The popularity of virtual production, known as the challenger to the green screen, has skyrocketed in the past few years. The technology, which includes LED backgrounds and real-time game engines, has been used by Disney for series such as “The Mandalorian” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi”. The trend is showing no signs of slowing down, with smaller budget productions increasingly relying on virtual production.
We asked Zoltán Bathó, VP & VFX producer at DIGIC about the current state of the technology and its future prospects:
BPR: Is virtual production still the high-end productions’ option, or is it becoming more popular on smaller markets?
Z. Bathó: Yes, it’s getting more and more popular every day. Virtual production is somewhat expensive at the moment, but as more people start using it, it will become cheaper, different alternatives and smaller LED wall solutions will emerge, offering more options for the studios. Experts in the industry are beginning to understand what this technology is good for, what they can or cannot use it for. LED walls are also being used in video clips lately, as the budget often does not allow shooting at multiple locations, making shooting in studio conditions is a convenient alternative.
The other sector where the shift is becoming more noticeable is TV series, and I’m not necessarily talking about series like “The Mandalorian”, but classic small and medium budget TV series. These almost always have central locations returning in every season, which can easily be reused in a virtual environment. In the past year and a half, virtual production has started to appear in smaller productions besides the “A” category films, so this change is imminent. Next to the studios specializing in big productions there are now many smaller ones.
BPR: So it’s no longer an emerging technology, but more like a challenger to the green screen right now?
Z. Bathó: Absolutely. The technology has reached the phase where the question “green screen or LED wall?” is frequently being asked. Of course, this requires that directors and cinematographers who have been using green screen in the past switch their mindset and workflow to the new system, to understand and see its limitations and start thinking in this new direction. They need to be able to recognize whether the quality of the material produced using this technology will be better, and to see the differences in the length of post-production. Many virtual production studios hold open days, where they invite experts to demonstrate what virtual production is capable of. This process is still in its infancy in Hungary.
BPR: What are the visual and other advantages of virtual production compared to green screen techniques?
Z. Bathó: Most importantly, choosing virtual production also affects the quality of the performance of directors, cinematographers and actors. On a green screen shooting, everyone has to imagine what is happening in the background. Sure, there are storyboards and visuals, but a LED wall gives you the opportunity to create a sketch of a scene. For example, an actor doesn’t have to imagine a dragon flying towards him anymore, because he can actually see it. When a director explains his vision in a green screen environment, different actors can have very different ideas, and this is something that can be overcome quite easily in virtual production.
So the primary benefit is not in the visuals. While using green screen, you can still achieve a higher quality in visuals with a higher budget and the right expertise, but it also requires a lot more post-production work. With a LED wall, you can roughly see on location what you will eventually see in the editing room, so you can spot details that need correcting much sooner, preventing a lot of reshoots. Different technologies are now meeting for the first time in virtual production, spurring new, target-specific collaborations between different sectors of the entertainment industry.
BPR: What opportunities does virtual production offer beyond LED backgrounds?
Z. Bathó: When we talk about virtual production, everyone thinks of the LED backgrounds, but that’s almost the last, although most spectacular part of the production. It’s a much broader technology that has existed in some form for a long time, it just hasn’t been called virtual production and hasn’t been widespread. Take a key scene in a film for example, which is difficult to describe in a script and difficult to depict on a storyboard. The solution for this at major studios is to create a so-called “previs”, which is the virtual representation of the scene in question. This can be done with traditional 3D softwares like Maya or Max, but lately game engines like Unreal Engine by Epic Games is getting more and more popular due to their faster iteration time. Hungarian productions rarely spend any budget on 3D previs, eventhough, it could save a lot of money, because you can filter out mistakes that might be too late to spot later and make your changes immediately.
If you use this engine in the pre-production phase of the film, you can use the whole LED wall during shooting, you don’t need to build new sets, you can just build your background layers on top of each other, being able to refine locations and characters. Of course, this requires a different approach from the whole production team, as 30-40% of the budget is likely to be spent before the actual production phase.
The same technology also allows a kind of virtual location scouting. A professional scanning team goes out to the location chosen for the film, surveys and scans the whole location, which can then be modified in any way in the Unreal Engine. The DIGIC group has the full range of tools and knowledge to do this work, we have our own scanners, we have the expertise, we have the LED wall content production team and an in-house Virtual Art Department (VAD) to provide end-to-end Virtual Production services for movie productions. In addition, in Hungary there is a favorable tax rebate for film productions, which is 30%.
BPR: Did you ever have to work in virtual production at DIGIC Pictures?
Z. Bathó: Last year, we worked on a film for Sony Pictures called “Knights of the Zodiac”, which is a live-action version of a legendary Japanese manga. We made a background for the studio-built office space of a high-rise building, specifically we replaced a full-wall window and the city visible through it with a LED wall. It’s important to mention here that this LED wall system is also capable of tracking the movement of the camera and generating the image we would actually see from a given angle.
BPR: The Unreal Engine graphics engine has been used for video games for decades. Does this mean that basically all that accumulated knowledge is now coming together with the film industry?
Z. Bathó: That’s exactly so. This engine has not only been used for videogames for some time, but also for animated films. Now that live-action movies have come into the picture, Epic Games has quickly started to work on establishing collaborations. Over the last year and a half, they’ve been trying to be there on film sets, connect with filmmakers, and get involved in the work process on sets itself. They also have a free training program for professionals, which I’ve been invited to. At the end of the program, each participant produced a two-minute Unreal Engine short film.
BPR: What is the future of virtual production in the film industry?
Z. Bathó: We expect everyone to learn about the possibilities of virtual production and the engine used for it. As experimentation with the technology continues, the possibilities are growing, but they will only be fully exploited if the tools and tech needed for the production are catching up, so it can embrace all that Unreal Engine has to offer. As I’ve mentioned, the process is already underway, so I think we’re going to see huge progress within another year and a half.