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Developing the future workflows for virtual production

Developing the future workflows for virtual production

It’s not often that something truly new comes along.  Something that no-one can claim to be an expert at.  Something like virtual production.  But while these rarities are exciting, they also pose some very real challenges.  How does an industry learn a totally new production technique – one that turns conventional creative approaches and linear workflows on their heads – when there are no experts to teach us?  That’s where StoryFutures and their Virtual Production R&D Discovery Pilots Programme come in.

StoryFutures aims to fuel innovation in storytelling through virtual and immersive technologies, new production methods, and innovative formats and business models. They bring together leading innovators with academic experts to develop cutting-edge ideas that capitalise on the massive opportunity for innovation and growth created by new content creation tools.  To date they have supported over 125 industry-academic collaborations, building a vital source of innovation for the digital media industries.

In July 2022 StoryFutures announced their latest cohort of innovators: four creative businesses that would spend the next 3 months developing new ideas in virtual production methods in collaboration with academic experts at Royal Holloway, University of London. Anna Valley was selected as one of the industry specialists on virtual production workflows and teamed up with course leader Armando Garcia and a group of finalists and recently graduated students from Royal Holloway’s (BA) Games Art and Design and (BA) Film, Television and Digital Production courses to investigate some of the foundational problems which exist within the creative realm of virtual production.  Our aim was to encourage and aid access for users who are new to the technology whilst looking for ways to develop workflows between teams of technologists, digital artists, lens-based technicians/artists, and performers alike.

 

Putting the plan into action: the process and the tech setup

For the project, Garcia and his graduate team planned to produce a piece of content entitled ‘Architect’ using virtual production techniques at Anna Valley’s West London studio.  During the course of production, the combined teams would explore a range of topics including colour management, asset output, camera and lens integration, render efficiency, and motion caption integration and document our experiences along the way.

The studio setup provided by Anna Valley included a Roe Black Pearl v2 screen with a Pixel pitch of 2.8mm.  Recognised as one of the leading LED products for virtual production, Roe’s Black Pearl provides a very wide viewing angle before you lose chroma data, which means it’s quite forgiving and particularly well-suited to learning environments such as this one.  A Barco S3 server which used Brompton Controllers and Disguise as the output software was used to bridge content from the Unreal Engine to the BP2 Volume.  Finally, a single Sony F5 with a Canon CN7 Zoom lens setup was also supplied with Mosys Star-System camera tracking hardware to communicate camera movements and parallax back to Unreal and the Media Server.

 

The learning curve : takeaways from a virtual production experience

The graduate team spent three days running tests at Anna Valley’s studio and then a further four days on-site for the actual shoot.  With content created by Royal Holloway, University of London’s game design graduates and the studio setup configured based on their specifications, this was the first time they would see how their carefully crafted storyboards would translate in a virtual production volume.  As expected, there was plenty to learn from the experience.

 

Where to from here : sharing what we’ve learnt

The hope going into this project was that the learnings from it would serve as a springboard for the creation of standards, whitepapers and learning resources to help cultivate the young talent the real-time industry is so desperately short of.  To this end, Garcia put together an academic report that details the key learnings from the project and which he plans to use to develop modules for his courses at the Royal Holloway, University of London.  Some of the points raised in this report include:

  • The intrinsic difference in the collaborative approach to pre-production for virtual production vs the typical linear production pipeline.
  • The importance of studio size and, in particular, the distance between the LED volume, cast and set dressing elements and the camera.
  • The need for a shared approach between the physical and digital lighting departments.
  • The potential for shoot delays when processing large-scale changes to a virtual environment.
  • The difficulty in establishing protocols and standard practices due to the range of technologies and configurations available for virtual production.
  • The need for clear communication tools between the different digital and physical teams and disciplines involved in delivering a virtual production – from pre-production through to the shoot.

Most important, though, is the need to create and share content and training materials to upskill the industry at large in this new approach to production.

 

Anna Valley’s Matt Waller, who worked with the graduates on the virtual shoot, believes that the benefit of working with students is that they come to a project like this with fewer preconceptions and ask for things that industry veterans might not.  This can be instrumental in uncovering new techniques and workflows.  He describes the experience as a knowledge exchange and a unique opportunity to experiment without the typical production pressures.

Virtual production is, after all, an evolving approach to production that is still very much in development.  And what can be more valuable when creating new workflows and techniques than an open mind … except maybe technical expertise?

Virtual production is really taking hold in the industry allowing creatives to achieve high quality ambitious game engine driven content for film and beyond. The learnings from these early-stage R+D collaborations are helping to shape the direction of the industry: from driving innovation to cultivating the next generation of creative talent, this programme has proved that Universities and creative businesses can work together to address important research questions.

Professor Peter Richardson, Head of Virtual Production at StoryFutures

Interested in finding out more about virtual production?  Contact Anna Valley today to discuss your next project.

To find out more about StoryFutures, the National Centre for Immersive Storytelling, visit www.storyfutures.com or on social media @storyfuturesa.