Is Virtual Production the Uber for the Film Industry?
If you’re a movie-goer like me, you’ve seen greenscreen technology or something like it already. You might even have used a form of this technology at your last Zoom meeting when you used the Virtual Background feature to turn your messy home office into a tropical beach. When you see an actor driving in a movie, the world moving in the background could be a greenscreen or a video that is playing live as the camera is rolling. Hollywood has used rear screen projection for driving scenes for decades.
Recently, Disney+ “The Mandalorian” filmmakers deployed a relatively new hybrid of these two basic film technologies called Virtual Production. The perfect storm of super-fast computers, gaming engine advancements, huge high resolution LED screens, virtual cameras and dealing with making movies safely in a COVID world may make Virtual Productions even more popular and necessary. Richard Janes wrote about this in his excellent article The Great Film Production Renaissance: Are You Ready? so please read it and I won’t go into specifics here. He makes a very compelling case that VP will change the way we make movies. I tend to agree.
As an art director who has worked in the film industry for 20 years, I have experienced the ups and downs of this ever-evolving industry through writers’ strikes, 9/11, subprime crash and the TV goldrush thanks to Netflix. But there has never been an interruption to the film industry as severe as what we are experiencing now. It’s like someone pressed a giant pause button to stop all live-action productions worldwide. Fortunately, filmmakers are a resilient bunch and we will rise to the challenge of restarting our industry in a safe manner. In the process, VP may Uber its way into the film industry but there are many factors which may slow down this latest disruptor.
The COVID-19 Effect
The film industry worldwide is only just starting to learn how to make adjustments to work safely to produce the same quality of work that audiences expect. Every film commission, movie studio and health regulator will roll out their own set of COVID guidelines for film crews to follow. These new measures will include the need to maintain social distancing, testing widely and regularly to make sure all crew members are COVID-free and keeping principle actors — a.k.a. movie stars — isolated from the rest of the film crew who will all be wearing masks. (Picture a large group of people all wearing black crew jackets with face masks and you’ll get the idea.) And something that I will miss dearly — the buffet-style catering truck — will be no more.
We will find new ways of making movies that will help us keep crews safer such as Virtual Production. But VP is very expensive so it won’t be adopted widely in the short term. However, if this pandemic goes on and on and we don’t have a COVID-19 vaccine in eighteen months or more, VP might become more and more affordable and viable as an option. We may find that all the extra costs of COVID prevention factored into film production will make VP economical.
Let’s put on our producer’s hat for a moment. Let’s say that I have $40 million to make a feature film or TV series. I may need $8M just to deal with all the COVID guidelines such as renting more trailers and vehicles for the cast and crew, more stage, office and shop spaces to comply with social distancing, PPE for all crew members, extra disinfecting crew, more sets of costumes and props, and most important of them all — lots and lots more time! Instead of 8 weeks of prep and 60 shooting days, with COVID measures in place, I might need 12 weeks of prep and 80 shooting days! Well, there goes my budget! But VP might be able to save me a lot of time — maybe not so much in prep, but certainly could reduce my shooting days because I can move a lot faster. I won’t need to move my cast and crew from location to location. Virtual Production allows me to shoot anywhere without leaving my sound stage. The scenery is literally virtual. I won’t need to deal with disinfecting it between scenes either. All this save me time which I can invest back in VP.
Good Union Jobs Lost
Let’s face it, humans just can’t compete with the machines when it comes to speed and efficiency! Film productions big and small have adopted the use of CNC (Computer Numeric Controlled) machines to help fabricate film scenery such as this foam statue of Charles Darwin or cut repetitive complex shapes out of flat sheet materials to save money and time. Labour costs are usually the biggest line item on a film scenery construction budget.
When VP is deployed in a film production, we won’t need to hire as many skilled craftspeople like carpenters, painters, sculptors, set dressers, riggers and lighting crew to build physical scenery. On a typical production, those workers make up the bulk of the crew during our prep period to have all those film sets ready for when the director shouts “Action!”
As an art director, a fun part of my job is working with these talented craftspeople to bring our designs to physical form. It never gets boring for me to draw an X-Men X-Jet one week and then to eventually step into a real X-Jet weeks later! If VP becomes more widespread, I will definitely miss the experiential part of film set design.
Art Dept. jobs may also be at risk. Our department is responsible for the design of all the sets that you see on the screen. Guys like me make a living by managing the design and execution of physical and digital film scenery. In Virtual Productions, everything is digital so that means the beautiful production design that we see on the LED video wall could come from anywhere. We will no longer be bound by the physical constraints of “if we shoot it here, we have to build it here.” Any film set could be loaded into a game engine pipeline and played back countless times on the LED video wall. If I am a major studio like Columbia Pictures, I already own a version of the White House Oval Office that I can use again and again.
The Visual Effects Dept. routinely LIDAR scans every completed set or location to create a high-resolution 3D model of the scenery for post-production work. Guess what? The major studios own that too. They can have a library of thousands of locations and sets at their fingertips to playback in Virtual Productions. In theory, this sounds great from a financial point of view. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, right? But from a creative point of view, this practice doesn’t work. Rarely do producers, directors and certainly not production designers want to reuse someone else’s set in their movie! Would Steven Spielberg want to reuse Guillermo del Toro’s sets? I don’t think so!
The good-paying jobs that may be lost will be painful. In the U.S.A. and Canada, practically all studio TV and feature films are made under I.A.T.S.E. union contracts.
With over 140,000 members, we really are the union behind entertainment.
