Industries of all types have faced unusual challenges since Covid took a stranglehold over the world. Particularly for the film industry, shelter in place orders stalled productions for months. Even as productions start back up, new Covid safety measures prevent the industry from working at full capacity. Movie theaters are a similar story. Theaters have been closed and heavily crippled due to the pandemic. AMC Theaters lost $561 million in one quarter alone. Unprecedented challenges naturally bring innovative solutions. An idea Hollywood embraced in 2020 with Virtual Production.
Virtual production is when VFX technology is leveraged to enhance each phase of the production process. Slowly but surely Hollywood has been moving away from physical production and towards virtual production. As VFX improves, it has been utilized by Hollywood more and more. One of the most important ways Hollywood has been using VFX is with previsualization.
Previsualization or Previs is the process of visually mapping out scenes before they are filmed. We all know the traditional methods of previsualization: photography, storyboards, animatics, and shot lists. But there is a new type of previs gaining popularity. One that blends VFX and motion capture to digitally construct scenes in Virtual Reality. Jon Favreau, one of the most notable users of this technique, calls this process Virtual Cinema. By digitally constructing complex scenes in VR, the crew can get an accurate depiction of what the scene will look like in post. On top of that, there is a virtual camera feature that allows directors to use tablets or Ipads as a lens to view the virtual space.
On the set of Rogue One, Gareth Edwards used Virtual Cinema to plan out the space battle sequences. He had a real-time VR system that transformed the physical space of the studio into a virtual construction of the space battle. The VR system was linked to a tablet that allowed Edwards to use it as a virtual camera. As Edwards moved around the studio, the tablet would show him different angles of the digital space. This gave Edwards the ability to plan out how to shoot the space battle with camera movements that feel natural.
Jon Favreau has enthusiastically used this technology on many of his Disney collaborations like The Mandalorian. Favreau doesn’t only use Virtual Cinema for more fantastical scenes but also for more grounded scenes as well. When crews scout locations, some locations may prove to be too much of an inconvenience to return to. Now, VFX artists can use video game engines to digitally reconstruct real-life locations for the crew to experience in VR. A technique Favreau used on The Lion King and even on The Mandalorian. Departments can use this technology to map out entire scenes.
In some cases, productions use the digital reconstruction of a location over the actual location itself. You can read more about that here.
More and more productions have been adopting virtual production techniques to continue working through shelter in place orders. Instead of visiting locations, VFX artists can create them digitally. Instead of shot listing for VFX heavy scenes blind, directors can preview shots in a digital environment. Crews can plan out entire scenes from the comfort of their living room just by wearing a headset. One must wonder if the slow but sure adoption of virtual production techniques has been accelerated by the global pandemic and what that means for the film industry’s future.