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Can You Spot CG? Spec Ad Demonstrates the Power of Virtual Production

Virtual Production  182 Add to collection

Quite Brilliant discusses how virtual production expands what’s possible for TV commercials

Can You Spot CG? Spec Ad Demonstrates the Power of Virtual Production

Image courtesy of Quite Brilliant.

Get excited, creators! A new era is upon us. The same techniques used in The Mandalorian are no longer confined to big Hollywood studios. Small shops have seen the power of LED screens, in-camera VFX, and real-time performance capture and they want in. Case in point: Quite Brilliant.

Instead of sitting on the sidelines, Quite Brilliant has jumped headfirst into virtual production, introducing a nimble and evolving set of services for clients who need to deliver compelling commercials at a quick pace. Quite Brilliant’s Managing Partner, Russ Shaw is a major advocate for these techniques, as he’s already seen them radically alter what his firm can do.

Like most big changes, the roots of this transition started small. Shaw and director Nick Jones were coming back from a shoot, lost in a conversation about game engines and how they were being used for photoreal car commercials, when light bulbs started going off. Quite Brilliant could use this tech for short-form content, creating the same sort of fluid environment that allows clients, creatives, and various departments to converge on a shoot and make key decisions in real time. It sounded good, but they needed some proof.

Quite Brilliant decided to create an experimental short that could pull double duty, helping them assess techniques while acting as a powerful sales tool to book more work. Less than a year later, the results speak for themselves—Quite Brilliant is thriving and a new part owner of a permanent LED stage, one of the first in the UK.

And while Quite Brilliant’s work is notable, they are not alone. Their journey into virtual production is part of a bigger trend setting the tone for how films will be created in the future. “Creativity is right back at the forefront again,” says Shaw. “When you’ve worked in virtual production, you find yourself thinking of ideas all the time—like what crazy vistas you could now be shooting against, just as if you could be teleported instantly to anywhere in the world.”

Image courtesy of Quite Brilliant.

Photorealistic backdrops, on demand

Conversations are one thing, but getting an ad off the ground is another—especially when it’s on spec. Shaw began calling around, looking for places where Quite Brilliant could start experimenting with virtual production.

Eventually, he learned that Universal Pixels and Rebellion Studios were putting up a temporary LED wall in a new studio space outside London. The team decided to write a script and embark on an exciting journey which would take them through the whole process of producing a test film from start to finish, teaming up with Satore Studio to bring the project to fruition.

The resulting short takes its protagonist through eight CG environments, including a space station, a vibrant nightclub, and a dense forest. In contrast to traditional filmmaking, which often requires the creation of different sets or multi-location shoots to capture footage, the team was able to film everything in one location using an LED stage. This direct link between lighting, live visualisation, and real time allowed them to swap in photorealistic backdrops with a click of a button, often with jaw-dropping results.

Image courtesy of Quite Brilliant.


Seen on-screen

At its core, the team’s setup should feel familiar to anyone who has taken a passing glance at a virtual production write-up in the past—camera, tracking device, Unreal Engine, props, and LED screens. The camera is mounted with an Ncam tracker, providing positioning and lens information to a server, which lets Unreal Engine know when it needs to pan, tilt, roll, zoom, or pull focus on a CG model.

Unlike traditional CG workflows, the scene is rendered in real time, helping artists see how different changes to the camera view and lighting will affect a shot. The viewport image is then fed to the LED screen, which instills a feeling of depth to the camera whenever it’s moved. Project partner Satore Studios provided direct assistance in this regard, using disguise RenderStream to send a frustum from Unreal Engine to the LED wall.

For Shaw, the instant on-set results were nothing short of revolutionary. “The camera tracking and real-time parallax of the projected environment are game changers,” he says. “To achieve this level of movement with such a high level of photorealism—which I might add is only going to get better and better with every iteration of hardware—is so exciting.”

Image courtesy of Quite Brilliant.

The LED screen was another win. “The ability to achieve such highly accurate foreground lighting in real time just elevates everything you shoot for me,” he says. “With a traditional chroma approach, to produce the same results would require a lot of careful lighting thought or post-production projection mapping—particularly when shooting reflective surfaces like a car.”

By using a roof-mounted LED display, the team could illuminate the foreground talent with the light from the CG environments and set the colour temperatures so they matched/looked realistic.

