How virtual production is transforming the art and craft of filmmaking

A run-down of Unreal Engine’s The Pulse.

If you’ve been keeping up with The Pulse, Epic Games’ new video series exploring trends in real-time 3D across a range of industries, you may have caught the recently aired episode that focused on virtual production. The format features a panel of industry experts, and includes a live Q&A open to those who register in advance.

In Virtual Production: The Transition to Real-Time Filmmaking, host Mike Seymour, Co-Founder of fxguide and Director of the Motus Research Lab, is joined by Sam Nicholson, ASC, CEO and Founder of Stargate Studios; Felix Jorge, CEO and Creative Director at Happy Mushroom; and Matt Madden, Director of Virtual Production at Epic Games.

These industry veterans are pioneering new techniques and workflows, bringing post-production to the front of the pipeline and capturing final pixels in camera. In the episode, they share their insights into how virtual production is bringing significant efficiencies to the production process, with final-quality assets being reused from previz right through to post-production and even for triple-A games.

Clockwise from top left: Sam Nicholson, Matt Madden, Mike Seymour and Felix Jorge.

“The idea that games have now become photoreal using Unreal Engine is a remarkable change, because now we’re seeing the literal blend—which we have all been predicting for years—of feature film and interactive gaming, and the same assets can be used in both, and they are being used in both [industries], both in visualization and production, and in post-production,” says Nicholson. “So that’s the really exciting part: we’re seeing the blend of these two huge industries with a technology that glues it all together, and that is what’s happening in Unreal.”

Madden agrees. “[Producers] are very interested in the idea of leveraging assets across multiple shows,” he said. “And because they’re photoreal assets now, they’re not just for previs or reference, that is very appealing to them.”

Another huge benefit of virtual production is its ability to bring creatives into the decision-making process earlier than ever before, as virtual art department lead Jorge explains.

“Real-time virtual production has really changed the game for us,” he says. “All of a sudden, we can have our key creatives influence our sets in ways that they never did before. And so we use several different kinds of workflows for them to influence these worlds that they’re creating. Some of those include virtual location scouts, virtual prelights, and virtual blocking. Using these review workflows, they’re able to solve complex issues in creative ways before the day of the shoot.”

With multiple creatives on set giving notes to be addressed immediately, visual effects artists are having to adjust, and the pressure can be challenging.

“These are people that generally work with headphones in isolation and concentrate in a black room,” explains Nicholson. “The difference between being a colorist in a perfect environment where everything works perfectly in post-production, and having real-time color—we operate three DaVinci Resolves live on set with over 40 monitors, four cameras, and everything is real time—that’s the heat of the kitchen.”

Behind the scenes on Stargate Studio’s real-time set-up for ‘Run’.

Jorge agrees: “I try to explain it to people that when I was in post, you get a note just sometimes in a platform or in email, you go, you address it, and then you return it, and it’s the game of telephone,” he said. “Now, remotely, we’re doing virtual location scouts with 10 people in headsets at once. They’re giving you notes and I have a team of people addressing them in real time. You have the director, the DP, the production designer, the set decorator, the set designer, the producer or the executive producer, and there are 10 people critiquing your set live. That’s all information you need to capture.”

But the benefits of virtual production far outweigh these challenges. Case in point: there’s more flexibility in editorial, where sets can easily be recalled to generate pickup shots or cutaways after the main shoot. The same applies to marketing.

“Once we have photoreal virtual sets, if you need pickups, it’s easy,” says Nicholson. “Any set that you have can be recalled. And interestingly, for marketing the film, instead of what happens now, which is you strike your two million dollars’ worth of sets, and then the marketing team comes in six months later and says, ‘Well, we want to do something on that set,’ now we can bring those back and they’re much more valuable as virtual assets in the long run, which is why for television series and amortizable assets, this is a really, really strong card to play.

“I like to think that we came out of the chemical era, went into the digital era, and now we’re in the virtual era of filmmaking,” he says.

You can view all the episodes of The Pulse and sign up for upcoming ones on The Pulse hub.

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