It is undeniable how strong of a grip the digital realm holds on the physical one nowadays. At times it is difficult to discern between what is real and what is not, at least in terms of the media we consume. This questioning opens the possibility for the challenging of the mere concept of “reality” and virtual production is one of the digital practices at the forefront of this endeavor.
What is Virtual Production?
Simply put: virtual production is the process of generating mixed media content in hybrid creative studios where the relation of digital and physical environments is seamlessly implemented. This means that a limited space, with physical props and actors, is blended and expanded with the use of hi-tech cameras, motion capture techniques, LED volumes and a whole array of technological goods.
This approach to audiovisual production is becoming increasingly attractive to movie studios and high profile brands, mainly because of the efficiency and optimization this process provides. Let’s check some of these out!
The Old Days of Cinema
The quest to expand the possibilities of the moving image has been present since the very moment the technology was brought forward to the world. From Charles Chaplin to Luis Buñuel, or from The Lumière Brothers to Hitchcock, there has been a constant mission to capture closer visions to our imaginary. However, all these artists had to create in spite of lacking digital technology that we now have available at our fingertips.
Now, imagine the cost and time that must be devoted to create say… a cityscape to be used as the background in a single scene of a film. In most cases they would resort to painted panels, and in some cases even build small prop buildings or neighborhoods. But now imagine having to recreate each scene and its background… physically! The amount of effort and time consumed were just astronomical.
The Green/Blue Screen
As the audiovisual art form evolved it was imperative for new techniques to be invented in order to fashion cinematic pieces with much more surreal/fantasy themes. This is where the green screen became the desired approach to capturing these new worlds. The way this technique works is by compositing (blending) different layers of content. For example: a cityscape to be used as the background and a TV host doing a presentation. These two captures are combined in order to create a single scene that would’ve otherwise been impossible to reproduce. Here’s an example:
Although this technique has been present in most modern studios and productions, there are some disadvantages to it. The main one being that the transition between the background and the foreground of the scenes can sometimes be challenging to be correctly achieved. Because the green screen is a fabric, a surface… it is subject to changes in light, the focus of the camera, and the clothing worn by the actors on scene (the latter determining when the screen is blue or green.)
There is a big advantage to this technique and that is the ability to incorporate your elements in post-production. This means that you can shoot a scene with actors and a green screen without having decided or finalized the content that will fill the background. This allows the creator more time to perhaps readjust the content to be used in relation to the scene that has been captured. In virtual production the story is quite different…
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How Does Virtual Production Work?
A virtual production studio is generally put together in a large, empty and industrial-looking space. Just like this:
As you can see there are large pieces of equipment around the studio that include lighting, recording and playback devices, and quite a few people too!
Typically, an LED volume (massive LED screen) is used for the background, while the foreground is built in situ.
The essence of virtual production is making these separate elements blend together to the point of creating a realistic-looking scene. As you can imagine there are many moving pieces in this jigsaw, which is why logistics, technical factors and general studio flow are primordial for this kind of work.
Since everything is captured in real-time, the content preparation and studio settings/design before the shoot must be optimal. This means that the content that you want to use as your background must be designed beforehand, and if needed to be adjusted it must be done so on the spot, which requires high levels of technicality for the team in charge of this division.
In order to accomplish these tasks we use tools like Unreal Engine, which enable the rendering of real-time environments, and through these and a clever combination with camera tracking it is possible for real camera movements to be tracked while the environments on the LED volumes respond to those movements, creating realistic changes in perspective.
Light is everything in terms of capturing the moving image, and that’s why it is one of the most delicate aspects in virtual production. The transition between the background and the foreground must be seamless, and this is achieved through masterful management of light!
Here are some advantages of Virtual Production:
- Projects reduce or remove entirely shooting on location, which reduces costs significantly, as well as lowers the impact on both the environment (the carbon footprint is cut down) and the crew involved.
- The ability to change the background settings with the touch of a button allows for multiple and unique environments to be reproduced. A scene on top of a snowy mountain can be followed by one shot on the beach, and this can be done instantly.
- It’s a safer and more controlled environment. Which reduces the chances of accidents or struggles during the shoot. This also allows for privacy for the talent to perform at optimal almost theatre-like environments.
Virtual Production is and will be a vital component of our daily lives. From a creative point of view it offers nothing but possibilities. It is also encouraging to think that these technologies will evolve at a high-speed rate, therefore ensuring that the quality and fidelity of these types of projects improves steadily.
The creation of a virtual/physical world has been knocking at our door for decades now, and with the conception of the metaverse, virtual reality and augmented reality going on at the moment we can only expect for this technology to revolutionize our life experience!