the user exploring the environment.
  • How to achieve a good cut scene in terms of camera movement.

Our environment allows the user to freely move from one area to another. So, let’s build our first cut scene in relation to the following image.

Vantage Point
A vantage point showing parts of the map.

This is the vantage point from which the player has a clear view of the area. Also, new parts of the map are revealed from that view—the road leading to the mountains, a cliff rock on the left side, and a hill with a visible path to reach the hut area.


The Vantage Point in Our First Cut Scene

Let’s imagine the player is approaching from the back of the image. As they reach a certain point (trigger), we want to stop the interaction by introducing the new area you see in the image via a cut scene.

After that, the player takes control of the action again and starts exploring the environment.

What’s the best way to achieve that? Let’s see it in the following demo video.

The player runs and a cut scene is triggered.

The purpose of this cut is quite evident. We want the player to be informed of the surrounding area from that vantage point.

The camera performs a slow pedestal movement from bottom to top, basically saying: “Hey player, here’s the area to explore. You have a narrow road, a path on the right, and cliffs on the left. Make your choice!”

Also, the presence of the wooden sign reinforces the message. The camera movement reveals what’s behind the hill.


Reaching the Hut Area

In this following part of the gameplay, we’ll show how we get to the hut area.

Once the character has reached the upper-part of the hill, I introduced a cut scene to stop the gameplay and take an overall look at the surrounding environment.

There are many objects appearing in the composition as the camera moves—a broken wooden fence, a fountain, a big trunk, the pine forest, and the right side of the shot where we appreciate the grass and the mountains in the background.

Another interactive part with a cut scene presenting the hut area.

Not only did I present the hut, but I also emphasized the surrounding objects.

From the camera side, what I did is quite simple. I used a truck movement from left to right, which allowed me to capture more details with a slow, smooth movement.

Camera Truck
The camera truck movement from left to right.

Focusing on Details

On a few occasions, we want to focus the player’s attention on some specific elements for a number of reasons. For instance, we want to drive the player to a particular object in order to continue the exploration.

The details suggest something to interact with.

We can also attribute other meanings and use our imagination. Let’s say we need to pick up some water from the fountain, but it doesn’t seem to work. Our goal is to find a water valve somewhere. Once found and activated, the cut scene triggers, showing where the player must return in order to fill the bucket with water. Cool, right?!

This is typical in games, where an action (in this case, the rotation of the water valve) triggers a scene connected with it, focusing on an object being unlocked.

The camera uses a pedestal movement to make the cut scene more cinematic, while the camera settings use depth of field to emphasize the presence of the objects in the foreground.


Showing the Passage of Time

Sometimes, we want to speed up time by introducing a time lapse as a cut scene, with the purpose of moving the action to a different time of day. Think about a day/night cycle or simply an action taking place four hours later.

A time-lapse as cut scene to indicate the passage of time.

Most of the time, a dynamic sky is applied (for more info about how to set a dynamic sky in Unreal, consult the second part of the series), and the cloud movement suggests the passage of time. The camera, in this case, is almost stationary, even if it barely moves to the right not to distract the player from the clouds.


How to Create a Cinematic Scene in Unreal Engine

It’s now time to have a look inside of Unreal Engine by presenting a system called Cinematics. This is a powerful tool for creating cut scenes within your interactive project.

When working inside of Unreal, there’s the possibility to create an actor called Cine Camera. This actor acts like a real camera on a set, with parameters like filmback (with sensor width and height), lens settings (with focal length), focus distance, post-processing effects, and much more.

Cine Camera Settings
Camera settings when you create a Cine Camera Actor.
Cine Camera Unreal
The Cine Camera Actor as it appears in the Unreal viewport.

As an example, we consider the first cut scene showing our landscape from the vantage point. The editor used in this demonstration is Version 4.25.3.

Nevertheless, the following part can be applied for any version as long as you understand the main steps.

How to Set up a Cinematic Sequence

After adding your Cine Camera Actor, click on the Cinematics icon in the toolbar. Here, you select “Add Level Sequence.”

