Artist Spotlight: Making Jedi Magic with Cinematic Captures
If you’ve watched any of the short films on Cinematic Capture’s popular YouTube channel, it may surprise you to know that there’s just one person behind these stunning short stories. Jonathan Knocker is a filmmaker, director, and environmental designer and has produced hundreds of Star Wars short stories since 2016. Since then, his channel has racked up an impressive 279k subscribers and over 65 million views.
Jonathan uses a combination of virtual production techniques and motion capture to composite and render scenes in Unreal Engine. A quick glance at the comments will tell you that it’s not just technical skill that makes his videos so impactful, it’s also his ability to tell a compelling story through cinematic shots. Check out one of his most popular shorts below (extended version here).
Rokoko caught up with Jonathan to discuss what’s next for Cinematic Captures, how he’s balancing work at Blur studios with his YouTube production schedule and how he produces such attention-grabbing content.
How did you get started in virtual production and what drove the initial interest?
Before virtual production, my YouTube channel was focused on game cinematography & photography in Star Wars Battlefront using a mod to allow me to change camera settings and such. Eventually, both the mod and the game stopped receiving updates, so I had to figure out a new form of content to bring to the channel.
I've always been more interested in the live-action side of filmmaking and never had any skill or interest in animation, but that changed when I saw some videos about virtual production. Seeing a tracked camera, mocapped actors, and it all being rendered in real-time in Unreal Engine piqued my interest. I had slightly dabbled with Maya but the render times fully put me off, so seeing what was possible with Unreal Engine was the jumping point for me to download the software and start testing.
What do you think is the turnkey for getting started in virtual production and filmmaking?
Honestly, downloading Unreal Engine and some free assets from the marketplace is a great place to start. There are more than enough free assets to get your feet wet and start practicing with the engine. Realistic Metahuman characters, environments, sample projects, and even the paid stuff is very cheap to purchase for what it is.
Where does your Star Wars lore come from, and how do you choose which stories to tell?
I just make what I want to see. There are so many routes you can go with Star Wars, and there's so much world-building you can do there working off existing ideas.
“I find it most interesting to tell some of the smaller stories that might not get told officially — stories with fewer pre-existing characters or giant galaxy-spanning adventures — I prefer the little stories with wider implications.”
I find it most interesting to tell some of the smaller stories that might not get told officially — stories with fewer pre-existing characters or giant galaxy-spanning adventures — I prefer the little stories with wider implications. Usually, I try to follow the source material's canon events as closely as possible so if someone wants to include it in their head canon, they can, without making exceptions or picking it apart too much. It can be a challenge doing all the research to make sure things fit and don't contradict, but as a lifelong fan of the universe, I have a pretty good understanding of the general lore.
If you could never create another Star Wars short film again, which franchise or story would you choose instead?
There are a couple, but I think Elder Scrolls and The Last of Us are two very rich universes in which I would love to tell a story. Though one reason I stray away from telling stories in other pre-existing IPs is my lack of knowledge around them, I love playing those games but I only really know surface-level lore around them. I feel like I would be doing those games a disservice if I wrote a story without doing more research first.
As your productions have grown larger over time, do you plan to transition into full-time directing for your personal work?
That's one of the fun but also tricky things about my projects, the scope gets bigger but the budget and time I have to create them stays the same or shrinks — so I always need to figure out new ways to optimize and improve my workflow to allow me to make up for the extra resources I'll need.
I've thought about taking a step back to focus on a more directorial role rather than doing a lot of the work myself — so I can put more focus into other areas — but everyone working with me is doing it in their own spare time for the love of the project, so it becomes difficult to take on that position without adding extra delays.
What have been some of the best moments when running the YouTube channel over the last six years?
Some of my absolute highlights were the events I got the opportunity to be a part of thanks to EA Games. They invited me out to events such as EA Play, Gamescom & Star Wars Celebration.
“Leading up to every release I'm always so nervous and stressed, worrying about if people are gonna hate it, or notice all the little mistakes that I notice but don't have the ability to fix. But overall 99% of the comments are extremely positive, and it's absolutely what keeps me going from release to release.”
