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Virtual Production: The Film Industry’s Electric Vehicle?

Company Profiles 232 Add to collection

Joe Sill and Jerad Anderson speak to LBB’s Addison Capper about launching Impossible Objects, a new “world-building lab” that utilises virtual production to tell branded and original stories

Virtual Production: The Film Industry’s Electric Vehicle?

Launched in March of this year, Impossible Objects calls itself a "world-building lab" that is focused on leveraging the possibilities allowed by virtual production technology to tell branded and original stories. The business was founded by filmmaker Joe Sill, and Jerad Anderson, the founder of production company FLORENCE

Virtual production and real-time rendering are powerful new tools for creating cinematic visual effects. With the ability to capture an actor's performance from anywhere in the world and bring it into an infinite number of virtual environments, the possibilities are endless. In a traditional CGI animated film, one would typically have to spend days, if not weeks, to render material at an acceptable quality. This real-time and ray-traced rendering of final imagery allows for an extremely fast and efficient workflow, enabling artists to achieve near photo-accurate lighting, as one would on a live-action set, with infinitely more time to explore new creative possibilities and directions. 

“Essentially, if your mind can think it, we can create it here,” Jerad said in Impossible Objects' launch press release. A few months on and with more jobs under their belt, Jerad and Joe sat down with LBB's Addison Capper for a big ol’ talk about all things virtual production and its implications on the commercial filmmaking industry.



LBB> How did Impossible Objects come to be? What was the initial spark that led to its formation? 



Joe> Impossible Objects began out of a desire to build worlds and stories as large as your imagination could dream, using the emerging technologies of real-time game engines and embracing the nonlinear nature of virtual production. 

Each person here has come from different backgrounds - from live-action directors to producers, cinematographers, and visual effects artists. In our own ways, we each started using emerging technology to discover new ways to be creative. But quickly, we each realised that the technology has accelerated in such a way that the possibilities to incorporate it into filmmaking have become more boundless and inevitable than ever. 

It was a point of no return - and we decided to use it as a fulcrum between our branded and narrative stories, and build a hub that would offer a creative playground and tools for us to be able to develop better and more fully realised stories.



LBB> At what point did you begin discussing launching a business together? 



Joe> Jerad and I have had many conversations about starting something together - always centred around one goal - to build a holistic approach to branded and narrative storytelling, for us and those around us. We wanted to tell these stories from start to finish and always deliver as precise a vision as possible. Over the last few years, many of the people in our orbit began to explore the concept of virtual production and real-time game engine filmmaking - and there was this mutual feeling shared that this was the inevitable future for world-building storytellers, and it was necessary to double down on it.

Jerad> It started very organically. We were talking about CG and how the extreme live-action limitations during Covid were actually pushing us into an area of far more creative freedom. While the world was shut down, this notion of freedom became a happy place to escape to and explore in our daily conversations. We began talking about Unreal Engine and its real-time rendering capabilities and were getting more excited by the possibilities, and then Joe started making some tests. Once I saw what he created, everything changed and we started to get serious about forming a new company. We had a clear vision - to tell original and branded stories with this incredible tool and workflow. We knew this was the future - to explore every reach of the imagination in storytelling without constraints - and we knew we could take this even beyond our locked-down world. It is the wild-west in the real-time, virtual creation business climate, the big players are on even footing with new entrants. 



LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions with Impossible Objects? 


Joe> Our main ambition is to create without limitation and to introduce artists and clients alike to new ways of visualising original and branded films. Real-time game engine building allows us to evolve the process to be more iterative and more precise to an original vision. Within a week, we’re able to present a fully developed pre-visualisation cut of a spot to our teams that matches and expands beyond our traditional storyboarding process, showing creatives and clients exactly how this film would feel. They witness placeholder character animation, lighting, texture, and other cinematic qualities together in an actual edit, allowing us to make editorial decisions and locking a cut before cameras even roll or character rigs are animated. This makes the vision crystal clear for the months of production to come. We’re able to bring actors in real life into a dense, fully realized virtual world that performs behind them on a stage in real-time. 

Being able to build and adjust these otherworldly worlds in pre-production, production, and then again in post-production is a level of creative freedom that is unheard of. And operating a physical camera rig or a motion-capture performance inside of a live virtual environment and bringing live-action sensibilities to an animated production are other examples of merging the practices of live-action and post-production to tell a more effective and cohesive story. There are many exciting implications here - and we aim to explore them all and continue to develop our projects at the precipice of new methodologies. 



LBB> What kind of gap in the market do you think you're filling with the business? 



Jerad> Because real-time engines are eliminating barriers, allowing for new workflows and new entrants into the field, we are seeing an explosion of variety when it comes to visual aesthetic and storytelling ability. These are new voices and new sensibilities, able to create visually stunning creative work in a way that would’ve previously taken significantly more time and money. 

Joe> The gap is really how restrictive the linear process of traditional filmmaking is. You only get to make pre-production decisions before production, and you can’t really adjust too many of those decisions once you’re in post. With virtual production, you’re allowed more flexibility to make editorial choices before you roll a camera, and make edits to a camera composition in post. Essentially, you’re allowed to be more precise with your vision over the course of the project. You’re able to digest, marinate, iterate and innovate.

It’s a joy to see the lightbulb go off when you present an idea you’ve discussed just days ago, and almost immediately answer the age-old question of - but what’s it going to look like? 

The differences between reference and reality have been so large that there had to be something that made it more efficient. Virtual production is simply making your final result look a lot more like what was initially in your head by being able to visualise it almost immediately at the start of the process rather than at the end. The traditional process of visualising worlds asks quite a lot of any one person’s imagination and patience, let alone an entire team. And director mood boards just aren’t nearly clear or precise enough anymore. 

