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Exploring creativity in virtual production at EnergaCamerimage 2022

Exploring creativity in virtual production at EnergaCamerimage 2022

At the recent EnergaCamerimage 2022 show, Anna Valley gathered a group of experts to take part in a panel discussion exploring creativity within virtual production. The conversation between international DOP David Procter BSC, director Rob Payton, film producer and imaging scientist Marko Massinger, and CTO of NEP Virtual Studios Phil Galler covered everything from the creative potential to the current pitfalls of virtual production – and how we might bridge that gap. Here are some of the highlights.

The creative benefits of control

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the panel were unanimous in praising the creative benefits of virtual production for cinematographers, particularly around the ability it provides to freeze time and control lighting. They also agreed that the performance from cast in virtual environments was incomparable to those recorded on green screens, although as Procter explained, “It’s not purely about the group performance of your artists, it’s also about improving engagement from crew and from everybody who’s on-set.” Massinger concurred adding, “It’s more of a true experience…you have a focus puller suddenly pulling real focus and seeing the results with a background…it’s not like having a crazy guy running around there in blue or green.”

According to this group, one of the unique benefits that virtual production offers is the opportunity for on-set crew to control the final look of the footage they capture. “We’ve been stuck in a world of green screen where some of those scenes have been done in post and you’re not attached to that part of the project,” said Galler. “Now at least we can have a conversation about it.”

And the potential for storytelling

The panel were also excited about the opportunities for experimentation and discovery that virtual production provides, sharing their experiences with everything from AI weather systems to combining real-time and timelapse footage and live action foregrounds with animated backgrounds. Procter summed up the sentiment when he described how pushing technology to do things that have never been done before can produce unpredictable results, “You get that organic nature and happy accidents like being on locations. It’s not just scripted, and I find that exciting.”

There was no question that we’ve barely scratched the surface of virtual production’s potential – and that processing power is the key to unlocking the next level of creativity. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg for real-time rendering to enable us to go places and do things we can only imagine,” said Galler. But he also warned against losing sight of the production team’s real purpose, adding “So many people right now focus on the technology, but it shouldn’t be about the technology at all, it should be about how to tell your story.”

Navigating the learning curve

Virtual production is a technically complicated process, and the panel acknowledged that it’s made more complicated by the fact that it relies on the expertise of a host of different teams – many of which aren’t accustomed to working in a production environment.

Recalling his first virtual production shoot, Payton noted “it’s different skill sets, that’s the first thing I realised when walking in, there were people brought up in LED, guys from the Unreal environment, guys from the gaming environment, and then you had the filmmakers.” While Massinger was excited about the ‘collaborative learning process’ that comes from involving so many different departments on set, Procter pointed out that virtual production represents a shift with the power balance, where you’re in the hands of the technicians – a transition which can be difficult for traditional filmmakers to navigate.

The experts all agreed that communication is key to bringing these disparate teams together on a virtual production set, “I think there is a shorthand and language barrier that is very relevant now,” said Procter. “I can talk to my gaffer about lighting, he gets the jargon, but it won’t make sense to an Unreal Engine artist perhaps.” Galler suggested that film crew need to be patient with departments that may not be familiar with set language and etiquette, but Massinger pointed out that it’s a mutual learning process as each department has specialist terminology and technologies that need to be understood by the others.

A silver bullet?

While the panel were unreservedly enthusiastic about the creative potential of virtual production, they were adamant that it’s not suitable for every project and that it’s ‘just another tool for us to use to be creative.’ They recognised that one of the areas where VP comes into its own is in enabling scenes in locations and setups that might otherwise be impossible because of budget or practical limitations – like a Himalayan mountaintop – and agreed that lighting is more interactive on-set for LED then green screen because the DOP and gaffer can see the immediate impact on set. The consensus seemed to be that the industry is moving towards a hybrid approach – where location-based shoots, green screen, virtual production and VFX are combined to deliver the best results.

The group was also emphatic that there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ virtual production setup – either in terms of volume size and configuration, or the technologies used. You can either build a state-of-the-art volume, based on your project requirements and budget accordingly, or build a volume based on how much money you’ve got in your budget. As Payton candidly put it, “You generally get what you pay for.” Galler conceded “It’s not cheap, we all acknowledge that, but it can be affordable when approached properly and add intrinsic value to your piece and storytelling from a creative perspective.”

Some parting advice

The experts shared a wealth of technical advice and tips over the course of the evening, detailing the pros and cons of specific setups used across the variety of virtual productions they’ve collectively worked on. Lighting, in particular, was a hot topic – Procter warned about the misconception that ‘the volume lights it for you’ and delved into the complexity of marrying on-set lighting with the virtual environment and LED video walls. Galler predicted that challenges like these will result in the creation of new roles in filmmaking, ‘like a virtual gaffer who understands what camera works, what camera the DP will use and the lighting around it in Unreal.’

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to include all the details that our esteemed panel imparted at Camerimage in this short piece, but we’ve extracted a few short words of wisdom from each of their contributions to the discussion that should prove invaluable to anyone who’s about to get involved in a virtual production.

The eyes see [the volume] very differently to the camera, and the biggest mistake is people don’t look at the monitor, you must treat the volume as another location.

Rob Payton, Director

Try to get a singular batch of LED. Calibrating different batches across different products is a huge pain, it will always look disproportionate and different.

Marko Massinger, Film Producer and Imaging Scientist

Use as much of the surface of the screens as much as possible to show the environment of the location

David Procter BSC, Director of Photography

Have a colour scientist on the team and develop a colour calibration process

Phil Galler, CTO of NEP Virtual Studios

Triple the prep time and add two weeks to that!
Marko Massinger & Rob Payton

Perhaps the best piece of advice, though, came from Payton near the end of the evening. It was in response to an audience member’s question about building virtual environments, but it really could apply to any part of the virtual production learning curve. He said simply,
“Don’t be afraid to fail. It’s not a reflection of you, it’s complicated with so many elements.”

Let Anna Valley help you navigate the technical complexity of your next virtual production, get in touch with our team today.