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Unreal Virtual Production Event 2020: Five Key Takeaways

Virtual Production is nothing new. It’s existed for decades behind the scenes of the biggest Hollywood productions, allowing movies to be made quicker, easier and better. It has been used by blockbusters to get the green light with a pitchvis trailer such as ‘World War Z’. Or to bring back the late great Peter Cushing’s character Grand Moff Tarkin with facial capture for ‘Star Wars: Rogue One’. And create the climatic scene in the recent biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ where Rami Malek reenacts the phenomenal Freddie Mercury performance at Live Aid ‘85 with virtual set builds

The truth is, these techniques have been around for about as long as films have but it seems the buzz around virtual production is only getting bigger and bigger. We jumped onboard to the Unreal Engine Virtual Production Event 2020 to find out what all the fuss is about.

What is virtual production? – In a nutshell it is the collected digital technologies available today that are used to replace or enhance traditional physical production techniques and methods. Powered by game engine tech it can use augmented reality (AR), computer generated imagery (CGI) and visual effects (VFX) to offer filmmakers virtual alternatives to all film departments including locations and set design as well as a wide range of performance capture methods.

Virtual production is a fusion of the physical and digital worlds to create a space where new realms can exist. It’s a sector of the film and TV industry that has been going from strength to strength in the last few decades along with astronomical technological advances. It is only now that the many different elements within augmented reality (AR), CGI, VFX and game engine tech have finally joined forces to give productions the tools to visualize the future of filmed content. At the summit of this sector are the visionary tech company Epic Games with their Unreal Engine platform. It’s hard to describe exactly how important they are to the modern arena of filmmaking. 

This half day virtual (of course) event had a roster of top names in the field of virtual production from companies such as Lucasfilm, Netflix, Amazon Studios and Universal Studios to name a few. There was also a very special guest in Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis, who has been at the forefront of every digital advancement in the field for the past 30 years. Even for those who have a fleeting interest in the subject matter it was a real eye opener. Here’s our top 5 takeaways from the event.

Key takeaway #1

Filmmakers can have ultimate control

There is nothing a filmmaker craves more than the ability to control the elements of production. The fear of the unknown is what haunts us all and anything that can be planned or foreseen before the shoot is welcome. There is no end to the possibilities now with the range of virtual tools available to create the director’s vision. The advent of LED Studios means that the mystery of post-production VFX is brought right up front and the results are more controlled than ever. It means cinematographer’s can shoot virtual worlds created by VFX artists in real time, giving them an instant view of the final shot in all its glory.

Robert Zemeckis has been using virtual camera rigs to view the direction of complex scenes in his recent film ‘The Witches’. These digital rigs let him enter the scene and test out the various camera angles and set ups as if the scene were playing out in real time.  Entire virtual sets can be built to test all the elements of a shot or scene, from the lighting to camera position to performance choreography. Physical assets can be designed and manipulated now with a speed and quality like never seen before. The list could go on and on but suffice to say, the world of filmmaking is now a universe of endless possibility. And with the technology offered with Unreal Engine, the filmmaker has the ability to explore the boundaries of filmmaking more than ever.

Key takeaway #2

Collaboration has no borders

The world of film relies on bringing people together to create one singular piece of art. No matter if you’re located in the traditional bases of LA and London or busy shooting your current project in some far flung part of the world, you can still be a part of the creative conversation with remote multi-user collaboration tools. It’s actually perfect for the moveable nature of film and TV production that might need to bring together talent from across the globe.

It’s also allowing Heads of Departments to jump on board sooner, from the cinematographer rolling from one job to the next or an art designer juggling various different projects. The streams of communication and creation are wide open and it allows for greater opportunities to link together the best talent. Also, let’s not forget the very present threat that close human interaction is having on the world of production. Whatever your opinion is on the coronavirus, virtual production is giving us more options than ever to circumvent the problems arising from gathering large numbers of people in one location with viable digital options that work. 

Key takeaway #3

No more green screen void

The trusty green screen might seem like a very modern invention but it’s been around for quite some time. While the creative implementation of keying out backgrounds has come on leaps and bounds in recent decades, the green screen itself has barely changed. With the advent of LED Studios we now have the advancement needed on the physical side of VFX to bring world building to the next level. It will also give a new option to avoid the dreaded green screen void that has been haunting filmmakers for years.

This void might occur in the lighting changes that happen between the performance capture on the shoot to the world building in the post studio. Or the void that a director faces when trying to guide an actor to be immersed in a world that is merely a blank sheet of green with a production assistant waving a broom back and forth with an Ork head stuck on top. The LED Studio creates the virtual imagined world in real time, meaning all the alterations for the crew or the performance of actors will not be compromised because of any time lapse in the post production. The images created are photo realistic and feel much more genuine due to the immediacy of the capture. The results are truly astounding and it’s going to push filmmaking to the next stage.

Key takeaway #4

Planning has reached the next level

This is music to any producer’s ears. The level of planning that can now be achieved with these various tech advancements has gone off the scale. There are new workflow systems that help realise the people management issues of the past in a much more seamless way. The ability to pre-visualize an entire movie from the first to last shot gives a project the best chance of success, as well as cutting down on costly last minute changes during the course of a shoot. The age old idiom ‘time is money’ is no more evident than on a film set, and this new tech shortens the time wasted due to unforeseen circumstances. 

As mentioned earlier, the channels of collaboration and communication have been blown wide open, giving an elevated level of organisation for the production team driving films forward. This planning can drop down into all areas of the production, from virtual art teams creating lifelike assets well in advance to digital stunt enactments that fine tune those dangerous set piece shots well in advance. Directors can move forward with digital options, blocking entire scenes within the Unreal Engine platform, sharing it with their creative team members to feedback and add their own elements as it develops. It’s a level of pre-production planning that raises the pace of development and can keep the momentum going no matter what might get in the way.

Key takeaway #5

Production timelines are being disrupted

The linear timeline of filmmaking has been in place for quite some time. It starts with the script, goes through pre-production, then the shoot and ends with the final post-production master of the film prior to distribution. That progression has now been disrupted by the ability to bring the assets of post-production forward, bringing the decisions that were often postponed by the rendering of scenes, right into real time. The energy saved from huge set builds, vast amounts of equipment and bloated crews is fed back into the creative production, giving more freedom to capture those magical cinematic moments we all know and love.

It’s actually come along so much that the footage captured on the day might be cut directly into a previs that has been audience tested and shown to distributors almost straight away. The level of photo realism possible and the seamless nature of the workflow systems available will speed up the backend of post-production. It will enable editors and VFX artists to tweak and tune up images quickly to a high standard without having to recreate atmospheric elements from the shoot. It’s going to permanently alter the traditional production time frame as we know it. 

Virtual production in Commercials

The world of film production has always directly influenced the commercial film world. The kind of technology being developed by the Epic Games and other virtual production companies will surely become the norm for a commercial video production company like ours. At Paragon Pictures, we’re already using the methods and techniques in our shoots, with 3D animatics and on set editors combining on our NOW Music TV commercial. We are always keeping an eye on the quickly evolving nature of film to find ways to create stunning images. It’s only a matter of time before we’re immersed in the virtual world of production.