Farewell, green screens and film locations; welcome, virtual production
The cinema of 1987 Outside of Africa was filmed almost entirely in Kenya, near the Ngong Hills outside of Nairobi. Director Sydney Pollack had made several visits to Africa and spent an entire year touring Kenya with his crew, looking for locations before filming began in January 1985. For the hunting scenes, trained lions were reportedly brought in. from California. The filming, editing and post-production lasted a year, quite fast for the time, considering the unpredictable weather conditions, the light, the behavior of the animals etc.
Well if Outside of Africa were made today, Pollack would never have had to step out of the cool comforts of a studio in Los Angeles, and the exact same movie would be released, WITH the lions and Africa and the tribal actors, all in high definition, but without sweating. All he would need is virtual production technology.
This means that he would not be filming the actors against a green background, but with real Africa and its sky in the background. The massive volume or soundstage on the green screen where the VFX scenes were originally filmed has undergone a technological leap in recent years to include 360 degree LED video walls as well as game engine technology, which together , allow the director to watch real scenes unfold before them in real time. And this is how virtual production differs from previous technology. The filmmaker no longer has to imagine the background during filming and can shoot action scenes using traditional cinematic techniques and equipment. While background visuals were previously static, scenes change based on camera movements, with viewing technology offered by game engines, typically Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. Originally developed as a set of 3D game development tools, Unreal Engine is now widely used for movies and allows live graphics to be projected onto LED screens, updated every millisecond.
While virtual production has been a staple in the game for a few years, it was James Cameron Avatar who first experienced it in films. The game changer, however, was the 2019 version of The Lion King, which set a new benchmark in virtual production. Half of the popular Disney series The Mandalorian were also shot in a volume called Stagecraft, but what has sped up technology like never before is the unexpected shutdown of the film industry due to Covid.
Even films that don’t require filming in difficult locations are now in virtual production, the best example being the new mystery series. 1899 by Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, which should arrive on Netflix by 2022. The series will be shot entirely on a volume called Dark Bay in Babelsberg near Berlin, the first LED studio permanently installed in Europe for virtual productions. The web series features a group of European immigrants trying to get to America by boat, and the locations were supposed to be all over Europe. But then the creators knew this wouldn’t be possible in the near future in the raging pandemic, and so decided to bring Europe to the studio, in their own words. The giant volume which has 4,500 square feet of shooting space, is 75 feet wide and 23 feet high and has broadened their vision, according to the manufacturers.
But how exactly does the filming work? Well, directors could shoot real locations during pre-production and use them during filming, or choose from the multiple options available at permanent LED studios. Imagine a backlot (film city, for Indians) with a huge virtual library with multiple options for everything, including visuals of real places and even characters. Want Antarctica for your movie? Choose one from the library. A polar bear? Different lighting or camera angle? Yes to all, and you keep changing your options to find the best fit as you turn, not afterwards during the editing stages. Team members from the creative and tech departments work together at the same time, rather than in consecutive phases, and all of these steps can be difficult. More importantly, a shot could very well end up as the final scene, and not as raw unedited footage. The real and the virtual blend perfectly because the LED wall allows a more realistic lighting, any time is the golden hour!
Virtual production thus offers endless possibilities, as real people can be filmed in virtual locations or vice versa. The team behind The Lion King, for example, would have chosen the position of the sun in each plane among 350 “prefabricated skies”. In other words, even the sky is not the limit.
Technology is indeed the future and is being used more and more not only in movies, but also in the presentation of weather reports, in museums, engineering, architecture and more. There’s no risk of sudden downpours or even a random passerby ruining your shot, as everything happens in a controlled environment, and creators can shoot a scene outdoors from the comfort of an indoor location. .
This is how virtual production is expected to revolutionize and possibly save the film industry in this unprecedented time. Locations that were considered too difficult to film and too risky during the pandemic will now be available, and filming can be completed within shorter time frames. It could even eventually lead to some sort of democratization of the film industry, with production houses with all kinds of budgets having access to unsuspected visuals, places like wild jungles or deep seas, or visual effects at a glance. fraction of the original cost. The incorporation of AI in the near future is expected to reduce costs even further.
It also raises a lot of questions like all new technology does. Even Dark Bay, today’s largest volume LED, is only 23 feet tall, so no shot can get wider than that. The background is photorealistic, but again, there is a specific limit to how far the camera zooms in. Prices for LED volumes are currently unaffordable for the majority of filmmakers, although they can reduce post-production costs. And very few technicians in the industry are tech savvy today.
Plus, with so many options, will a movie look too perfect to be real? Won’t the visuals appear repetitive after a while? Well, this is all up for debate, but virtual stages are definitely a step ahead of green screen studios, as the actors have a sense of what their scenes will look like during the performance.
But then tours with famous filming locations as the highlights might soon become a thing of the past. Because, well, these places just don’t exist in real life, sorry.
(This article was written by Los Angeles-based filmmaker and visual effects producer Jainardhan Sathyan, and AnimationXpress does not necessarily agree with those views.)