While production has been halted during the lockdown, virtual production is saving the industry, thanks in large part to the real-time and VR innovations of Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” and “The Mandalorian.” Thus, work continues remotely on VFX-intensive features and TV shows, as supervisors and artists perform virtual scouting and scene planning with directors and other filmmakers in the comfort of their homes, using Zoom and Slack.
And, when production eventually resumes, they will be able to hit the ground running, and these indispensable tools will pave the way for a brave new world where social distancing reduces the size and scope of location shoots, set builds, and crowd scenes for the foreseeable future.
“I’m actually doing it now and it’s working out pretty well,” said VFX supervisor Rob Legato (“The Lion King,” “The Jungle Book”), who’s collaborating with a prominent director on a previs pitch for a feature, financed by a studio. “As much as it’s great to be in the same room with people, sometimes you don’t need to be,” he added. “I have a setup in my basement similar to ‘The Lion King’ with a dolly, hand-held camera, pan and tilt wheels and using the Unreal game engine with an operator on Google Meet.”
Legato operates the camera himself for a car chase with characters he’s animated on a previously scouted virtual location. “It’s going to be based on real locations and it’s going to look photoreal, and some bits and pieces, as you construct the sequence, will have a video wall setup,” he said. “And one of the reasons we’re doing it with Unreal is, a bit like ‘The Mandalorian,’ where, as we’re designing and creating the sequences, there’s an eye toward reproducing some of it on the video wall for close-ups of cars and sets that don’t have to be built or finished.”
While video wall screen projection has been around for a while, its ability for set extension has been limited by camera movement. That is, until Industrial Light & Magic pioneered the StageCraft platform for “The Mandalorian,” eliminating the need for costly and time-consuming location shoots entirely. Instead, actors on the “Star Wars” bounty hunter series for Disney+ perform in an immersive and massive LED video wall and ceiling at Manhattan Beach Studios in L.A., where the practical set pieces are combined with digital extensions on the screens. This allows the filmmakers to generate complex and exotic digital backdrops in real-time (using Epic’s Unreal game engine).
But the big breakthrough of this video wall tech is the accurate camera tracking and perspective-correct 3D imagery, which pulls it all together seamlessly and believably (Season Two of “The Mandalorian” streams in October). “It’s going to be the wave of the future, no question about it,” Legato said. “And people are really interested in it now [during the lockdown]. It’s hastening acceptance because of the ability to do it and be socially distant still.
“You don’t need to hop from exotic location to exotic location for a day or two of work,” he added. “You can plan out your sequence where you don’t have to do that. You can take advantage of the digital backlot and you can basically replicate what you can get on location. It doesn’t take long to master it, if you understand how it works, how to control it, what every set up is, how to light it, and how to color correct it.”
ILM certainly has high hopes for StageCraft in a post-pandemic world mandated by strict social distancing and a smaller production footprint. “We expect virtual production and, specifically, the use of StageCraft, to continue to accelerate as more filmmakers are exposed to the benefits of the technology for production,” said Rob Bredow, executive creative director and head of ILM. “There is a global shortage of shooting stages and that’s not likely to change in the near term. StageCraft allows productions to significantly reduce the number of stages needed concurrently given the flexible nature of the LED volume. The technology has come at just the right time to help the industry continue to produce quality content despite the challenges we all face.”
Additionally, as the industry adopts the appropriate measures to ensure operating productions safely from a public health standpoint (a leaked British Film Institute safety protocols draft offers a vision of returning safely to shoots in the UK), Bredow believes that StageCraft “will allow our clients to get their productions up and running safely and more quickly than traditional location filming, since it requires less travel, and is self-contained by comparison.” At the same time, ILM is preparing to support several “Mandalorian”-scale StageCraft LED productions at one time, with multiple trained crews both in Europe and on the West Coast of the US.
And, for its part, Epic Games has stepped up by continuing to advance the Unreal engine, and some of the virtual production processes on “The Mandalorian” are available for free for customers in the Unreal Engine 4.25 release. “The emergence of LED walls as part of the virtual production arsenal enables more real-time interactivity and collaboration across teams on a show — it establishes a creative sandbox where every department can participate in real-time, rather than the traditional linear decision-making process,” said Miles Perkins, head of business development at Epic.
A similar process was deployed on “Westworld” Season 3 for pickup shots, added Perkins. “Instead of flying cast and crew back to a location in Spain, the set was recreated virtually on a soundstage in Los Angeles.”
Indeed, the use of a more limited LED wall was a dream come true for “Westworld” co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan after failing to crack the secret for Season One. “After Jon allowed us to visit their set, we built on what [he] was able to build for ‘The Mandalorian,'” Nolan said. “We were able to revisit what we had tried to build for the first season [with production designer Howard Cummings and VFX supervisor Jay Worth], dust it all off, and finally make it work…to be able to move the cameras and really pump light into it.”
John P. Johnson / HBO
But it’s the flexibility and versatility of virtual production that will enable it to step up in a post-pandemic world. MPC Film VFX supervisor Adam Valdez (“The Lion King”) is currently doing real-time previs for a TV series at his home. “It’s going to become a new baseline for [planning] with a group of department heads scouting a real location or a virtual location that doesn’t exist,” he said. “VR allows a group experience and one of the messages that we want people to understand is that I’m doing it from my house. It doesn’t require a big motion capture stage.”
Virtual production will also crucially help fill the gap for scaling back the size and scope of VFX-intensive franchise and tent pole movies. “We need to be in a situation where we have our actors on the most limited footprint soundstage that we possibly can do,” said MPC VFX supervisor Nick Davis, who recently completed Disney’s “The One and Only Ivan” (August 14), a live-action/animated hybrid that leveraged some of “The Lion King” innovations.
“That’s going to involve a lot of planning for our filmmakers using virtual tools, added Davis. “We don’t want to be locked in. There’s always going to be an organic process, but we’re going to have to look at the process of actually capturing those images, we’re going to have to possibly limit the number of cameras — no big crowd sequences — and we know we can utilize virtual [production], the Unreal engine, and creating entire environments beforehand.”
Weta Digital, which is currently working on the “Avatar” sequels, “The Batman,” and “Suicide Squad 2,” among others, has witnessed an escalation in virtual production impacting the way projects are produced, budgeted, and bid. “This was starting to happen pre-COVID, and the current situation just adds another dimension to that conversation,” said Weta’s executive VFX producer David Conley. “While ramping production back up is obviously where the focus is right now, we are in the middle of an era of unprecedented growth in content production and virtual production can be a great asset. The more we can augment the onset environment to include proxy elements or even final shot elements, the more we can de-risk the creative process up front and deliver the closest possible version of what the director envisions. This has the potential to enhance the story and reduce cost.”
Social distancing practices and travel restrictions are very complicated issues to resolve for live-action productions. According to Conley, virtual production tools could be used on hybrid sets to offset health risks, but these will always be weighed against cost. “In the short term, we are probably more likely to see shots moving to full CG to help reduce shoot days or replace entire location shoots,” he said. “For us and many facilities, these workflows offer stability and predictability, two things currently in short supply.”