Getting to meet friends, devs and other content creators at those events and the travel experience as a whole was such a memorable highlight that I'm so grateful to have been a part of it. The other highlight is seeing the comment section after each short film release. Leading up to every release I'm always so nervous and stressed, worrying about if people are gonna hate it, or notice all the little mistakes that I notice but don't have the ability to fix. But overall 99% of the comments are extremely positive, and it's absolutely what keeps me going from release to release. Getting messages from people that my work has inspired them to start learning filmmaking is always such an amazing feeling as well. The YouTube channels I watched greatly inspired my love and interest in filmmaking and seeing my channel have a similar effect for some people makes it all the more worth it.
You recently got hired at your dream job. Do you still feel you have enough time for your own personal projects?
Getting to work at Blur Studio is a huge honor for me; I've been a fan of their work for a very long time, and a lot of what they've done has influenced my own projects. However, it certainly is tricky now to find the time to work on my own personal projects. These days I usually only have the time to work on weekends which is a big change going from full-time YouTube.
The biggest issue I face right now is that I've raised my quality bar so high that I feel anything I release at this point has to be perfect since people have been waiting so long for it. But with 60% less time to work on them it's an incredibly unrealistic goal to reach. I've often thought about releasing shorter renders and films, but I just don't want to let the quality of my work be sacrificed in the process and any time I put into those shorter renders is time taken away from the larger projects… delaying them even more.
I definitely intend to release more films and content going forward, I just need to figure out the ideal way to do so.
Most of your experience has been with Unreal Engine. How has the transition been from UE to 3Ds Max and Maya?
Working with the software Blur uses has certainly been a challenge to adapt to, but they've all been very helpful and patient in helping me navigate the software. I think the biggest challenge for me has been the lack of a real-time viewport. Composing shots within a grey proxy environment with low poly previs models forces you to be more creative in your compositions since you don't have as much context to bounce off. But as with anything, the more I work in that environment, the more confident I feel, and it's already coming to me much easier than I had initially expected — it's just a different way of working.
What is the worst habit in your workflow?
File management. File management in Unreal Engine is super tricky since the engine relies heavily on dependencies and file references, so if you rename or move a folder, you need to wait for all files referencing those files to relink the path to the new directory. Which means I usually get lazy and leave them as their default names. This gets very confusing and difficult to navigate when you have a lot of marketplace assets in your project file as each pack generally comes with its own folder. The trick is to stay on top of it early and make sure you're organizing as you go, cause once your project looks like mine, it's very difficult to fix it.
Do you think the free cost of 3D software programs will change the creative industry?
I think it's fantastic, it's removing the barrier of entry for so many low-budget indie filmmakers like myself and allows them to show off their creativity, get discovered, and break into the industry. You no longer need expensive education and software to get your hands on the tools. And I can only see it getting cheaper, more innovative, and more accessible for the people who can't afford the hardware, or don't have enough time available to do everything yet.
What are the three most important pieces of tech in your arsenal?
Well besides my PC, it would have to be:
- My mocap suit, Rokoko’s Smartsuit Pro II
Without it there's no way I'd be able to do any of this, I'm very slow at hand-keyed animation and the suit frees me up to tell whatever story I want (so long as I can act well enough) rather than using free mocap or animation FBX's online to piece together a story (which is still a totally valid way to tell a story, it's how I made my first short film 'Order 66' and is a great way to start learning)
- My virtual camera, HTC Vive VR
Since I come from a more live-action-oriented background, shooting with a physical camera rig just feels so much more natural to me. I'm awful at keyframing cameras, and it's far more exciting to pick up my rig and start framing up shots naturally. Plus it just looks more realistic because it's real-world data, so you get all the little imperfections that make it feel less like an animated film.
- My Elgato Streamdeck
I originally bought it years ago to use it to speed up my editing, but it ended up sitting in a box for years collecting dust until I started doing Unreal. Now I use it constantly. And not only for all my Unreal Engine and Maya hotkeys but I also use the phone app in conjunction with my virtual camera rig to give me a ton of extra inputs for movement, camera smoothing, changing lenses, and such which allows me to adjust more while filming rather than having to dig deep into the file to change different settings.
**Editors note** If you’re interested in learning how to make these kinds of videos, Cinematic Captures has released an “Intro into Virtual Production” course that is available to all Patreon subscribers.
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