LBB's Addison Capper chats to representatives from Framestore, The Mill, Psyop, BUCK, Alter Ego, Impossible Objects, LinkedIn Creative Studio and more to find out
Epic Games’ Unreal Engine posted a video on YouTube in October 2018 titled ‘Virtual Production: A New Era of Filmmaking’. But it wasn’t until around one year later, when Disney’s The Mandalorian launched, that viewers really got their first, full-blooded taste of the capabilities of the technology and process.
For the sake of clarity, virtual production covers a number of developments, the most high profile of which is in-camera VFX. It's the act of shooting moving imagery on a soundstage with a specially constructed curved LED Wall and ceiling that together form something known quite ominously as ‘The Volume’. Changing locations no longer requires the physical changing of locations. Instead, they can be digitally swapped out on the screens. Instead of imagining their surroundings in front of a green screen, directors, actors and others can see it for themselves.
We covered a bunch of stories on the topic in 2021, but what does it all mean for commercial filmmaking in 2022 and beyond? Is this the year that virtual production in advertising goes from novelty to normal?
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with production people from all corners of the globe to get their views.
Lawrence Jones Creative director, realtime supervisor at Framestore
I believe that advertisers are already (and will continue) utilising virtual production (VP) as a normal tool in their arsenal. The number of LED stages is on the rise worldwide. Many more VFX professionals now have experience, with multiple virtual productions under their belts.
One of the key benefits of VP for live-action commercial projects is how much it can enhance the talent’s performance by enabling them to experience the world they are being shot in. When on set for a hotel resort VP shoot, it became immediately obvious that, compared to traditional greenscreen shooting, the celebrity talent could react more authentically.
Another dramatic benefit is the innate ability for VP to allow immediate swapping of set locations. No longer do crews need to get their gear up stairs to a rooftop location and wait for the brief golden hour opportunity. With the click of a button, the crew is immediately transported to a place and moment for as long as is needed.
Finally, workflows for VP have seen tremendous improvements in recent years. My favourite part is having editorial teams on set - the in-camera VFX is leveraged and allows the ability to make immediate editorial decisions rather than waiting until post.
Justin Booth-Clibborn and Noah Goldsmith Chief executive producer and executive producer at Psyop
There’s been a lot of buzz around virtual production recently, especially with its use in The Mandalorian, and we’re proud that our 2021 Resorts World Las Vegas film was the FIRST large scale commercial using the technology. As Psyop co-founder & director Marco Spier says: “We have always been trying to blend animation and live-action, since starting Psyop. We are world creators, and having an ability to be IN those worlds is definitely a fantasy of mine.” One of the spot’s stars, singer/songwriter Carrie Underwood, added: “A lot of times when you’re working with a green screen you’re looking at absolutely nothing and trying to picture in your head what it is. This actually gives me things to look at and interact with.”
One of the main learnings is for everyone, from clients on down, to be aligned on the reasons to use virtual production, and consider the pros and cons. While we’re not convinced it’ll go to ‘normal’ this year, versus a gradual ramp up, we do believe there’s tremendous potential with the technology, especially when it comes to using assets across multiple platforms and content deliverables. We think we’ve only just seen the tip of the iceberg of possibilities!
Marni Luftspring Owner at Feels Like Home
To date, Feels Like Home has produced two big virtual production jobs and with each shoot, our level of knowledge and experience grows exponentially. It’s never easy being the first to try something new. With no one to lean on for advice we had to figure it out for ourselves, but I can confidently say we’ve been very successful and possibly the most experienced commercial production company in the city [Toronto] at shooting on the LED wall.
Is it here to stay? Is it for everyone? It absolutely has its purpose and can be an effective solution to shooting on location. The evidence is in our latest McDonald’s proof of concept spot. We successfully recreated the interior of a restaurant and shot an entire commercial in one 12-hour shoot day while simulating the sunset all day long. All the while there was a snow blizzard outside the studio. It was something impossible to capture on location in the same amount of time.
The LED wall offers our clients the opportunity to build a real McDonald’s restaurant to be used over and over again without ever having to close down a store. That reason alone makes for a strong argument that the technology is here to stay.
