Initiatives Expand to Advance Virtual Production

George Clooney in Netflix's 'The Midnight Sky'

George Clooney in Netflix's 'The Midnight Sky'

In a move aimed at developing the U.K.'s stake in the emerging field of virtual production, its Department for International Trade and Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport is backing a new initiative aimed at creating national standards for job training in the field.

The effort will be initiated by ScreenSkills — an industry body funded by organizations such as BFI — led by a steering group chaired by Alex Hope, former joint managing director of VFX studio DNEG (Tenet) and ScreenSkills’ vice-chair. Committed participants include Epic Games (developer of Unreal Engine), Ntropic, Sky Studios, UK Research and Innovation, and UK Screen Alliance, with educators such as Bournemouth, Edinburgh Napier, Portsmouth and Ulster Universities.

Underscoring this interest, on Thursday the U.K. Department of International Trade hosted a virtual discussion about the professional use of these capabilities, with participants from Netflix, Industrial Light & Magic and MBS Equipment Co.

"Filmmakers are increasingly using virtual production to tell their stories," said Girish Balakrishnan, director of virtual production at Netflix, which recently incorporated these processes in production of recent releases The Midnight Sky and Jingle Jangle.

Acknowledging that virtual production is an initiative the streaming service has been growing over the past two years, he noted that "early creative engagement is critical" as this encompasses real-time production and areas such as virtual location scouting and art departments, in addition to the use of machine learning. "There’s a lot of work to be done," he said, citing examples as a shortage of virtual production supervisors and more development needed in technical areas such as color science.

Balakrishnan also emphasized the need to democratize these capabilities for both large and small productions, as well as uses such as live events.

Chris Cox, MBS’s head of virtual production and real-time for Europe, agreed that just over the past year virtual production has become better understood and more reliable, but this is still in its early stages. "We are trying to come up with a standard, secure format. We are identifying the software [and workflow] that make it less challenging."

"There’s a scarcity of equipment globally," added Jeffrey Soderberg, MBS exec vp of production and innovation. "We need to work on those supply chains."

To that end, Hackman Capital Partners/MBS Group announced in November plans to build a film and TV production center in Dagenham, located in East London. According MBS, part of the plans for the center, named Eastbrook Studios, are to both make all of the stages virtual-production ready and to offer virtual production capabilities.

ILM is among the VFX houses expanding the availability of these processes, through its Stagecraft system developed for The Mandalorian and recently used for shooting parts of The Midnight Sky at the U.K.'s Shepperton Studios (MBS also contributed to Midnight Sky). During the presentation, ILM execs reported that the company now operates four permanent virtual production stages, in the U.S. and U.K. It also initiated an R&D and advanced equipment group focused on this area.