What is Virtual Production?

Virtual Production (VP) is a convenient label to describe film and TV productions taking advantage of real-time technologies developed in the games industry. Even on shows that look like traditional productions, with no obvious CG elements, a wealth of new tools may be making life easier for the production team behind the scenes.

VP has resulted in new ways to make the process of filming itself more responsive to production needs. Live action can be blended with photorealistic digital content and the capabilities go far beyond simply replicating reality.

Tools that enabled the games industry to dominate the entertainment market are now available to film and TV and with growing convergence between film and games, canny producers are using these real-time technologies to bring their stories to life.

Case study - The Lion King

When Disney was making The Lion King (2019) almost no time was spent on location in Africa. There is literally only one live action shot in the film. Nonetheless they ended up with a set comprising 150 kilometres of gorgeous, photo-realistic virtual Africa to play with. Crew could put on a head mounted display (aka VR headset), and go location scouting in virtual reality. They could line up shots, explore, and achieve all kinds of live action tracking around the environment where the story takes place - without travel budget or logistics.

Another example of VP is the use of LED walls to create a “volume”. Think of a volume as creating a room from a collection of LED screens. This provides creative options for set design. Physical structures can still be utilised but it is now possible to supplement design where surfaces around the actors are video walls. The content on those walls comes straight from real-time engines like our current favourites, Unreal Engine (UE4, UE5) and TouchDesigner.

Accelerating Adoption

Throughout the Covid pandemic we’ve seen accelerated uptake in virtual production. Travel, such a huge component of large media productions, was severely curtailed, which was jarring to many. On the positive side, decision-makers became more open to remote and virtual work methods.

Studios of all sizes, across regions, have been rethinking workflow out of practicality. Mod has enjoyed more virtual world design and production opportunities as vendors with the right experience to work internationally, virtually and remotely are sought out.

Case study - VP mo-cap

A highlight of 2020 for us was proving that we could design, produce and direct a virtual production on the other side of the world. During lockdown we helped The Simpsons and Spinal Tap star, Harry Shearer to make face and body motion capture music videos in L.A., directing virtual production from our Sydney studio.

The biggest driver is not Covid however but the gradual yet stunning improvements in what real-time graphics and audio can do. The commodification of digital hardware has made creative possibilities more feasible and there is no putting that genie back in the bottle.

Early adopters have the advantage

Virtual production is all about providing more flexibility and options for storytellers to create the best result.

“As a director, my mission is to communicate a vision. Virtual production provides a wealth of creative and technology tools for doing just that. Translating big ideas into affordable and feasible solutions, for productions of all sizes, is what it’s all about.”

- Michela Ledwidge, Mod

Virtual production empowers all heads of department to collaborate at the same time, creating the final product together. Everyone can walk away saying, "That completed scene is great", rather than, "I wonder what that will look like after 6 months in post".

Pointing at big Disney productions is an easy way to explain VP but it is not one-size-fits-all. What we’re seeing in all major media and entertainment hubs around the world is a buildup of infrastructure and experience, allowing both indie and major productions to rent VP facilities by the day or hour.

Some techniques are more expensive, such as LED volumes, but indie studios can work in this space alongside far larger companies and in many cases can purchase the exact same equipment. While investment in VP may initially be daunting, costs are offset by savings in many areas, including travel, lighting and camera setups, weather interruptions and the all-important capacity to see something closer to the final result while still on-set.

Early adopters will definitely have the advantage as cinematic language evolves around VP techniques and Mod is well placed to facilitate new entrants to the space.

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