David Whiteson Head of VFX at Alter Ego
I think there is a real opportunity for agencies and clients to embrace virtual production very quickly. Long-form productions have been using this technology for a few years with entire episodes taking place in front of the LED volume. We proved with our McDonald’s spec spot that this technology works and can be beneficial in so many ways. The biggest hurdle for the commercial industry is to allocate some time for the initial CG environment asset build. What people don’t understand is that although we spent nine weeks building the initial restaurant in CG, we now have it stored forever and have it available to use instantly. McDonald’s can now shoot all year long, at any time of day and without the usual constraints of being on location. No more night shoots, no more excessive costs to set dress winter in the middle of summer and at the push of a button all the artwork and signage in the restaurant can instantly change to reflect French or special promotions, eliminating the need to print and rehang posters. This ultimately saves precious on-set time and post production costs. It really does feel like the beginning of change for our industry.
Chris Chaundler Managing director at Quite Brilliant
We are well beyond the novelty stage, but far from normal.
By the end of 2021, virtual production was well and truly on the advertising agenda. At Quite Brilliant, we’ve been actively engaged with every major advertising network and many large global brands for the best part of six months. Their interest ranges from one off ‘test the water’ productions to scoping out and building their own volumes.
So, will it become normal in 2022?
Normal will involve upskilling more producers, directors, creatives and even clients and this takes time. But at some point, soon, there will be an exponential moment. We know from our experience that once people understand or have used the technology they come back for more. They quickly realise its potential, whether that’s creative, sustainable, logistical, or even financial so I’m in no doubt this technology will become an essential part of a producer’s armoury. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ will it become normal?
I wouldn’t go as far as saying this will be in 2022 (there simply aren’t enough volumes or talent to sustain ‘normal’ at this moment in time) but it’s well on its way.
Watch this space.
Karen Anderson Senior executive producer, The Mill LA
It's been almost two years since the shutdown and much of production has changed dramatically. Shortly before the events of March 2020, I was producing a shoot wherein the client wanted to attend but wasn't able to. We managed to cobble together a way for her to view the shoot virtually, but it was clumsy at best. We shrugged it off as a one-off request, not to be repeated anytime soon. Fast forward to today and a remote or virtual shoot setup is a line item on the AICP bid template. While virtual production has become normalized (and it is now a decision and not a mandate to be on-set), it is not without creative and technical hindrances. Going forward, I personally see a hybrid model for film shoots and post. We have seen the successes of virtual production over the past years but still long for the interactivity of being crouched in video village or in a color suite all in it together.
Daniell Phillips Executive producer at BUCK
Depending on how you define virtual production, I’d argue that mainstream adoption is already here. Certainly in filmmaking and visual content creation, and as a driver to interactive work for brands, marketers and their audiences. In this regard, the isolating forces of the pandemic have been the mother of invention and necessity for accelerated adoption.
For the creative industries, the makers of moving image magic, the core and indeed the key is real-time. We have long incorporated VFX, real-time post production techniques, and new technologies into both the animation and live-action production life cycle. But game engines, array displays, LED stages, motion capture, plus a more widespread adoption and understanding of interactive UX for artists and audiences alike, make the promise of true real-time, well, very real indeed. At BUCK we treat virtual production as a process, not a product. We’ve always intersected technology with craft where it matters most: at an artistic level. We continue to do so, pushing into new areas of creative technology and experience. Iteration of the action, environment and assets in the moment, visual creativity at the speed of thought is really where the magic lies. As a workflow for creators it is already here, and is only getting better, faster, and more real.
Joe Sill Founder at Impossible Objects
Being able to show clients proof of concept for new technologies is always part of the process of building trust. After all, this is a fairly new and evolving workflow that actively challenges a traditional way of thinking when it comes to filmmaking. So over the past year, we have been excited to see awareness of virtual production - and confidence in both the process and the technology - become more widespread as clients see the growing volume of beautiful projects produced this way. Virtual production is no longer an outlier or a novelty; we expect to see continued interest and growth as more showpiece projects show what this technology can do.
Marissa Schaeffer Senior integrated producer at LinkedIn Creative Studio
I think virtual production is here to stay and will become another tool for all of us to leverage moving forward. I’ve seen more and more of a hybrid approach that allows us to reach more people around the world in more efficient ways, and also allows participation from partners and stakeholders without the cost and time of travel. Maybe we have a location and also a remote location and that’s what helps make our day. We can accommodate challenging talent schedules. We can watch via Zoom instead of traveling our team. Ideally, we’ll continue to combine live-action and in-person shooting with remote options where it makes sense. In the end, I think it just gives us greater flexibility overall.
