In a first for the UK film industry, a short sci-fi film sequence was shot simultaneously at locations in Manchester and Dundee using a stable, low-latency 5G connection, reports David Davies.
Every so often, two significant technological developments mature at around the same point, enabling them to fuse and generate a wealth of new creative and commercial opportunities. So it has proven with 5G and virtual production (VP), if the highly encouraging results of a new trial – pioneered by Dundee-based Abertay University and forming part of the Tay5G use case trial funded by the Scottish Government through the Tay Cities Region Deal – are indicative.
In what has been described as a first for the UK film industry, the project aimed to capture a short film sequence in real-time at two locations using a 5G internet connection. The ‘AI Armageddon’-themed clip was filmed with actors situated in both Dundee and Manchester – a distance of 280 miles apart.
With a focus on providing a consistent virtual environment in both locations, a large LED screen – part of which was previously used to film 2022 movie The Batman – was installed by Video Screen Services (VSS) in Abertay’s new Virtual Production Research Environment in Dundee and was linked via 5G to a similar screen in Manchester.
A prime mover behind the trial is Matt Bett from Abertay University’s Division of Games Technology and Mathematics. “Over the past couple of years we have seen the real emergence of VP as a way of the future, and one that brings its own pressures in terms of timescales, flexibility, data transfers and so on,” he told IBC 365. “But simultaneously, we have also witnessed the emergence of 5G, which offers the first remote telecoms method of transferring high-speed data with low latency. This project came about as a way of highlighting the benefits of 5G in a way that shows there is a particular use case in VP.”
Julie Craik, Project Manager for TayScreen Scotland and Tay5G, suggested that VP has the potential to be one of the most exciting applications for 5G. “Tay5G is a project focused on use cases for 5G across all kinds of sectors, and I was just beginning to write up the business case when we went into lockdown [in 2020],” she recalled.
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“Tay Cities Regional Deal is a programme of strategic and commercial developments across the region, and we have particular strands that we are very keen to capitalise on because of Abertay’s phenomenal lead in gaming technology and so on. No one would wish for those particular circumstances again, but lockdown did provide a pause in normal operations and allowed us to focus very closely on the [potential of a 5G VP trial].”
Acknowledging that such an innovative project called for a strong network of partners, Abertay engaged the assistance of several other leading research & academic organisations, including the film production department of Royal Holloway, University of London and the related immersive storytelling organisation StoryFutures, and video game R&D institute InGAME (Innovation for Games and Media Enterprise). Commercial partners included Scotland 5G Centre, telecoms infrastructure company AWTG and the aforementioned VSS.
‘An interesting journey’
The test sequence (which can be viewed below) was directed by Professor Peter Richardson, Head of Virtual Production at StoryFutures and Professor of Creative Industries at Royal Holloway, University of London.
“From a directing perspective, we had a team up in Dundee and a team down in Manchester where I was physically based, and I would give the actors direction over the 5G network, as well as receiving a direct feed from the camera in Dundee,” he recalled.
“I could see both shots on my monitor and the two actors that are 280 miles away acting together as though they were there in the same room. It’s been an interesting journey and we managed to get some really great material, so when the shots are compiled together you really do believe the actors are side by side, face to face.”
“The production was done in such a way that it could be shot as one single take in which the actors were able to play off each others’ performances and respond in real-time,” added Bett. “It was a real proof-of-concept and it was testament to the great participation of all the organisations involved that it took place in a single day with no issues.”
For any mobile network-related project, latency is inevitably going to be at the top of the priority list. Bett confirmed that latency and bandwidth were well within the designated parameters: “Our target for the latency of the system was to get below 200ms, and in fact we managed to get it down to 80ms. The connection was very stable and we had it running all day. It shows that 5G can be basis of a low latency solution for VP.”
With VP predicted to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 18.2% until at least 2030, potential areas of application won’t be difficult to find. In particular, with the initial boom in favour of large permanent VP stages seemingly having subsided, it’s likely that proven 5G connectivity will be beneficial in developing a new generation of temporary VP environments.
“It’s quite right that some of the bigger places have now shuttered, and there is a move towards smaller, more flexible set-ups that can change or adapt their technology more easily. Those are the ones that are thriving,” said Bett, whilst Craik confirmed: “It’s definitely something we are looking at.”
Industry observers may also like to keep a close watch on the UK Government’s recently announced plans to boost the UK creative industries by $50bn, which will include the development of four new R&D facilities to “drive the next generation of screen technology and on-set virtual production”. Dubbed CoSTAR (Convergent Screen Technologies and performance in Real-time), the initiative is set to yield new sites in Belfast, Buckinghamshire, Yorkshire and Dundee, where a consortium led by Abertay University has been selected as a preferred bidder to host one of the labs.
Meanwhile, both Bett and Craik are tracking the phenomenal trajectory of VP with considerable interest. Whilst the underlying technology is increasingly robust – “it’s been a big transition for the games and film industries, but now the technology is being used very commonly,” said Bett – the availability of skilled personnel remains a major concern. He adds: “There is a huge skills shortage for VP, and it’s compounded by the fact that we also have a skills problem with certain roles in the games industry; you have two industries essentially trying to share the same talent pool.”
But here, too, Abertay hopes to be able to make a difference in the near-future. Precise details are under wraps for now, but Bett confirmed that “we are looking at a new course for 2024 that will be focused on addressing those gaps”.