Studios Ramp Up Virtual Production Efforts Amid Pandemic-Era Filming

Virtual Production -On the set of THE MANDALORIAN- Lucasfilm Publicity_H 2020
Courtesy of Melinda Sue Gordon /Lucasfilm Ltd.

As Hollywood aims to figure out how to safely resume film and TV shoots amid the pandemic, virtual production techniques — which broadly refer to visual effects work done in real time on set — are becoming more widespread. Reflecting the convergence of gaming with the entertainment industry, these pipelines are generally built around a real-time game engine such as Unreal, from Fortnite developer Epic Games, which on Aug. 6 unveiled a $1.78 billion round of funding.

Among the Hollywood companies exploring this potential, Netflix has quietly established a virtual production initiative dubbed NLAB. The company doesn't exclusively work with one tool or workflow, but one of its tools is Unreal Engine, in use on several productions including the upcoming Christmas movie Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.

Girish Balakrishnan, Netflix's director of virtual production, says the workflow using Unreal offers "the ability to connect a DP in New York with VFX artists in London, a director in Los Angeles with an art department in Japan, and performance-capture talent with in-house animation supervisors." The goal is to streamline production across continents "while talent safely works from home."

The notion of "virtual production" grew out of the idea to do computer-generated previsualization on set. For many, James Cameron's 2009 Avatar was the first title to put the process on the Hollywood map, and technical advancement has led to more recent applications in productions such as Jon Favreau's The Lion King and The Mandalorian.

In July, Bron Media Corp. unveiled Bron Digital, an animation-focused virtual production company launched with production finance partner Creative Wealth Media. "Animation has been the only area of Bron capable of being in production during this pandemic, as our production team is set up remotely," says Bron CEO Aaron L. Gilbert. The new firm is producing an animated series, Fables, directed by Azazel Jacobs, with more on the way.

Also in July, a trio of companies based in Well­ing­ton, New Zealand — VFX powerhouse Weta Digital (which is working on the Avatar sequels), technical production services provider Streamliner and Avalon Studios — formed a new virtual production services offering. "We're all focused on providing the safest work environment possible as productions look to ramp back up," says Avalon CEO Gary Watkins. "This new setup allows producers to think very strategically about what they shoot and limit the number of actors and on-set crew required."

“It’s opening up the creative sandbox,” says Miles Perkins, who heads business development for Unreal Engine’s film and TV team. “Also, this may be a more efficient and quicker way of getting to your story as demand for content increases from streaming services.”

Industry efforts to explore this subject include the Joint Committee on Virtual Production, which operates within the American Society of Cinematographers’ Motion Imaging Technology Council, though its participants also include the Art Directors Guild, International Cinematographers Guild, Producers Guild and Visual Effects Society.

Meanwhile, ASC associate member and imaging science professional Joachim “JZ” Zell recently led a "camera to cloud” test for the Hollywood Professional Association that incorporated various tools and methods of virtual production provided by companies such as Stargate Studios and Lux Machina. Zell says there are still technical aspects that would need to be ironed out in areas such as color management and frame rates to expand the creative capabilities, but overall, “it will save us time, and we can get final results right there, so there’s no guesswork."

Another principal player in the space is the Unity game engine, which was used in 2019's The Lion King. Adam Myhill, Unity's creative director, labs, notes: "Imagine a world where everyone has access to the same script and it has a visual component and metadata. That's where I see it going."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.