Getting top executives from the leading studios and streaming giants to attend a live event is rare in these Covid-cautious times. But that’s what happened at a virtual production (VP) presentation and panel co-hosted by Screen International and the British Consulate General Los Angeles at The London West Hollywood hotel in Los Angeles on March 29.
Watch the full session below
Guests on the day included Cindy Marcari, director of physical production at Warner Bros; Dan Smiczek, virtual production supervisor at Amazon Studios; and Masha Koltsov, director of VFX and virtual production at Netflix. They were on hand to assess the potential of the new technology, which allows filmmakers to construct sets from LED‑panel walls that display real-time backdrops and visual effects with the help of a game engine.
After introductions, Mark Leaver, a consultant adviser to the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT), opened proceedings with highlights of the DIT’s newly published report, which illustrates why the UK has become a global hub for virtual production. “The UK studio infrastructure has evolved very quickly to match the demand of virtual production,” Leaver said. “We’re building on a skilled and adaptable workforce and world-class VFX supply chain that producers can trust in a live production environment.”
In the subsequent panel chaired by Screen International, the subject was explored further by speakers Christopher Ferriter, president of Halon, a visual-effects studio and leader in virtual production; Connie Kennedy, director of Los Angeles-based Innovation Lab at Epic Games; Lisa Gray, executive producer at Bild Studios in the UK; and Ryan Beagan, vice president of virtual production at Warner Bros.
“There’s already a huge base of talent in the UK, whether it’s onstage support or from visual effects, who understand these new tools,” said Ferriter, who has worked on major franchises including Avatar, Transformers and Disney+ series The Mandalorian. “I am struggling to think of the last time we worked on a project that started in LA that didn’t end up going to the UK.”
It is not just the major films and TV series getting involved either. “We have a permanent volume at our new Bild Studios [near London’s Heathrow airport], which is used by a variety of projects, each with their own story requirements and challenges,” noted Gray. “One of our first productions was a BBC documentary series with [naturalist] David Attenborough, which was exciting seeing how the doc guys adapted to VP. But we’ve also had scripted series coming to do car-chase scenes and TV commercials too.”
“Virtual production is about creating tools for everyone to participate,” agreed Beagan, who has been working on HBO’s House Of The Dragon, the prequel series to Game Of Thrones, at Warner Bros Studios Leavesden’s new V Stage. “Once you build these large-scale stages, it opens up schedules and opportunities for numerous productions to use them and learn. That’s what’s so great — it’s the same set of LED screens each time, but completely different background scenery and stories. The sound stage is a canvas that the creator paints on.”
All in the planning
One of the key changes brought about by VP is the shift in focus from post- to pre-production. Visual-effects teams are now working with all the other departments from the start, and pre-visualisation is proving vital in bridging the gap between the creators’ imaginations and what can be delivered on set.
“You need to lock down your script, bring in your art department, the designer, DoP and even the AD into the initial planning process, which brings a level of co-ordination that I don’t think people are used to,” noted Kennedy, whose VP credits include Avengers: Endgame and The Mandalorian. “We have to make definitive decisions so that all the different elements can be composited in real time. It takes getting used to.”
“You will have teams communicating with each other who might not have done before,” added Gray. “The challenge for the industry is finding agreed, standard ways of working and communicating in the VP space.”
Extending from this is the need for skills training and education to ensure a continued flow of talent — from all backgrounds — working in the field. Also key is an exchange of knowledge and experience using the VP tech as it continues to adapt and improve to meet the demands of productions. “Much of the talent pool in the Unreal Engine [a real-time 3D creation tool] world have not been exposed to a movie set before; equally the film crew need to get their heads round the VP tech,” said Ferriter.
Testing the technology seems to be one useful solution. “We have set up labs in London and Los Angeles where we create boot camps emulating different production scenarios, so people can learn,” said Kennedy. “We throw problems at them and get them to fix them quickly, which is what happens in reality on set. They need to be able to troubleshoot in an environment they’re not used to.”
The scope and opportunities within virtual production are exciting, especially in these pandemic times. Being able to recreate and load several different location scenes into one controlled environment —where cast and crew do not even need to be on set together — makes for a potentially cheaper, easier and more sustainable production. But whether it is the right answer for all projects is up for debate.
“It’s more a tool in the shed than a silver bullet,” insisted Beagan. “Depending on the project, you need to be realistic that you might still need to go to a location or a sound stage, but it’s a great opportunity to use it where it’s most applicable.”
Ferriter agreed: “As we develop a shared understanding and lexicon with a standardised process, I think productions will start to understand better where these tools can be applied, and where they shouldn’t be, to drive the story.
“But it’s very exciting,” he added. “We’re going to have an era soon with digital backlots that allow you to pull up assets that can replicate any environment in the world, which will open up incredible new opportunities for projects of all sizes and budgets.”