How Virtual Production is Evolving
As new players and tech developments enter the field, let’s explore what the future will hold for virtual production.
Although virtual production is an umbrella description of a new type of production technology, it is becoming a permanent label for the “volume.” A volume is a bank of high-resolution screens that work with camera tracking and game engine. Volumes conjure up the 21st century’s version of a backdrop.
But what is the latest? Or perhaps the more interesting question would be, who is the latest user?
Well, you might have thought that Marvel was already all over this shiny new tech, but the latest Thor movie, Love and Thunder, was their first time savoring the volume.
By all accounts, they loved the experience. Actors Chris Hemsworth, who also Exec Produced the film, and Tessa Thompson, who plays Valkyrie in the series, loved the real time-ness that volumes bring in contrast to the days of blue and green screens.
“The Volume makes it easier because you don’t have to imagine what you’re seeing,” Thompson said.
There is a land grab to see who can build the biggest “volume.” Korea seems to be winning this race at the moment with CJ ENM’s “The Wall.” Their main wall is 20m in diameter x 7m in height and is curved. They also have a straight wall that’s 20m in length and 4m in height. These screens are new technology from Samsung. More of this tech later in the article.
Other new volumes include Pinewood Studios in the UK. The design is from the original builder of volumes, ILM StageCraft. This production-hardened technology gave the world the seminal virtual production series The Mandalorian.
The company currently occupies two lots in Manhattan Beach Studios and is looking to expand in several key creative production centers, including Atlanta and Vancouver. The new stage improves on the volume used in the Disney+ series. It’s larger, uses more LED panels, and offers higher resolution and smoother wall-to-ceiling transitions, all resulting in better lighting and more in-camera finals.
“With StageCraft, we have built an end-to-end virtual production service for key creatives. Directors, production designers, cinematographers, producers, and visual effects supervisors,” explains Janet Lewin, SVP ad general manager at ILM.
Vū Technologies is North America’s fastest-growing network of virtual production studios for the film, video, and advertising industries. The company recently announced the plans for their fourth and newest studio in Orlando, Florida. This 32,000 sq ft studio will host the largest LED Volume in the Vū studio network with three on-site stages. Vū’s Orlando studio is the latest addition to the company’s growing portfolio of virtual production studios in Tampa Bay, Nashville, and Las Vegas.
“We believe within the next five to ten years, the idea of shooting on location or with a green screen will be a thing of the past. The paradigm shift to shooting in virtual production studios will forever disrupt and improve the way content is made in the film and TV industry,” said Jon Davila, Vū’s president and co-founder.
As the number of volumes increases worldwide, the business attracts the biggest corporations. Samsung has a new product for virtual production. They call their new Micro LED driven screen The Wall. If you imagine a color gamut 25% wider than SRGB, then The Wall carries 99% of DCI-P3, a digital cinema standard.
The new technology’s pixel pitch is short, meaning the density of pixels is high, making it easier to shoot close to the back wall than other LED screens. But this has added value, as real sets can be placed nearer to the screens. This creates a better illusion without the often jarring focus or resolution differences.
Samsung also claims that their 7,680Hz screen refresh rate enables tracked cameras to reduce screen flicker and moire. Cameras can then be used closer to the screens, which has been an enduring complaint of virtual production as shots are usually mid to long in nature.
Close-up shots will finally be welcome, and the technology will become an all-around shooting tool. However, there are still limitations to taking the camera a long way back or too high.
Epic’s Unreal Engine
The Unreal Game Engine is seemingly monopolizing the television and film industries with its real-time abilities to present moving and ever-changes images on the largest screens.
Of course, the magic of the technology allows ultimate revisions on the fly. Films will have banks of creative talent changing and grading movies as they go across those screens. Imagine the ability to change the scenery of even VFX almost immediately and see it through the lens.
News for Unreal Engine 5 depends on the industry you’re working in. But, one of the most interesting new features is the ever-evolving Meta Human. Unreal describes creating a human as so easy that you might not have to use their user guide. You choose your basic human from the database, then refine your character with sculpting tools and control guides just by dragging on the asset.
Suppose you want to play with a digital human. In that case, you can download any of their diverse selection of pre-made, fully-rigged MetaHumans directly from Quixel Bridge, which is now integrated into UE5.
The latest MetaHuman release brings a new MetaHuman Plugin for Unreal Engine, which enables you to turn a custom mesh into a fully rigged MetaHuman. There are also more hair, clothing, preview animation options for MetaHuman Creator, and support for the new character rigging, animation, and physics features in Unreal Engine 5.
Virtual Production’s Rosy Future
As trade shows come back online, the industry will see a lot more innovation in this area. Plus, many more productions will be using the technology either pared down for, say, sitcoms, or geared up for the big streaming shows.
The wrinkles are still being ironed out of the process, but crews and actors love being in the volume, and it’s hard to see a downside in their use.
Feature image via Marvel.
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