Virtual production is an emerging technology, but it’s already revolutionising how all types of videos and films are made.
If you haven't experienced virtual production but heard of it, you might not know its full scope. By merging tech from gaming, TV, architecture, and sports-science it allows for quicker, more innovative content creation.
Starting Pixel LIVE! was a two-track all day conference held on the 8th Oct 2023. It brought together virtual production practitioners to discuss different aspects of virtual production.
The goal was to give attendees the platform to share their experiences and ideas and ultimately stimulate the infant field forward practically and creatively.
There were over 15 speakers from different backgrounds such as production, directing, screenwriting, and gaming engines, to name a few.
They ranged in virtual production experience levels. Some, like Chris Jorna, Victor Moroianu, and Luke Butler, were skilled filmmakers but had only tried virtual production once.
Others, such as Oleks Skrypnyk, Augusta Wicht, and Karim Zouak, had been involved in virtual production for some time.
While each presentation was unique, three key themes emerged as trends shaping the landscape of virtual production.
Virtual production is accessible.
If you’ve seen The Mandalorian (2019-present), The Lion King (2019), or Top Gun Maverick (2022) – or any high end film or TV shoot in the past few years – then you’ve seen virtual production in action, very likely without realising.
However, virtual production isn’t solely the realm of big-budget Hollywood flicks that take a thousand-person team and several years to produce.
In reality, virtual production is accessible in terms of planning, affordability, and experience [to anyone wanting to storytell].
One speaker, Kieran Lowley, discussed his two-minute microfilm See You In Hell. Lowley and his co-director ideated, wrote and cast the film in less than four days. The shoot itself took less than four hours. [traditionally it would have taken weeks and a considerably larger budget]
See You in Hell contained a nuclear blast, which was entirely virtual but surprisingly realistic, especially given the impromptu nature of the shoot. Compare this to the atomic explosion in Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023), which took months to shoot, plan and edit.
Accessibility was also present at a budgetary level. In their session about indie filmmaking from the perspective of Gen Zs, Chris Jorna and Victor Moroianu discussed building an entire world in Unreal Engine for less than £400.
Likewise, a lack of virtual production experience wasn’t a barrier either. Luke Butler, [a video producer for enterprise organisations], produced two hours' worth of content in a virtual studio [in one day] for one of his clients despite having never used virtual production techniques before.
While these are only a small number of use cases, the implications are far-reaching. It seems only natural that Virtual Production will get even faster, easier to use and cheaper. .
It’s not impossible that within a few short years, every form of content production will include virtual production to some extent – whether that’s in ideation, scripting visualisation or multi-location ads and films shot in a single studio.
The growing accessibility of the field sets it to be truly disruptive.
Rapidly evolving field
The development of virtual production is directly linked to technologies from other fields – and other areas are advancing rapidly.
It’s not even been two decades since the iPhone was first released, and the latest model is 30 times more powerful than the original one.
Unreal Engine (traditionally thought of as a gaming platform to build games such as Fortnite), often used in virtual production shoots, is an example of how quickly technology evolves. Unreal Engine 4, released in 2014, could handle a few million polygons.
Unreal Engine 5, released last year, can handle over 10 billion. It also has updated lighting features and plugins, making it far more practical for videographers.
The keynote speaker, Gabriel Shalom, discussed how consumer electronics and Wi-Fi signals are starting to map spaces. Virtual foregrounds, where AR elements can interact with real-world objects in real time, are on the horizon.
Artificial intelligence adds another dimension to virtual production, as discussed by screenwriter, Bob Schulz.
Voice cloning is already used to correct simple script errors which avoids scheduling challenges for reshoots or ADR sessions. With the appropriate technology, actors could soon licence their voices or physical likeness for use in real-time or post production.
An example of the speed of development, since the conference, a new technology called ‘gaussian splatting’ has emerged. This tech allows for the capture of a location on an iPhone to be taken into a VP shoot within hours – this would have taken weeks, if not months, previously.
The field is moving fast. As these tools become more sophisticated, the creative possibilities will also grow.
Practical applications are wide
We already use video for countless things, whether for business, entertainment, or education. Likewise, virtual production techniques are also widely applicable.
One of the speakers, Augusta Wicht, a film director, discussed how she could shoot a commercial using virtual production techniques. Another speaker, Karim Zouak, showcased a live streamed virtual auction conducted using live performance capture and other virtual production techniques.
Martin Bell [scriptwriter and award winning VFX artist], created an award-winning movie, Prazinberk Ridge, entirely in Unreal Engine.
The technology can potentially transform many industries in the years to come – if it’s not doing so already.
Starting Pixel LIVE! 2023 was not just an event but a testament to the transformative power of virtual production. Across all speakers, the consensus was clear: virtual production is shaping the future of content creation.
Its accessibility means hefty budgets or exhaustive timelines no longer bind creators. Its rapid evolution ensures that the tools and capabilities constantly push the boundaries of what's possible.
Virtual production’s broad applicability signifies that its impact isn't limited to Hollywood; it's reshaping industries across the spectrum – whether that’s corporate, music, educational or indie, to name a few.
As we reflect on the insights and innovations shared, one thing is sure – the horizon of virtual production is vast and promising. The stories and projects born out of this technology are only beginning.
Starting Pixel is an open community group at the heart of this exciting journey, propelling the industry into a future filled with limitless possibilities. If you’re working in virtual production, or interested in it, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org