How virtual production is revolutionising film and TV production as we know it

Lights, LED Screens, Cameras, Action!

K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam is not only remembered for its dialogues and music, but also for its extravagant sets. The song Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya is said to have taken over two years to shoot, and the battle sequences required over 6,000 animals and 8,000 men as soldiers.

Times are changing, and no matter the kind of film being made, such extravagance is rare. Especially in this pandemic era, when there are strict protocols on the sets for sanitation and social distancing.

But instead of scaling back on their vision, filmmakers are turning to technology. On-set virtual production and the use of gaming engines are not only allowing filmmakers to realise their dream, but also keeping producers happy by keeping costs in check.

Now, Whistling Woods International is gearing up to train budding filmmakers in the use of these next-gen technologies. It recently joined an initiative undertaken by SMPTE to provide guidance in ways to improve and simplify the use of virtual production.

Who is SMPTE and what is this initiative?

The Society for Motion Pictures & Television Engineers is quite a mouthful, and it reminds us of Tony Stark reacting to the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division in Iron Man. The lengthy name aside, SMPTE is a global association of media professionals, technologists, engineers, and executives. It sets guidelines for the use of technologies in the field of motion pictures, television, and digital media.

With the recent spurt in the use of virtual production, SMPTE announced the On Set Virtual Production (OSVP) Rapid Industry Solution (RIS). This tongue- twister of an initiative aims to standardise the process of using virtual production and its associated technologies.

But what is virtual production?

Virtual production is essentially where the physical and digital worlds meet and interact in real-time. In other words, filmmakers use traditional production tools and combine them with virtual and augmented reality, CGI, and game-engine technologies to name a few.

Using techniques like photogrammetry, volumetric capture, and motion tracking to name a few, filmmakers are able to bring their extravagant visions to life without worrying about the constraints of the real world. Take for example The Mandalorian, where the creators didn’t have to fly off to space or head to remote corners of earth in search of places that could pass off as an alien planet. Instead, they built a 270-degrees semicircular LED video wall and ceiling that made up the 75-foot-wide set.

Digitally created environments were then projected onto these screens, which became the backdrop for all the scenes. Props were added in front of the screens, and actors (and creators) got a far better idea of how the scene would look. Managing lighting too becomes easy, as the LED walls themselves offer enough illumination.

This is just one example of how virtual production is fast proliferating the halls of Hollywood. The remake of The Lion King or The Adventures of Tintin in live action are other examples of virtual production.

How does it help filmmakers?

There are multiple benefits of virtual production for filmmakers. One of the biggest is how it is changing the way films are made. Traditional filmmaking has largely been a three part process. In pre- production a crew chooses a location or builds a set, production is when the shoot actually happens, and the visual effects are added in the post-production phase. Virtual production is blurring the lines between these stages, and making it all a real-time process.

Using the new techniques, rendering, visual effects and replacement of green screens all happen in real-time. This allows the filmmakers to visualise the scene, plan the angles, and shoot production-ready shots within a very short gap.

“It’s a coming together of pre- production, production and post- production, in order to create content much more effectively, efficiently, faster and better, along with maintaining the high quality,” says Chaitanya Chinchilkar, Vice President, Business Head, Chief Technology Officer & Head of Emerging Media - WWI. 

Filmmakers in India too have turned to gaming engines like Unreal Engine and Unity Technologies to reduce the time and cost involved in making VFX-intensive movies. Unreal Engine, for instance, has a huge library of detailed environments that can be cast on LED screens as backdrops. This makes the process of adding scenes onto green screens redundant.

These processes are not only cost effective, but also come as a boon in these times of COVID-induced restrictions. Imagine Karan Johar trying to fly a huge crew to Egypt today to shoot the lavish song sequence of Suraj Hua Maddham. Instead, now he can send or source a local crew to shoot the scenes near the pyramids, cast them on large screens in a studio in Mumbai, and have Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol dance in front of them.

What’s WWI’s role in all this?

Whistling Woods International has joined this OSVP RIS initiative as a founding advisory board member. This association makes WWI the only one in India, and among the few institutions globally to offer training in virtual production.

The students get hands-on training on the various workflows involved in virtual production, and getting them ready for the industry. As a part of this experience, they also get access to the likes of Lux Machina, which has worked on projects like Rogue One, Solo, and The Irishman, among others.

Should I care?

You absolutely should. Virtual production is clearly the future of filmmaking, and it’s being touted as one of the most important innovations since digital cameras replaced traditional film stocks.

Seeing what movies like the Lion King have achieved, it is clear that virtual production is taking the process of making a film to the next level without diluting the very essence of filmmaking.

WWI’s involvement in this initiative is great news for the Indian content industry in general. With the rise of OTT platforms, there’s already been a shift towards more story-driven content. Add some next- generation visuals, and we could be looking at series or movies that can potentially rival a Hollywood blockbuster. Cue for someone to recreate Captain Vyom with The Mandalorian-like visuals? We’re ready with our popcorn buckets!