HPA Tech Retreat: Virtual Production for Mainstream Projects

Virtual production, used in big budget movies such as “The Lion King” and “Jungle Book,” relies on game engine technology to marry CGI backgrounds with live actors in real-time. As such, it’s is a cutting edge production technique. But, noted International Cinematographers Guild (ICG) advanced production technology specialist Michael Chambliss, virtual production can actually be used on more mainstream productions with smaller budgets. He moderated a panel of industry experts with experience in doing just that.

Chambliss introduced DigitalFilm Tree chief executive Ramy Katrib who showed several examples of how his company used virtual production on lower budget video projects. Chambliss asked him what the chief challenge has been. “To apply the clear benefits of virtual production to the TV environment has ramifications that are sometimes surprisingly hard,” he explained. “In main part, it’s because TV productions have no time. We’re in the process of unfolding it, staying close to everyone we work with and then hearing what they have to say.”

Eliot Mack is chief executive of Lightcraft Technology, which offers real-time camera tracking, keying and compositing for real-time visual effects on a budget. He showed a clip from a Korean TV show shot entirely on green screen, rendered in Epic’s Unreal Engine. “They created an elaborate storyline for a children’s TV show — because the director got it and saw it was possible,” said Mack. He added that, when used in the planning phase, marrying the elements can easily show “where it needs to be live action and where CGI.”

“The playfulness of the interaction is where the creativity comes in,” he noted. “You have to combine all the pieces you’re going to need for a complete VFX shot, and the process needs to be transparent and lightweight to implement.”

Art director Benjamin Nowicki, describing how director Sam Mendes was influenced to make “1917” as a one-shot film by watching his children play the video game “Red Dead Redemption,” referred to something Katrib said earlier. “Games looked to us and we’re now looking to games,” he said.

Nowicki reported that he helped an independent filmmaker use virtual production tools to put together a proof of concept for the set, a traditional 1920s Japanese home. “This isn’t necessarily the technology you need for final images,” he said. “There are real applications for indie filmmakers on low budgets. You can start to use it to figure out blocking and then try it on a green screen in a matter of minutes.”

Cinematographer David Stump, ASC gave another real-world example that proved Nowicki’s point. Stump, who began working on virtual production technologies in the early 2000s, showed a scene from the TV show “American Gods” that composited a vast natural landscape with actors in front of a green screen.

“Stargate brought its Lightcraft system to our stage,” he said. “I laid out the system and we storyboarded it, and shot the background plates we would need. We met at the set at 7 am and by lunchtime finished the scene and went to another stage to do another scene. That was six minutes of production in half a day of stage time. That’s the kinds of efficiency you can do with this technique if you study it and apply it well.”