Fox of the twentieth century
A closer look at the increasing use of virtual locations for film and television over the past decade
The planet Pandora from the movie “Avatar”.
Film and television production is constantly evolving as trends continue to shape the creation of entertainment. Virtual production is poised to become the next of these great disruptors, revolutionizing the way story filmmakers conceive and shoot stories.
Virtual productions combine computer-generated imagery and special effects with traditional acting to capture scenes that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to film. With the help of LED screens, filmmakers can now set their stories in outer space, Middle-earth, the deep sea, or any other fantasy land their brains can imagine and bring them to life in ways that were previously unfeasible.
Shows like The Mandalorian and Star Trek: Discovery, and films like Avatar, Thor: Love and Thunder, and The Batman have all been shot in virtual locations and using virtual production technologies. VP is more widespread than you might think and shows up in many recently completed projects.
With the growing popularity of virtual production, Giggster has reviewed news and trends from the history of film and television production from the 20th century to the present day. In particular, we consider the history of virtual places, from their first instances to their current use and creation.
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Front and rear projection, a precursor to virtual production, was widespread in the 20th century
A film studio with professional equipment and green screen.
In the early 19th century, directors began experimenting with shooting their films in locations without having to travel. These early pioneers used various methods to achieve this, with varying degrees of success. But none stuck until the development of chroma key technology in the 1930s.
Chroma key technology uses chroma screens (more commonly referred to as green and blue screens) to superimpose two frames, meaning that as long as footage of the shooting location was available, directors matched it with footage of their actors in post-production could combine. Audiences wouldn’t be wiser about the fact that the filmmakers shot the two plays independently.
Around the same time, filmmakers also developed front and rear projection. Incredibly similar to chroma key technology, these techniques involve actors performing in front of physical screens onto which a background image is simultaneously projected or reflected.
These in-camera effects, a low-tech version of chroma key technology, were more commonly used than chroma key until the 1950s. But as technology evolved that simplified post-production combinations, the industry essentially abandoned older technologies in favor of cleaner, more compelling chroma-key practices.
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A virtual set, in its current form, consists of several key elements
A virtual production stage with giant LED screens showing a scene from Mars.
Front-projection, rear-projection, and chroma-key technologies restrict camera movements and prevent actors from interacting believably with their surroundings. And it’s Hollywood’s endless crusade to improve visual effects that led to the development of virtual sets.
Virtual sets, in their current form, consist of several key elements and novel technologies. There are wraparound LED screens showing backgrounds on three sides and above the actors’ heads. Outside the LED bubble, a number of computers run real-time rendering software, allowing the virtual background to shift along with the camera angle, ensuring audience immersion remains intact. A video mixer then combines the computer-generated images with the actor’s principal photograph. And of course, virtual/vfx artists are always on hand to ensure the computer generated and real elements are blended as seamlessly as possible.
Blockbusters like “Avatar”, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy were great advances for virtual production
The elven city of Rivendell from The Fellowship of the Ring.
Of course, virtual productions and virtual sets didn’t just happen overnight. A handful of innovative directors, including James Cameron and Peter Jackson, pioneered virtual filmmaking in the early 2000s.
Award-winning production designer Norm Newberry described some of the problems cast and crew faced in those early days to The Hollywood Reporter. “Part of my job was helping the actors understand where they were in this unseen world,” he said. Next: “I invented the process with 100 other people. ‘avatar’ I was using live action photography and motion capture, so the sets are digital and it required a different mindset.”
Despite the difficulties involved in virtual production, Newberry is optimistic that the method will continue to gain popularity. He told the outlet: “The future of cinema in the digital world will be to refine the way we work. These tricks will be easier to do; There will be better computer and camera technology that will allow us to work faster, easier and most importantly, less expensively.”
The LED box used in “Gravity” from 2013 set new standards
Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”.
Following in the footsteps of James Cameron and Peter Jackson’s innovations, 2013 sci-fi thriller Gravity was the next film to fundamentally change the way virtual production works. The film takes place almost entirely in space. Filmmakers had to help their actors play their roles convincingly, even though all of the sets and props were CGI, and they had to source a large enough light source to convince audiences that the characters are actually in space.
The solution was to build a box of LED screens for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney to work in. The box’s panels would show what the actors would see if they were actually floating in space and dodging space junk. This strategy gave Bullock and Clooney something tangible to work with. The images on the canvases also provided a more natural and effective source of lighting than they could have achieved even with any previous virtual production technology.
Although the film represented a significant advance in virtual production technology, it was still not perfect – the screens were of low resolution, at least compared to today’s quality. The higher quality CGI effects had to be rotoscoped back into the frame in post-production.
Virtual production has created opportunities to resume production after the COVID-19 pandemic
Taika Waititi on a virtual production set for The Mandalorian.
One of the advantages of modern virtual production is that film and television productions can be shot in a single room. Instead of traveling from destination to destination, teams can settle in a studio corner and spin a world-spanning story.
This comes in handy in terms of budget; While investing in the necessary equipment upfront can be costly, eliminating the need to travel for hundreds of people can save a lot in the long run.
Following the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020, projects shot in virtual studios could get back to work much quicker than those that relied on physical sets and locations. Shows like The Mandalorian didn’t have to travel across the country to reach their various locations, which meant there was less risk of exposure. Additionally, virtual productions require fewer people to be on set as much of the work can be done remotely, significantly reducing the risk of exposure.
gnepphoto // Shutterstock
Of course, virtual environments also have disadvantages
Film producers on a virtual set.
Virtual productions may be the future of filmmaking and television production, but the process is not yet flawless. As with any other method of filmmaking, there are definite downsides, including shooting limitations caused by the limitations of the technology and the overall believability of the end product.
Virtual productions are forcing filmmakers to adopt entirely new ways of working. With virtual productions, much of the work has to be completed in advance, requiring more planning and forethought into every second of the project.
In addition, the skills required to operate the technologies required for virtual productions are advanced, which means that if the workforce does not fill the gap, there may be labor shortages. Ultimately, technologies aren’t advanced enough to ensure that every virtual set looks as believable as its real-world location.
This story originally appeared on Giggster and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.