Virtual production, a strong tool for remote filmmaking

It has been around for a while, but Covid-19 has accelerated the trend

Updated - December 12, 2020 08:52 am IST

Published - December 11, 2020 05:20 pm IST

LED wall virtual production

LED wall virtual production

Virtual production, which allows filmmakers to create movies without having to cram people on to a set, is an indirect advocate of social distancing. “It has been around for quite some time, with the original Avatar [James Cameron’s 2009 film] being a major milestone,” says David Conley, executive producer at Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based digital visual effects company co-founded by filmmaker Peter Jackson. “In the last two years, we’ve seen the evolution of the tools in the virtual production toolbox take off, and the pandemic has only served to accelerate that trend.”

LED walls — where actors are filmed in front of a virtual backdrop (think forest or a desert), helping them better interact with their surroundings — for example, have captured the buzz at the moment. “They are [not only] cost efficient for certain types of projects, but you can also reduce on-location requirements and the number of crew on set,” he adds.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Is the pandemic accelerating tech that was already coming down the pipeline before Covid?

Absolutely. I would say it falls into three categories: people workflows, infrastructure changes, and tools. We are learning new ways to collaborate, whether that be across the globe or just across town. It requires a different type of creative collaboration, and some of it has been harder when we are not face-to-face, but we’ve also learned a lot that we can carry into a post-Covid world.

From an infrastructure perspective, if you take those remote working scenarios and expand that thinking a bit, the cloud becomes a powerful tool to help connect people. Access to vast compute quickly and cost-effectively means the possibilities of overcoming geographic restrictions for accessing talent. Enabling more artists to contribute to a project from anywhere in the world is a compelling concept and one we are looking at very closely.

In terms of tools, we’re entering a phase where procedural tools and computer-assisted artist workflows using a wide array of Artificial Intelligence tools are starting to mature and move out of the sandbox. I’m not sure Covid-19 had a direct impact here other than to put more attention on tools and the filmmaking process. This is a big focus for our CTO Joe Marks and a critical component of our recent deal with Amazon [for cloud-based visual effects and animation].

From top: Concept art for ‘Avatar 2’, an LED wall, and Weta Digital’s virtual camera

From top: Concept art for ‘Avatar 2’, an LED wall, and Weta Digital’s virtual camera

Many believe that virtualproduction is suitable only for blockbusters.

Virtual production is a set of tools and some of them only make financial sense at the large scale you see in many blockbusters. However, tools like LED walls and game engines have application across any type of production. Everything today is touched by digital/visual effects in some form; virtual production allows you to make more informed choices earlier in the process — and that’s always a win.

Aren’t the costs of virtual productionprohibitive? And isn’ttraining essential?

You bring up two really great points that haven’t been discussed very much on recent projects. Virtual production requires a lot more work up front and requires you to make creative decisions that you will live with later on. If you plan it well and stick to those decisions, there can be some real cost savings — or at least cost containment. However, if you don’t stick with the plan, you risk blowing out the budget redoing work that was previously approved but now is being re-thought.

The training component is also an important piece. You need to hire people with technical experience who know the tools, but who also understand filmmaking and how to problem-solve new workflows.

Canvirtual productionhelpdo away with expensive post-production processes?

It is possible to use virtual production to remove some of the cost in post-production, but it is not a guarantee. In most cases, you’re shifting that cost into pre-production, building the assets you need earlier for the virtual stage.

If you manage it well, you can realise savings. You would be surprised how important data management is. For the Avatar sequels, we totally overhauled our asset tracking system and onset pipeline after the original Avatar because there was so much efficiency to be gained. Another simpler example is a project we just finished that featured a pilot in a cockpit with an LED wall for the environment. We were able to capture all the natural reflections and highlights in-camera that would have been more expensive to replicate in post. People have been doing it for years for exactly this reason. Done well, virtual production has the potential to deliver a more cost-effective solution and a better creative result.

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