Bringing Back 'Lights, Camera, Action' with Virtual Production
Marc Petit
Issue: Winter 2019

Bringing Back 'Lights, Camera, Action' with Virtual Production

Virtual production has been defined in many ways, but at its core, it is taking the traditional process of filmmaking and accelerating it with real-time technology. At Epic Games, we've driven innovation in the field with advances in Unreal Engine's real-time capabilities for VFX, broadcast, and animation. From the groundbreaking launch of "The Human Race" with Chevrolet and The Mill, to our "Siren" digital human demo at GDC, to next-generation real-time raytracing in Star Wars "Reflections," each tech collaboration and project illuminates radical achievement and displays the powerful capabilities of real-time technology to transform traditional filmmaking workflows.

In its current state, real-time virtual production accelerates pre-production with previs and visualization as well as on-set production. Though this technology will eventually transform postproduction with real-time rendering and the ability to produce final pixels, virtual production today mostly impacts the early stages of filmmaking. Currently, the number one challenge to getting filmmakers and producers on board is that virtual production overhauls traditional workflows and requires teams to execute projects differently.

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MATT WORKMAN DIRECTING ON A VIRTUAL STAGE.

In order to maximize this way of working, artists would build an entire story universe digitally and have all of the assets and character models ready ahead of time, then complete previs and production in the virtual world. This puts more emphasis on the role of the virtual art department in pre-production and could shift some of the budget to earlier in the filmmaking process. These assets are a foundational production investment and can provide value throughout the entire lifetime of a project, from pre-production to marketing. The potential payout in production efficiencies and timesavings - but also in using assets for other deliverables such as consumer apps, VR, broadcast, or games - is enormous.

This shift is also echoed in the workforce. As real-time virtual production becomes more widely adopted, resources may move from later stages of the filmmaking process to previs, planning, and visualization positions, saving teams money and time by testing out and making important creative decisions earlier in a project. A lot of talent who currently lives in the post realm may be reallocated to pre-production, fueled by the built-in efficiencies of virtual production workflows.

Today, real-time virtual production technology is still nascent. It can add novelty and risk to the production process, so filmmakers need to consider their appetite for both. Not everyone is James Cameron or Jon Favreau, but as the technology is maturing rapidly, it is becoming accessible to more filmmakers and becoming more of a standard across the industry.

As widespread adoption progresses, filmmakers will discover uses for it in every workflow and enjoy the overall benefits. It can be used for camera work and lensing, scene composition, set dressing, lighting, performance capture, and beyond. If digital set extensions are required, they can be viewed in real time on set. Virtual production can eliminate the need for a greenscreen background in performance-capture sessions, and talent can get real-time visual feedback on their performances.

With Unreal Engine, there is also a unique capability to allow multiple users to edit the same scene. The creative team can work collaboratively using VR headsets or other viewing devices, interactively set up their scenes and shots, and make decisions as a team just like they are used to doing on physical sets. Virtual production technology accelerates all aspects of traditional filmmaking by making them more instant.

Over the past 25 years, game engines have been developed to re-create fully simulated worlds and embed stories within them. The rise of real-time game engines for filmmaking stems from a demand for more affordable and efficient pipeline tools. Over the past number of years, this same demand has pushed Hollywood to move towards open-source tools for production and post. This is also driven by industry fatigue from overly complex pipelines and price premiums for maintaining proprietary file formats and commoditized technology. Unreal Engine offers world-class scene assembly, character, color, audio, compositing, and editorial tools, alongside interactivity, physics, animation, sophisticated streaming, and levels of detail, all within a single data model and a single scene. Furthermore, the entire source code of the engine is available to the public with generous licensing terms, which means that Unreal datasets are inherently open and future-proof.

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LIGHTING IS CONTROLLED ON SET.

Epic Games is dedicated to furthering virtual production through advancements in Unreal Engine for creators across all media. The company has dedicated resources and support for the development of Unreal Engine outside of traditional game applications, and a major area of focus has been on VFX and animation for film and TV.

In MovieLabs' 2019 whitepaper on the evolution of media creation, industry experts present a vision for production in the year 2030 where workflows are designed around real-time iteration and feedback. The use of real-time game engines across entire production chains is making this possible for early adopters today. As we make the push for widespread adoption of virtual production techniques across the film and television production industry worldwide, we will continue to evolve Unreal Engine to enable artists and filmmakers to fulfill their wildest creative visions.

Marc Petit is the general manager of Unreal Engine at Epic Games.