Building a ‘creative hub’ for virtual production

Anna Valley’s first-ever director of virtual production, Christina Nowak, says the company can play an influential role in one of the creative industries’ “biggest revolutions for over 100 years”.

The last few years have seen Christina Nowak engage with the rapidly expanding virtual production (VP) market in a number of roles – most recently as director of film & TV for Virtual Production Studios at creative technical production company 80six. But there was one quality above all that convinced her she should join the team at Anna Valley – the company’s pragmatic approach to this exciting but relatively new area of the industry.

“The primary objective is to make the company a creative hub for virtual production,” she explains. “From my perspective that means establishing strong relationships with technical partners, and ensuring that we have the capabilities to offer complete VP solutions for productions and crew. Although Anna Valley is not unknown in this market, we are effectively approaching this as a new launch because we want to have a very clear message about the services and skills we can provide.”

‘The industry chose me’

In approaching this challenge, it can only be advantageous that Nowak brings a wealth of experience in business development and marketing roles at leading media technology companies. Reflecting on the start of her career, she observes that “the industry chose me. I started working with photographers and videographers at G-Technology [now known at SanDisk Professional] and it was a natural environment for me. Subsequently, at RED Digital Cinema and afterwards, I worked with cinematographers, below the line crew, film studios, VFX and post houses. Ultimately, I became so involved with the film-making community and companies throughout the production process that my learnings and support evolved naturally in terms of new technologies, production standards, CSR within production, and so on.”

Several roles have proven to be especially significant. Her time as senior marketing manager, EMEA at Pinewood Studios-based RED Digital Cinema saw her spearheading a host of domestic partnerships and experiential initiatives. Subsequently, Nowak worked as head of marketing at Ncam Technologies, whose pioneering real-time visual effects solutions have been utilised for acclaimed productions including Solo: A Star Wars Story and Outlander. Most recently, having established her own consultancy in New Chapter Production, in addition to representing other like-minded companies such as Megapixel VR in virtual production, she served as business development director film & TV for 80six, based out of dedicated VP facilities in Berkshire.

In the wake of this role, recent world events have confirmed to her that VP is approaching a vital tipping point. “The pandemic and related restrictions have definitely accelerated the trend,” she says. “It has encouraged a new outlet for creative exploration, along with remote production methods, controlled environments, and the elimination of travel. [Se7en and The Social Network director] David Fincher has described LED stage shooting as the evolution of projection, which leads me to be believe it would have happened eventually – but on a slower and smaller scale. Instead, the advancement of technology and investments by multiple vendors have kickstarted a digital revolution of a magnitude not seen in cinema for 100 years.”

In order to ensure that it has the tools and facilities to engage with this brave new world of production, Anna Valley has kickstarted a new phase of investment beginning with its largest purchase to date in VP technology. From LED screen and display leader Roe, the company has acquired 896 Black Pearl BP2V2 ‘film-centric LED panels’ with a 2.8mm pitch – equating to 224 sqm of LED panels and a total investment of around £1.9m. Anna Valley has also purchased hanging & stacking bars along with various curving plates from Roe, whilst a separate relationship with a batch partner will allow the company to boost its capability to 1500 panels from one batch when needed for larger productions.

“The first version of Black Pearl was created for The Mandalorian,” says Nowak, name-checking Disney+’s boundary-pushing ‘space western’ series. “The fact that Anna Valley has invested so heavily in the new version, BP2V2, shows that they have got their finger on the pulse and want to provide solutions that are relevant and in-demand. But they are also aware that different products will be required for different effects, so that will inevitably inform future developments.”

‘Encouraging industry collaboration’

Along with her experience of VP and other cutting-edge technologies, Nowak has an acute focus on diversity that is set to help Anna Valley increase the percentage of women and other groups in its workforce and collaborative partners. As well as having extensive involvement with Women in Film & TV (WFTV UK) and gender diversity organisation, Rise – Women In Broadcast, Nowak is an ambassador for female focused (but not exclusive) independent digital magazine Cinegirl.

“Participating in these organisations means a lot to me as they represent women and diversity in the industry – a cause I relate to strongly given my experience,” she says. “And these groups don’t only wave the flag for women – they also encourage industry collaboration, growth, education and training, inspiration, camaraderie, and access to information and events that would otherwise not be possible.”

All of these aspects inform Nowak’s “holistic approach” to her work that majors on “taking a technical mindset into creative applications”. But a more straightforward love of the work should not be underestimated – as can be gleamed from her selection of a ‘most memorable moment’ from her career to date. It finds her “lost in a forest in Budapest”, at the last minute looking for cinematographer Gavin Struthers ASC BSC, who was working on a scene for Series 1 of Netflix fantasy drama The Witcher.

“It was spring, but the forest scene was a winter one so there was snow everywhere,” she recalls. “I was carrying enough peli cases for what felt like half the crew, but nothing was going to stop me from fulfilling my promise to not only support this cinematographer however I could, but also bring a smile to their face. You should love what you do and you should love the impact that has around you, and it’s that feeling I want to achieve in what I do and the time I give.”