There’s a scene in Chris Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ where Lucius Fox uses a wall of monitors to help Batman hunt down the Joker.
That’s the image that crackled into my mind the first time I stepped onto a virtual production set.
Collective has been using VP since it came about, but our recent National Energy Action “Warm the country twice” shoot, was my first time at the reins.
Happily, it was the perfect opportunity to demystify the concept and reconcile its potential with my own experience.
It was a ‘learn by doing’ sort of thing, that grew my knowledge of how best to use it, and informed my judgment over when best to use it.
So if you’re a creative considering, or nervous about using virtual production, why so serious?
Same shoot, different way
The most striking thing about this shoot was how normal it all felt.
Yes, there was a wall of LED screens serving as our backdrop, but we still had to dress the set. Light it. Have a director, DOP, camera operator, focus puller, virtual art department - the full shebang.
Plus the preparation of the world was all the same. The script, art direction, storyboards, digging out the Patagonia gilet…
But when the house lights went down and the screens filled with our woodland clearing, the big joy and novelty of VP came shining through.
The seamless blending of our physical build with the picture-perfect backdrop made it feel like I’d been teleported to an autumnal Eden without moving a muscle.
It just made me smile. A grin that didn’t leave my dish for the next 12 hours.
You can’t ‘fix’ it in post.
Because so much detail goes into every frame, you only have time and budget to shoot your boards. You can’t really change or add pickups or overshoot because the extras won’t match your painstakingly designed and calibrated background. So you have to front-load your pre-production (including approval processes) rather than your post, as you won’t be able to ‘find shots’ in the edit.
It’s a mindset shift, but embrace it and the results are special.
VP or not VP?
This economy in playing God suited our project perfectly.
National Energy Action needed a positive creative hook for its #DonateTheRebate campaign, a scheme asking people who didn’t need its Government energy rebate to donate it to those that did.
That’s how we got to the proverb, “chop your wood, it warms you twice”, and also how we ended up in our virtual woodland clearing.
Now, this concept would ordinarily call for an outdoor shoot, but it was November and we had (sub)zero fat in our budget and schedule.
So a practical set, extended virtually via an LED wall maximised our time and overcame variables like weather and daylight.
It also reduced our carbon footprint by containing the job to one location, easily accessed by public transport, which chimes very nicely with our B Corp status.
Very nicely indeed.
VP is a technique, not a panacea
It works when you need to completely control more elements of pre-production and actual production. It’s not an idea in itself. It can accelerate creativity - but it doesn’t replace it (Midjourney and ChatGPT anyone?). You can’t VP your way out of a bad product, boring concept or ultra-functional messaging. So if what you’re making is highly limited - your budget would be better spent elsewhere.
VP in action
This job was characterised by so many people willing to give their energy, expertise and get their hands dirty.
None more so than the production facility and virtual art department, Pathway.
They built the physical set using prop trees, scavenged stumps and garden plants, plus an ungodly amount of leaves.
Good grief, these leaves.
Long story short, but ultimately we maybe had to bribe a civil servant to pay a council park keeper to gather and deliver 3 x 1-tonne bags of fallen foliage, then pick them all up the following day.
Pathway then blended this leafy floor with the virtual build, a 3D forest backdrop created in Unreal Engine, and lit everything in a L-shape to give us 2 shooting angles.
Pick the right partner
A lot of VP tools, techniques and production houses are still in their nascence. Shop around, meet people and do your homework. An airtight working relationship with your VP partner based on trust is a must. And remember, it’s as much about problem-solving as it is about vision-creating.
And two more tips before we wrap
Remember this is high-tech
Majestic when it works, murder when it doesn’t. So build time into your projects to accommodate for any glitches, malfunctions or clients coming to set wearing full body magnets.
And always take the weather with you
If we’re being hard on ourselves, we didn’t get our atmospheric conditions quite right. When you bring the outside in you have to bring all of it and our scene felt ever so slightly stiller than real life.
It was still more than convincing to the studio dog though, who set about making the trees, leaves and background ‘his’ multiple times over…
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