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  • Orbitae Films

Virtual Production: 5 Key Elements to Understand

Updated: Jul 4

Everyone's talking about it. Since "The Mandalorian" series, virtual production has been used in many projects, including blockbusters like "The Batman" and Netflix's series "1899" (the behind-the-scenes is a must-see to discover and understand how it works, by the way).

virtual production
©Lucasfilm Ltd. LLC - Behind-the-scenes of The Mandalorian

But, what is it? In short, Virtual Production (or VP) uses LED screens to project pre-designed virtual environments. Thanks to Motion Tracking, it dynamically adjusts the perspective in real-time within a "volume"—the area surrounded by LED screens. This facilitates the integration and immersion of actors into digital sets, right on the stage.


Now, before diving into making a whole movie with this technology, here are a few things you should know:


LESS POST-PRODUCTION, BUT MORE PRE-PRODUCTION!

Virtual production can reduce post-production time, but that doesn't mean it’s quicker overall! In fact, post-production time shifts to pre-production. Yes, virtual production requires more in-depth preparation because all environments must be created in advance. This means that everything, from textures to lighting, must be anticipated before shooting.

"All that stuff took months and months inside a computer game space, before we start building [the set]", Dylan Clark, producer of The Batman.

Now, this doesn’t mean there’s no post-production at all. Color grading, compositing, and other visual effects will still be needed.

Behind the scenes of The Batman. Virtual Production
Image from "The Making Of The Batman | Max"

TESTS, TESTS & TESTS

It's crucial to run tests to ensure that the environments work well with the sets and the actors' lighting. It's also vital to test for technical performance. Highly detailed environments require high-performance computers, so system stress tests are essential.


LOOK DEVELOPMENT

The rendering can be photorealistic, stylized like in "Sin City" or entirely surreal. This choice, made before shooting, dictates the project's mood, tone and visual and technical appearance. It requires close collaboration between the director, the DoP, the design team and the visual effects supervisor. When filming in front of a screen, it's vital to test the desired look to set optimal conditions.


Don't fight the technology; work with it for better results.

virtual production 1899 Netflix
©Netflix - Behind-the-scenes of 1899

REAL SETS SELL THE ILLUSION

Every successful virtual production needs set design in front of the screens. This ties everything together. VP can be viewed as an extension or complement to a real set rather than a replacement.


A VFX SUPERVISOR IS A MUST

The visual effects supervisor is your bridge between creative vision and technical reality. This person is responsible for ensuring consistency and preempting any technical issues during the integration of real and virtual elements. Integrated from the get-go, they'll advise on the best way to achieve desired effects or even which technique to use, given time and budget constraints. Don't have one? Send us an e-mail!


IT'S A TOOL, NOT A UNIVERSAL SOLUTION

Although virtual production offers new possibilities for filmmaking or advertisements, sometimes it's not the best solution. For effects requiring actor interaction, like particles or volumetric effects (smoke, explosions, etc.), a green screen might still be preferable to avoid long rotoscoping hours.


This means each scene should be evaluated to find the most optimal solution based on budget and time.

virtual production The Mandalorian
Mandalorian used a lot of green or blue screens. ©pixomondo

UNDERSTAND ITS LIMITS AND ADVANTAGES

Yes, with virtual production, you can have a sunset for 8 hours of shooting, which is sweet. Plus, if you have a character that uses a reflective armor, like in "The Mandalorian", or even a car scene, it's very useful!


However, it's crucial to understand the technology's benefits and limits. A common mistake is to push the technology, expecting an ultra-realistic final render without the necessary technical resources. In fact, is now common knowledge among VFX artists, that the background has to be completely replaced (meaning lots of rotoscopy work), because the final output might not be realistic enough. This was the case for the final scene of "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania". It went to a point where RED used it as a selling point for their V-RAPTOR [X] Camera, saying it "captures final pixel and green screen simultaneously".


Another thing to consider is that some LED screens might display moiré patterns, especially when the camera moves quickly or is set at different frequencies. Also, not all LEDs render colors the same way, which might affect how scene colors are perceived on camera (we said it before: do some tests and, yes… more tests!).

virtual production
Image from "The Making Of The Batman | Max"

In conclusion, virtual production offers directors and production teams new tools to realize their artistic visions. However, like any technology, it demands meticulous preparation and close collaboration between teams to harness its full potential. While it may seem like the answer to every production challenge, knowing when and how to use it effectively is essential. After all, true art lies not just in mastering the technology but in the ability to know when to use it in order to enhance the cinematic experience.

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