HPA Tech Retreat: Cloud-Enabled Virtual Production – Part 1

Jack Wenzinger of Amazon Web Services’ Global M&E Partners vertical moderated a discussion during the HPA Tech Retreat on what’s been learned about cloud-enabled virtual production during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also noted that Epic Games’ Unreal Engine has published a field guide to virtual production that focuses on the work being done in pre-production and post. Joining the conversation was ETC@USC senior consultant Erik Weaver, Solstice Studios chief technology officer Edward Churchward and Mo-Sys Engineering technical director James Uren.

Wenzinger referred to the definition of virtual production offered by head of the Epic Games Los Angeles Lab David Morin: “Virtual production is the competency to merge live video shooting footage and computer graphics (3D/CGI) together, at once to get real-time opinions and feedback and to make decisions on the set about the VFX and animation used.”

Wenzinger, who acknowledged that virtual production isn’t new, asked the participants if the pandemic has been spurring innovation.

Uren, whose company offers camera tracking for virtual production, noted that “the big sea change has come about because the quality of the graphics possible in real time has accelerated to near-cinematic quality in a fraction of a second.” With improvement in game engines, he added, creators are able to accomplish sophisticated tasks on a standard workstation.

Weaver, who just completed the live-action short “Ripple Effect” to test cloud-based virtual production, agreed. “We’ve had a fundamental change that comes down to three things,” he said. “First, the Nvidia RTX 3000 series graphics cards. Second, the ability of game engines, with Unreal now offering incredible increases in what’s possible to build worlds. Third, the COVID era has pushed us to do things differently and build things in a new way.”

Wenzinger noted that, in addition to Nvidia’s RTX cards, “the Omniverse technology, Universal Set Description capabilities and pixel streaming technologies are advancing and supporting high performance compute and visibility.”

Churchward, who is also co-founder and chief technology officer of Arch Platform Technologies, said his company offers cloud-based VFX and post production pipelines for productions. “Over the last year, we’ve seen a real reduction in the cost level,” he said, adding that he’s seen many small productions on lower budgets now able to avail themselves of virtual production efficiencies.

Weaver added that he’s read that previs house The Third Floor has suggested producers take one-third of their VFX budget and put it upfront in previsualization. Uren reported that, having joined the AWS Partner Program, his company is working to create a pipeline for near-time renders. “We appreciate you can’t do everything in real time and even if you spend a little more time rendering, you can get more bang for the buck.”

He added that the pipeline will offer the flexibility of deciding if the render is required in five minutes or five hours. “We have a working prototype on the bench and are in the process of deploying it to the cloud,” he said.