Brendo + Gonfiantini Directors at Great Guns and Landia
Virtual production is in its infancy, it’s still new and not accessible for many markets around the world. We had the experience of using virtual production on our music video for The Doors, which was shot in Brazil where the new technologies are not as commonplace as they are in developed countries, needing efforts and brilliant minds to create alternatives as they don’t have access to the high-end solutions. A possible solution to the problem to help accelerate progress in virtual production could be by decentralising production and supporting countries who have limited technology to help them develop their own technology through the advertising market that spends substantial money on production each year.
Each day we are learning how to get better results with the technique, and in the same way, software engineers are still working hard to achieve more realistic finishes with less processing power.
2022 starts with new possibilities not just for virtual production in spots but also for the same technology in live events and broadcast. We can have immersive content and immeasurable interactions without the need for post production. I would say that we have only seen the first wave of this technology and we are a long way from the full potential of virtual production.
Masahiro Oyamada Global production manager at AOI Pro.
Virtual production will definitely contribute in improving shoot efficiency and bringing out high quality visuals, allowing us to try out situations that are hard to achieve in reality and being able to shoot multiple scenes in a single studio. Once the entire film industry fully acquires the knowledge and the development of studios catches up to a standard, indeed the time will come in the near future when the use of virtual production in advertising will become the norm.
Regarding the production for Vaundy’s music video ‘Naki Jizo’, which used LED virtual production technology and was produced by AOI Pro., TREE Digital Studio and Hibino Corporation, repeating enough test shoots with the film crew (including camera department, lighting department, art department. etc.) made it possible for us to establish a workflow to complete the shoot in just two days, regardless of the quantity of shots.
David Kleinman Managing director at Giantstep
It’s important to differentiate between various forms of virtual production. It can mean different things depending on the company, its core competencies, and the services it provides to its clientele.
As an example, for live-action producers, virtual production might simply refer to remote client participation or extended reality (XR) computer-generated real-time environments as used in shows like The Mandalorian.
For companies like Giantstep, our business is creative technology that includes design, animation, visual effects, and other specialty solutions often involving programming or experiential projects. In many ways, virtual production had already become a perfectly normal means for us to service our projects. Even before the pandemic, we had seen ourselves as creative leaders curating teams of artists. Whereas up to March of 2020 we would have artists work in studio or remote, or invite clients into the studio to participate in a final conform of a project, the pandemic necessitated we build out an infrastructure for project management and communications allowing for our team to work anywhere in the world while maintaining a seamless flow for clients to review and integrate notes without ever having to be in the same space.
This is the new normal.
Colin Moneymaker Managing director at Assembly
I believe virtual production is already normalised in the advertising industry, perpetuated by the pandemic. Virtual production is here to stay and will be expected to grow exponentially in the future. The question is what is our approach to virtual production? What serves our clients and the project best? And how can we utilise virtual production to further our creative endeavours? As we evolve our business and offering to serve the production trends and needs of the future, we're in active conversations about what our virtual production footprint looks like, something I think all VFX and production companies need to take into account, because the need is very much there.
Todd Wiseman Jr Co-founder & creative director at Hayden5
I think we're somewhere between the moment when everyone rushed out to buy 3D cameras and TVs, and the advent of the internet (which people initially had a hard time understanding.) Sure, there is some over-hype, and we're not always going to have to be six feet apart, but the fact that we can be 6000 miles apart and still have a smooth set experience... that is here to stay. For the most part, every production of the future will have a virtual component. We won't fly everyone out to set anymore, or stuff into edit rooms with our sushi. We're past that.
Hayden5 now offers a multi-view, virtual set component on all of our sets as standard practice in what we call Crew+. I'm proud that we have collaborated on major activations like Salesforce's Dreamforce, and on high-end, docu-style work like Picture Progress using these new standard services, including our virtual post-production service, Cloud Cuts.
"Back to normal" means embracing the fact that eventually, we won't have to test and wear masks, but that the client might still be interacting from their office instead of from the crafty table.