Do you think they will stand by idly as these jobs disappear? That’s hard to say. This won’t be like a mass lay-off. It will probably be like those CNC machines. Bit by bit, slowly perhaps surely the jobs will go. But people will adapt and new opportunities may arise with the new technology.
Screen Technology Costs
Virtual in-camera scenery in the form of huge LED video walls or rear projection is very expensive right now. We costed this out in our recent “G.I. Joe: Snake Eyes” feature film for one set. A three week rental for just one 20' x 40' LED video wall is $100,000. Mike drop. But remember when your coworker knew a guy who owned a $10,000 42" plasma TV? Now you can buy a 75" 4K LED TV from Costco for under $900. As the economics play themselves out in the marketplace, those VP costs will go down.
There will also be much savings when a film unit can change locations at the push of a button.
A film unit is that long line of ubiquitous white trailers and work trucks that park in your neighbourhood when we are shooting at a location near you. Film crews always try to be good citizens but we totally understand that we can be a pain in the ass because we take up all that parking! Sorry about that!
The creative potential to put a show anywhere virtually will be like crack! Any show can look like a James Bond movie with multiple international locations if it wants to. Do you want the streets of Monte Carlo, no problem? How about filming inside the Taj Mahal? Done! Producers who want this look and creative freedom will find a way to bake those expensive screen costs into their productions. But this will take time for this new mindset to sink in and be accepted by the money managers.
Infrastructure — If you build it, well, you know…
There is a worldwide shortage of studio space for traditional physical productions. Virtual Productions will make that problem even worse. Moreover, many of the stage spaces that are used now were formerly warehouses with low ceilings and columns. Those “stages” can’t be used for VP. In fact, many purpose-built sound stages won’t be adequate either because they aren’t big enough to fit huge LED panels and certainly not rear projection. Not only does the rear projection screen take up a lot of space in front of the camera, but the projector behind it needs even more space to throw the video image onto the back of the screen.
We will need to upgrade soundstages and build new ones to accommodate VP. Many film jurisdictions are already doing that like the new Pinewood Atlanta Studios and Blackhall Studios in Reading just west of London. But these new infrastructure projects are very expensive and take a long time to complete.
Land costs in key film production centres like Los Angeles, New York City, London, Toronto, Vancouver and Chicago are already very high. But since these hub cities have already spent billions of dollars to build up their infrastructure and talent pool of skilled workers to support film productions, it would not be economical to move to another cheaper location. Besides, out of town cast and crew members like to be near vibrant city centres and easy access to airports. And ideally, be closer to home.
At the moment, when we use LED video walls like recently on the Netflix series “Altered Carbon”, Video Playback is the film department that is responsible for all things video. They rent it, the LED vendor sets it up, they prep and test it, and they provide the onset crew to do take care of playback during filming. VP is much more complex. The simul-camera is motion-tracked to the live rendered 3D space playing on the LED to avoid parallax. The Video Playback guy can’t be the only one to deal with playback, motion tracking, syncing, etc. This involves at least the Camera, Lighting, Rigging, Sound and Visual Effects Depts. Just as we have onset carpenters, set decorators and painters on physical sets, virtual 3D sets will also need changes on the fly.
“Let’s move that mountain 4 feet to the left please.”
“We need to make that brick wall less red bricky. It’s clashing with the costume!”
Will the VSFX dept. deal with these onset changes or will there be a new Onset Virtual Art Director position invented? Culture changes like these in the workplace take time for everyone to get onboard.
Let’s Get Physical!
Even with all the advantages afforded by Virtual Production, we will still need physical sets. It just wouldn’t make sense to use VP for a living room or an office when we can just build one. In television productions, things must move with lightning efficiency and speed. On season two of The Good Doctor, we built this Procedure Room in two weeks! Sometimes for simpler sets, we can turn things around in a couple of days. Design, draw, build, shoot! We can’t turn around VP from scratch as quickly. Even though we don’t need hammer and nails to build a virtual set, someone still needs to build it inside computer software. That is a long and tedious process.
For episodic series that get picked up again and again, season after season, the cost-benefit of building a standing set that is amortized over several seasons will always be cheaper and better than using VP — at least for the near future.
A “standing set” is any key set that is used repeatedly in a series. Think of the Friends’ Living Room, Star Trek Enterprise Bridge or Dolores’s Lab in Westworld.
Even with VP, we will need physical scenery for actors to interact with especially for those close-ups. Physical props and set decoration will still be needed to make those foreground spaces look natural, to give actors something to handle, and to tell the story. Lighting and rigging will still be needed to light the actors and everything else in front of the LED video walls to match the same look of whatever is on those big screens.
Then, there are the Traditionists…
Even though the vast majority of filming today is done with digital cameras, did you know that directors like Quentin Tarantino still prefer to shoot in old fashioned film stock? Similarly, many other powerful directors, producers and actors would prefer to work in real, physical sets. You can’t blame them. If you’re the actor, it’s hard to imagine that you’re inside the Great Hall of the House of Stark if you’re surrounded by nothing but greenscreens. VP is of course much better because now your entire field of vision is covered by this enormous video of the set. But if you like things to be real for artistic reasons or you need to have a certain level of control over your environment or you simply feel more comfortable working in a real set, VP will be a hard sell for you.
As film industries around the world restart, we will have to wait and see whether Virtual Productions will Uber us into a different way of making TV and films. I know that visual effects professionals, LED video wall proprietors and our talented and resilient film workers will be ready for whatever challenges lie ahead. As we often say in the film biz,
If this was easy, we would all be doing it.