Virtual production: unlocking unlimited creativity

Virtual production: unlocking unlimited creativity

We’re going all in on Virtual Production for 2024!

With the addition of XR and AI, the creative restraints are truly unshackled, says Jonathan Brigden, managing director, Distortion Creative Group, a specialist immersive content company which incorporates Studio Giggle, Distortion Studios and Distortion Productions.

It’s hard not to get a little glassy-eyed when reflecting on moving image’s apocryphal past: Méliès moon, Dorothy’s Technicolour emergence in The Wizard of Oz, Stanley Kubrick’s pioneering use of front screen projection in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These creative moments underpin our culture in the same way biblical stories, Renaissance art or folk songs did in the generations preceding them, but they’re all underpinned by a change in technology.

As Marshall McLuhan famously said ‘the medium is the message’, and - in the 21st century we’re not short of mediums, from Apple to X, Netflix to YouTube, the consumer is overwhelmed with screen time options. But, while broadcast mediums have evolved beyond recognition, the hardware side of broadcast was in a state of evolution, not revolution, throughout the bulk of this century.

The last four years or so, however, have been fruitful for broadcast technology. The iterations of improvement in definition and power savings before the Covid era were welcome, but it wasn’t until we saw virtual production’s possibilities on screen that we started to see something of a rethink of how content – and its increasingly high expectations – could be met far into the future. AI is providing real-time landscape generation, and even allowing for the inclusion of actor’s likenesses.

Some elements of virtual production come from traditional rear screen projection.

Rear screen projection was mainly used in the film industry in the 1930s-1960. An actor would stand in front of a screen while a projector positioned behind the screen casts a reversed image of the background. This allowed directors to film scenes of people driving whilst on a static set. The one downside, however, is that everything did have to be static, the camera could not move otherwise the illusion would be ruined. This limited the capabilities of rear-screen projection.

Early adoption of XR and virtual production has resonated well with audiences, as demonstrated by its use in popular productions like Andor, 1899, How I Met Your Father, and Star Trek Discovery, embraced by giants such as Disney and Netflix, as well as various movie directors.

The term virtual production encompasses a broad range of applications. One approach is that it can involve pre-visualising shots by crafting virtual worlds in game engines like Unreal Engine by Epic Games. A notable approach is wearing a VR headset to navigate and plan shots. Alternatively, you can use real footage, captured with 360 cameras, to actually create a real environment. This technique has been used in Our Flag Means Death and 1899.

The evolution of virtual production extends to studio environments.

This is where pre-visualized spaces, often represented as grayscale blocks, transform into lifelike environments displayed on a large, high-resolution LED screen, commonly referred to as 'the volume'. Camera tracking in 3D space enables real-time rendering, giving rise to the term 'in-camera VFX,' synonymous with 'virtual production.'

This innovative content creation method compels participants to visualise and interact with their environments, emphasising meticulous planning in pre-production to streamline shoots and reduce costs. This approach proves particularly beneficial for time-sensitive schedules common among creative agencies and event planners.

These methods have been deployed creatively by brands and music video producers, notably recently by The Chemical Brothers.

While virtual production offers the enchanting prospect of fully realised virtual worlds, it also caters to more practical and subtle shoots. 

Shooting iconic locations like the Colosseum or event venues can occur within the studio, eliminating the need for international travel. The flexibility even extends to shooting on Mars, if the creative brief demands it.

Despite touted cost savings, it's crucial to emphasise that poorly planned shoots can incur higher expenses than traditional content creation. Additionally, while post-production time is significantly reduced, it remains a necessary step for tasks like colouring or grading.

Virtual Production is a complex process, but its successful execution yields unparalleled effects. 

This technology not only saves time and money but, with reduced travel, contributes to environmental conservation—a compelling reason for its continued adoption.

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