Level Sequence
Adding a new Level Sequence.

Unreal asks you to save the new level sequence. Give it a proper name and, once confirmed, a new interface pops up. This is called the sequencer and contains the track list of the actors being recorded.

There’s also a timeline responsible for the animation of some of the actor properties.

Sequencer
The sequencer used to record our Cine Camera Actor.

What we need is to add our Cine Camera Actor by clicking the green button called Track > Actor to Sequencer. Then we look for the actor called CineCameraActor1—that’s our main camera.

Actor to Sequencer
This adds our CineCameraActor1 to the sequencer.

The CineCameraActor1 is now on the track list and ready to animate. If you observe the camera properties, you’ll notice something like Camera Aperture, Current Focal Length, etc. However, the main property that we’ll be animating is named Location, under Transform.

Cine Camera Timeline
The CineCameraActor1 properties in the track list.

The sequencer works similarly to any animation editor in a 3D software. Properties can be keyframed in the timeline. The plus symbol near a property allows adding a new keyframe.

We then position to time 0 and press the plus button near the Location property. This creates a keyframe. We do the same for Rotation and Scale to freeze the camera in space at the beginning of the animation

For this animation, we added an additional actor called HemisphereSky because we want to slightly animate the clouds. The sequencer is powerful enough to accept many actors.

Keyframe Animation
The keyframes used to animate the CineCameraActor1.

We created a timeline of 302 frames, which—played at 30fps—totals around ten seconds. At frame 302, we moved the camera at its final position and the sequencer adds keyframes for the properties that have at least one key. This is made possible by having the first orange button enabled (the one representing a key), which automatically does the work for you when a property value changes.

This way, we set up a simple camera animation that can play inside of the sequencer. If we press the play button or scroll the timeline, we see the result.

By scrolling the timeline, we see the camera movement in the viewport, the sequencer interface, and the output from the CineCameraActor1 POV.

Last, but not least, be sure to have the Camera Cuts section filled with your camera sequence (the white part), which contains what we need to export. We could have more than one camera in the project and add them to the camera cuts section. This way we can combine several sequences and make a real movie.

As the final step, we want to export the sequence and create the final movie. Click on the clapperboard icon to access the Render Movie Settings.

Export Movie
The clapperboard icon to access the Render Movie Settings underlined in yellow.

The export parameters are quite easy to comprehend. I underlined the most important settings with a red line. I usually prefer to have the Image Output Format as image sequence, so that I can compose the animation externally.

Additionally:

  • The Resolution is up to you. In this case, I chose a 4K with 16:9 aspect ratio.
  • Set the Compression Quality to 100 to have maximum quality and less compression.
  • The Output Directory is the path where you want your sequence to save.
  • The Warm Up Frame Count and the Delay Before Warm Up set the number of frames and the time to wait before starting the capture—we want to have everything loaded first. For instance, the grass takes time to load after we hit play. Therefore, we wait for a few seconds or a few frames before recording.

We finally hit the Capture Movie button to create the whole sequence

The most common parameters in the Render Movie Settings interface.

The sequence is ready to composite. I also added a simple sound effect!

The final sequence made in Unreal with Cinematics and composited with a simple sound effect.

Conclusion

This brings us to the conclusion of the whole series.

In the first part of this article, we talked about the importance of having engaging cut scenes while developing a real-time project. In particular, we focused on a few examples showing how cut scenes tell a story in our project.

We then moved on to a simple step-by-step tutorial, with the purpose of teaching you how to set up a basic cinematic scene with the Cinematics feature inside Unreal Engine.

I invite you to follow my 3D works at my Artstation page. Hopefully, the content shown in this three-part series may be a valuable resource to start off your own Unreal project.


For more graphic design inspiration, take a look at these articles:


Looking for 3D assets? TurboSquid by Shutterstock has over 1 million 3D models used by game developers, news agencies, architects, visual effects studios, advertisers, and creative professionals around the world.

Visit TurboSquid by Shutterstock