The ability to alter the backgrounds provided even more flexibility when it came to the sequences. Sometimes all that was needed was a sky with drifting clouds; other times, such as the scene with the car, street lamps and colour streaks were added for more dynamic appeal. “This worked brilliantly over the car’s black reflective bodywork and windscreen,” says Shaw. “I think this in particular highlights the difference between shooting against a green screen versus an LED screen, as the reflections are just so natural.”

Image courtesy of Quite Brilliant.

LED vs. green screen

As Shaw learned, shooting on a LED stage completely changes the game when it comes to pipeline. “It actually takes most of the post-production and repositions it as pre-production,” he explains. Most of the environments the team used were purchased models from the Unreal Marketplace,  described by Shaw as “an Aladdin’s cave for virtual assets.”

Virtual production also changes when clients can see a working version of the idea. Quite Brilliant can create an accurate animatic for clients, complete with CG environments and embedded camera angles, to foster a better understanding of direction. This not only makes clients feel more in the loop, but more comfortable about where things are going.  “This benefits us as a production company because what has been made for research can be reused for the main shoot— which means it’s not wasted time,” explains Shaw.

But like all new endeavours, this one came with a learning curve; a notion that Quite Brilliant embraced going in “Shooting in virtual production gives a ‘live’ feel to everything—much like traditional shooting on location, everything in virtual production is moving and tracking in time to each other so it feels much more alive than green screen,” he says. 

Image courtesy of Quite Brilliant.

“Additionally, shooting in virtual production is of great benefit to actors, because they can actually see and feel the realistic backgrounds they are performing in—not just green voids.”


A virtual production revolution

One thing was always clear to Quite Brilliant, though. If they were going to do this, they were going to do it right, which meant going with the standard.  “For me, Unreal Engine is the only viable option for this kind of work,” says Shaw. “The talent pool appears bigger from our experience, and undoubtedly, it’s only going to grow more rapidly as more education facilities roll out graduates from their newly introduced virtual production courses.”

This influx of talent will only add more fuel to a practice that is growing in leaps and bounds. And while big-budget productions currently get most of the attention, Shaw believes there’s room for everyone, including the smaller studios, to make their mark. “They should absolutely be experimenting with it,” he says.

When it comes to short-form content like TV ads, Shaw sees infinite potential for both creativity and cost-effectiveness, which will give smaller firms a chance to respond to bigger briefs with a speed that would have been prohibitive before. “I’m genuinely so excited about the future for commercials with virtual production,” says Shaw. “As the technology keeps improving and the asset libraries keep growing, the speed benefits and cost savings to clients are going to be too hard to resist.”

In his eyes, expansion opportunities are everywhere and set to fall like a stack of dominos as more companies and tech providers start pushing towards a change. “I really think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg for this technology,” says Shaw. “Let’s not forget that extended reality, photogrammetry, and motion capture are areas that are also being developed all the time, so the virtual world will just keep growing.”

But widespread adoption of these techniques also requires infrastructure. And Quite Brilliant is here to help. Recently, the studio partnered with Arts Alliance Ventures to open Garden Studios—a new, 160,000-square-foot creative hub that puts sound stages, workshops, and technical facilities within reach of anyone near London.

Image courtesy of Quite Brilliant. 

Primed for virtual production, the first studio features a 39 x 13 ft. curved LED wall, in a room with Roe Diamond 2.6mm panels, Brompton S8 processors, an extensive range of Procam camera kits and accessories, as wella s multiple licenses of Unreal Engine. Now open for booking, the studio is one of the finest spaces offered at this level in the UK, with more planned for the future.

Looking back, it can be hard to believe that this new venture is the result of an off-the-cuff conversation. Now a true believer, Shaw sees virtual production as a way for creatives to reimagine what it means to make a film from the ground up. “What I really took from this was that it has the ability to restart production,” he says. “Crews don’t have to travel and you can achieve multi-location setups in a fully light-controlled environment—think all-day golden hour, and you have a director of photography's dream.”

And when it comes to change, Shaw is all for it, pointing out that disruptions have always been the catalyst for positive change and what ultimately leads to new pioneers gaining ground. “I believe virtual production is one of these disruptors,” he says.

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Quite Brilliant, Mon, 15 Feb 2021 11:40:37 GMT