In 2019, the offshoot Star Wars series The Mandalorian hit our screens. Like the early Star Wars films, it broke the boundaries of visual effects, embracing a new form of filmmaking called Virtual Production. And as Squint/Opera recently found out on another set, Virtual Production (VP) has revolutionised the way we can make films.
VP replaces the clunky green screen backdrops that brought huge production challenges, from achieving realistic lighting in a green environment to colour-keying chaos. Perhaps most crucially, VP eliminates the complications of directing and acting in a void, then drawing in the background afterwards.
The queasy green backdrop is replaced with a massive cylindrical LED screen around the stage, (up to a full 360º), including walls, floor and ceiling, displaying a hyperreal visual backdrop. The stage is now renamed the Volume. We have entered a world of three-dimensional virtual space — a metaverse of film creation.
Suddenly, it’s as if you’re shooting on location or standing on set in the real world. The virtual environment wraps magically around the film crew, immersing everyone and everything. Actors and objects are illuminated by the LED environment, mimicking accurate ambient lighting, and the scene can be captured in its entirety directly into the camera’s lens. No keying, no roto, no heavy comping. The grinding months of post-production, through which filmmakers have always waded, could be coming to an end.
Ultimately, VP closes the chasm between what actors and directors can only imagine through the lens and what has to be conjured up in digital post-production.
This groundbreaking technology has developed quickly over the past few years, accelerated by the pandemic and the associated growth in real-time consumer video games. It’s computer game engines like Unreal and Unity, spurred by the commercial success of games like Fortnite, that have driven these recent developments. What’s changed most recently is the quality of rendering, which has progressed so far that it now enables us to create visuals that are realistic enough to match seamlessly with actual actors.
VP is now being used successfully across the film and advertising industries and looks to soon become the standard.
Why is Virtual Production important for architectural projects?
Beyond the movie industry, Virtual Production offers a revolution in the communication of architectural futures. In Squint’s work, we create digital environments that don’t yet exist and we visualise what it will be like to be there from a human perspective.
VP allows us to build entire new cities, districts and environments from scratch, put real people within those environments, have them interact, and film them directly. The real-time rendering capability enables us to redesign those environments in response to people, almost instantly. In the virtual backdrop, you can push back a wall if it’s blocking the light, pick up a tree and move it to provide shade. You can grab the sun and change the light, switch from day to night in an instant, move from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a valley with the click of a button. The filmmaker has complete control over the scene.
We recently produced an explainer film for the Trojena project in Saudi Arabia. The film reflects the ambitions of this new place and like Trojena itself, the film feels otherworldly and exciting.
Harnessing VP, we were able to film people within these extraordinary environments, seamlessly combining reality and technology in exciting new ways.
The film gives the viewer an unforgettable first impression of the future Trojena destination. People are at the centre of the film. It is through their eyes that we are viewing the film, connecting with each other as if a collective experience.
The project shows the destination’s experiential offer from first-person perspectives. Whether standing on top of the mountain breathing in the views, rushing down the ski slopes, or sailing on the lake, the film will transport the audience into the experience.
Collaboration is key
Having full control of the visual environments in real time means the decision-makers have an instant view of what the end shot will look like. This makes the whole process more streamlined, and of course cuts out much of the post-production needed on traditional stage filming. It’s as near to a real action shoot as you can get — meaning that the sense of unity and creativity is alive on set, and everyone is immersed in the scene.
For Trojena, the impact VP had on the onscreen talent was tangible. It allowed them to feel like they were truly there. The ambient lighting, interactions in a CG space with context, and seeing the environment all around them added to a naturally immersive experience and produced more compelling acting.
We even had a live remote feed to our client so they could instantly review shots as they were being filmed. This level of control and fidelity doesn’t just replace green screen shoots, but can also start to replace location shooting. Produced at the height of Covid-19 restrictions, we removed the cost and logistics of flying an entire crew abroad to film on location. VP gave us maximum flexibility from the convenience of a warehouse in the suburbs of London. This allowed us to focus more on quality of production.
The future of VP is mighty
VP is an extraordinarily powerful, new human-centric tool for storytelling within imagined environments. It empowers filmmakers and world designers to create scenes based on what “feels” right. It allows for intuition and creativity in filmmaking, bringing us closer to a representation of reality.
Virtual Production brings the tangible and the intangible closer together, forming a practically seamless interaction between real and unreal. And most importantly, VP puts people at the centre of these scenes and new spaces. You can become a character or exist in an imagined reality.
VP unleashes a myriad of exciting possibilities not just for filmmaking, but also for film audiences. The world of immersive theatre has been around for centuries and is finding a new fervour in culture today. However, now we have the potential for the audience to exist within a film, to interact with their environments, to create their own narratives and to design their own worlds.
Jump inside the volume — it’s going to be fun!