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Virtual production: The next leap forward for film and TV

Mar 22, 2021

Nick Bolton, CEO, discusses the acceleration of virtual production

22 March 2021To achieve the reality he wanted for the climactic scene of his classic Gone with the Wind, director David O. Selznick set his scenery alight. There was no second take, and the blaze Selznick saw on set and through the camera lens were the same.

Visual effects (VFX) artists since have found newer ways to suspend audience disbelief through visual effects, creating whole landscapes, characters, and worlds in post-production.

With technology advanced enough to set digital actors in a digital landscape, what is the next frontier? Over the past several years, the answer has been the rise of ‘virtual production.’ Tantalisingly, this allows directors something of what Selznick experienced but with in-camera VFX – meaning near-final quality shots are available to the director on set and in real-time. This is a clear future for the entertainment industry, and will take directors and audiences to new, exciting places.

Visual effects in Real-time
‘Virtual production’ is a digitally led way of working, merging real and virtual worlds, which incorporates a range of techniques and innovations that have been developed across the past 20 or more years. This includes motion capture solutions pioneered by Vicon, combined with cutting edge visual effects techniques and game engine technology, utilising tools such as LED screens and high-resolution digital film cameras.

The magic of this approach is when these techniques are used in concert. Crucially, it blends the filming and post-production stages. Instead of shooting against the classic green screen and then waiting to see their vision come to life, directors can now see digital characters, effects, and environments in real-time, in-camera and on set.

Perhaps the best-known recent application of virtual production, famous for its ground-breaking visual effects, is the latest season of The Mandalorian, and more recently George Clooney’s feature, The Midnight Sky. These productions used LED screens to set actors in digital landscapes and sets, which are tracked and filmed live in-camera. What actors and directors saw on set was pretty much the same as audiences see on their screen – without need for green screens or months of post-production VFX work. Even theatre is seeing the benefits of this technology with the recently launched Dream, a ground-breaking production from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Virtual production is not simply a step up the technical ladder, but a leap forward….

Pandemic Production
Collaboration is at the core of what makes virtual production tick. It is a step forward for how it allows the technical, creative, and innovation skills of many different people, teams, and companies to come together to create something truly new and innovative.

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has demonstrated the utility and innovation of this style acutely, by enabling distanced and virtual collaboration. Helping studios and directors overcome challenges of socially distanced film making, requiring fewer production staff on set, and facilitating remote working and collaboration. Actors can now shoot in separate locations, even separate countries, while occupying the same virtual set at once.

Virtual Production to Virtual Reality
2020 was a tipping point for virtual approaches to film and TV: and the surge in demand from studios was reflected by a rise in ‘virtually produced’ shows being introduced to audiences. The full potential of this style still lies ahead of us, in applications that are still being imagined. Instead of burning sets as in the Hollywood of old, or digital characters living only on hard drives of visual effects artists, virtual approaches to filming can extend the new realities created on screen into places we haven’t yet dreamed of. Imagine venturing through the galaxies and fantasy landscapes you’ve seen on screen yourself through a virtual reality headset. Being at the start of this new cycle is an exciting time for film makers and audiences.

Imagination Unleashed
Virtual production is not simply a step up the technical ladder, but a leap forward to a new way of working for the industry. This approach enables directors to blend reality and fantasy that has inspired film makers since the medium’s creation – and certainly which inspired Selznick to burn his sets. Through precision, expertise, and collaboration, these innovative ways of working offer a way forward that shortens the gap between imagination and what we see on screen.

Audiences have already begun to see the fruits of these techniques, but it really has only just begun. It’s an exciting time to see imagination unleashed through the magic of virtual production.

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