Along with the technological advancements in visual effects, motion capture, and animation, there have also been some really exciting sister technologies which are brand new and have been starting to change the way that movies are being made. It’s a whole new creative world out there thanks to Virtual Production.
What is Virtual Production?
There are a lot of things that encompass Virtual Production, but in a nutshell it’s the act of creating a movie using virtual tools. Thanks to being able to plan ahead and see things like animation and effects in real time, filmmakers are not only making their planning lives and budgets easier to realize, but they’re able to bring whole new worlds and stronger stories to the screen.
There are some fun pieces of hardware that have been created to be able to achieve this. For example, there’s a Virtual Camera, which is basically just a little screen which is outfitted with the same little silver reflectors that a motion capture performance suit has, and is used within the same kind of capture volume on a stage. The motion capture cameras in the volume pick up the position and rotation of the camera as it’s moved, and that movement is reflected on the screen.
This little camera screen is able to simulate different kinds of real world cameras and lens kits, and allows the user to point and shoot within a virtually created scene almost as if he or she was using a real camera in a real room. All of the movements can be recorded and played back almost immediately, which means that the filmmaker can basically shoot the movie before having to spend potentially millions of dollars a day on a full crew on location.
The first major production to use virtual production tools was James Cameron’s Avatar, where he used a virtual camera to see pre-created elements while he was shooting the actual film. So for example, he could look through the camera and see the green screen that was in front of him replaced with a CG environment that was similar to what his final vision would be. He was also able to see pre-animated elements and replace his actors, who were wearing mocap suits, with their blue-kitty-avatar selves.
This process is called simulcam, and helps the filmmaker compose shots accurately when there is a lot of VFX happening in the scene. In the case of Avatar, it really helped, because the blue creatures were quite a bit taller than the actual actors, so this allowed him to ensure that everything was accurately placed and composed during production. He then took that data with him into post, which helped the VFX artists replace everything with the final assets much more effectively.
This process is now used quite a bit – most notably in Disney’s recent live action version of the Jungle Book. That entire movie was shot on a blue screen mocap studio stage, using virtual cameras and simulcam technology. They previs’d the environments and had pre-animated animal models appear on his viewing screen next to the real life little boy actor while he was shooting, which allowed director Jon Favreau to see how big each animal was in relation to the child. Trying to compose a shot with a 8-10 foot computer generated bear and a little boy beautifully could only have been made possible with this technology!
Virtual and Augmented Reality
More recently, engineers have been able to take simulcam technology a step further, and make it possible to pre-plan virtually anything.
For example, a virtual location scout session is where a lidar scan of an actual place on earth can be made available in a virtual reality headset and manipulated to your heart’s content. Production designers can redecorate and DOPs can plan setups with a virtual camera and lights – or even move the sun to see what time of day will look the best! And the coolest part of this is that the environment can be run on a server which can be accessed and interacted with collaboratively from multiple places all over the world. So if your DOP is is London, and your Production Designer is in Los Angeles, you can collaborate with both of them from India and do all the pre-production planning work that’s needed before the shoot with an insane level of accuracy.
Another tool which I’ve seen in action recently is Augmented Reality apps which can be loaded onto tablets. These apps are preloaded with previs’d animation or assets, and allows the filmmaker to precompose shots on location, with whatever CG elements they plan on adding in later.
This is just the beginning of what’s possible. The future is awesome for filmmakers!
**Thumbnail image by Image by FunkyFocus from Pixabay**