By building environments that we can also live track into volume stages or green screens in real-time, we’re also no longer on a stage with a storyboard as our only tool to imagine what the environment might look like. We can just see it - right then and there. We can witness the colour, the texture, the way light hits an object. We can open ourselves up to magical moments of spontaneity and accidental inspiration in the context of grand worlds and imaginative concepts. The script on paper literally comes to life and we can explore the story more intimately. 






LBB> We have discussed virtual production but let’s ask some more pointed questions on the technology. If you had to liken the effect that virtual production could have on the filmmaking industry to another type of innovation, what would it be and why? 



Joe> I think the electric car being introduced to a gas-powered automotive industry is actually a fair comparison. We’ve made cars one way for so long - and then comes this new concept that in a few simple ways flips an entire industry on its head. 

In film production, the separation of church and state between live-action and post-production is a way of working that we’ve known for so long. Virtual production really does rewrite and rewire the process. And it’s going to take a bit to migrate and learn all the efficiencies of making a linear process nonlinear, but we’re witnessing it happen right now. It’s very exciting. Things are changing every day and it’s not an exclusive process - the tools and information are at anyone’s fingertips to pick up and learn, and it’s actually extraordinarily inclusive to anyone that has come from a traditional live-action or post-production background.

For that reason, the digital camera is another good comparison because it was one of the critical moments of democratisation in filmmaking. Before the digital camera, you had to be one of the privileged few who had access to even become familiar with the expensive workflow of film. If you weren’t already part of an exclusive inner industry circle, there was practically no way for you to manifest what was in your head beyond writing it down on paper. Then came the RED, and suddenly anybody could create a cinematic image. Because the playing field was levelled, the uniqueness of one’s ideas became the metric, which I think is a much better place for a creative industry to be. 



LBB> You've already finished a few projects in virtual production. Tell me about the experience and how you brought them to life. How would it have been different producing it in more traditional means? 



Joe> We just wrapped up a really exciting production with Omelet for Google and Blizzard. We can’t give away too much about it yet… but there are a lot of really exciting things that happened here. It was such a fulfilling creative experience, I’ve never had an experience quite like it. 

Another one we developed over the summer with Cartwright was very much inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, so this was an immediate opportunity to build a virtual landscape full of planets, spaceships, and nebulae. You could feel the excitement flow through conversations as we’d move planets and orbited the camera around debris together in these virtual worlds we’d build. 

Our year started with a project with HondaJet that had grand visions of aeroplanes in abstract places - like a Da Vinci flying machine hovering inside of the Shiba Ryotaro Museum Library. The pitch was so lofty that if we’d planned to shoot it in live-action it’d have been actually impossible to physically go to these otherworldly locations and park dozens of exotic planes on a tarmac. But we were able to attain these worlds by building them ourselves in a virtual platform and linking a physical camera into the world to simulate live-action production, making the creative process more freeing and accessible. 




 
Jerad> It’s more efficient because of the photo-real possibilities while not needing to have a crew, not deal with tight timeframes for travel, and not having the pressure to shoot impossible shots perfectly. It’s much more cost-effective and it's continuing to evolve to be seamless between what's real and what's not. 



LBB> When do you think we'll begin to see virtual production used for commercials on a regular, normal basis? Is it a case of convincing clients it's feasible? Are there financial issues? Anything else? 



Joe> There are quite a few productions that are beginning to adopt the many different methods of virtual production - some more noticeable than others. I think all it takes is introducing clients to what’s possible. There are so many different ways to use the tools. When we lay out our process to agencies and clients, we like to simply introduce the concepts and efficiencies, suggest how it can make their lives easier, then let them decide how they’d like to engage. 

Jerad> It feels we are on the edge of a tipping point where brands are not afraid of the technology and are starting to embrace it for the efficiencies and possibilities. Financially it can be more cost-effective when considering the savings on travel, locations, and crew sizes.



LBB> What other benefits are there for brands? 



Joe> More creative accuracy. More freedom to iterate and reiterate within a nonlinear process. A more collaborative nature by allowing everyone from exec to artist to look at the same thing and make creative decisions together. Happier clients, happier creatives, and an infinitely more fulfilling experience.

Jerad> To echo Joe, it’s a very exciting way to work and from our experience so far, working this way has created a fresh exciting energy amongst our clients.






LBB> What do you hope to achieve in the next year with Impossible Objects? 



Joe> We’ve spent the year carefully building the infrastructure and identifying our workflows and pipelines so we can ensure everybody is satisfied with the creative process, from the artist to the client. I’m excited to say that we’re developing a pretty sound foundation. 

And at the same time, we want to engage those same artists in passion projects and develop our dream projects together. We want both sides of the company to flourish.

Jerad> Specifically, I would say, handling what's on our plate. We talked about our roadmap and it's a few more branded projects for the rest of the year specifically in the automotive and tech space. We are working with an amazing musical artist right now as well, along with a few more exciting proof of concepts for our original IP that is being worked on in parallel.



LBB> Any parting thoughts? 



Jerad> This way of working taps the imagination in a way that we experienced when we were children, because it allows anyone to envision and create worlds beyond possibility. 

Joe> I feel like it’s exciting to recognise this as a moment of creative renaissance driven by technological innovation. Companies from the gaming industry such as Epic Games have been constantly updating their program Unreal Engine for free for artists to become experts and evangelists of, and tech companies like Nvidia and Dell are openly supporting artists with their tools to be as creative as they can be - there’s so much readily available documentation that makes the learning curve so accessible. 

It’s a moment where big ideas that were previously only accessible to a select few are suddenly open to anybody - and the barrier of entry is simply your imagination and willingness to learn. And we’re only just beginning to see what people are capable of.


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Impossible Objects, Wed, 13 Oct 2021 15:39:14 GMT