The sharp ascendancy of virtual production has been a defining industry success story, but with issues around recruitment and the increasing pressure on efficient data management, there are many future challenges, writes David Davies.
It is difficult to think of another media industry trend that has developed so quickly, and with such a comprehensive impact on the production landscape. Enabling a whole host of operational and cost benefits in comparison to location-based work, virtual production (VP) was on the rise before Covid-19, but was undoubtedly boosted by the practical limitations of the pandemic era.
In short, it has been a case of ‘right technology, right time’ – but what of its future? As of a 2021 report from the UK Department for Trade, London was one of the best-equipped cities for ‘feature film level’ VP stages, alongside Los Angeles, Tokyo, Vancouver and Atlanta. A November 2022 round-up confirms an array of new VP facilities are in progress in the UK and a similar situation can be observed in a number of other European cities.
If the ability to work more flexibly during the pandemic was the primary recent impetus behind the sector’s growth, it’s probable that cost-efficiency and decarbonisation will power VP through its next developmental phase. But with this area of the business still being so new in relative terms – meaning that there are challenges ranging from the creation of meaningful job descriptions to the sourcing of production talent – there are bound to be some growing pains.
Virtual production: Colour pipeline importance
Based in south east England, 80six’s trajectory into VP is not an uncommon one. “As an independent video technology company we had been dipping our toes into VP from the very beginning of it moving from in-camera VFX into the film, TV and cinema side,” recalled Marketing Manager Aura Popa. “We then worked with the same sorts of technologies, but referenced and integrated in different ways as part of a technique called XR. Getting [fully into] the VP sphere was always a pipeline dream and we imagined it would happen in the next 5 years, but it was actually greatly accelerated during the pandemic.”
Encouraged by the rapid rise in demand for VP services, 80six built studios at its HQ in Slough featuring two semi-permanent, ready-to-shoot LED stages, incorporating high-resolution ROE Visual LED walls controlled from a central gallery. One of the first full projects to be made in the studios was Fireworks, an indie film from Director Paul Franklin, who is Creative Director of visual effects at animation company DNEG. Putting VP at the core of the storytelling, the film – which has recently been doing the rounds of the international movie festivals – is billed as a “heart-stopping political thriller” starring Charlotte Riley and Denise Gough.
This has helped open the door to a steady stream of projects, although Popa confirmed that it’s a process of ongoing refinement and knowledge attainment. For instance, she said, there has been a growing recognition of the fact that “the colour pipeline is incredibly important in the VP workflow. [Therefore] working alongside colour scientists who have come onto the set has been invaluable for us.”
Meanwhile, the company continues to confront a widely-voiced challenge – recruitment of talent in a sector where job roles have yet to be fully defined. “Learning on set is quite common,” noted Popa, “but VP brings something quite unique to the mix in that it requires creative and technical skills in the same role. That’s not really something we’ve seen before. So [there is a need for] people who have a problem-solving mindset who can also effectively communicate with crew who are fixing complex technical issues.”
But although this heralds some not insignificant challenges in the short-term, it also brings some fresh opportunities for increased diversity in an industry that has often trailed behind in this regard. Because it’s a new sector, “it may be that it’s a bit easier to break into this system of filmmaking [as opposed to other aspects] that might be closed due to privilege and lack of inclusivity. Where you once had to start off being a runner and making coffee for the producer and director, VP is opening new doors [that mean you can rise in position more quickly].”
Virtual production: Becoming ‘less atomised’
Christina Nowak, Director of Virtual Production at Anna Valley – another company whose VP interests have expanded significantly over the past two years – also stresses the beneficial effect of greater understanding of colour accuracy.
“There has been a review of the colour pipeline and, for example, how the limitations of LED have affected the colour spectrum. The result of that has been that more tiles are coming out with consideration of RGBW; they are being engineered in such a way that with more white light, the colour saturation isn’t so extreme.”
Moving forward, Nowak anticipated that the relationship between providers of different elements of the production chain will become more seamless. For instance, product development that more closely addresses the “pipeline between the camera and the LED wall” will help to improve “production efficiency as well as general ease of use for the camera department. I also think that more work will be done on set so there will be less need for reshoots [later on].”
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Making the on-set process more effective is also being assisted by what appears to be – for want of a better word – a greater sense of teamwork across VP environments. “There used to be a tendency for things to be more atomised,” said Nowak. “Whereas before when there was a problem someone might simply say ‘oh, please fix this,’ now they are more curious about why it’s not working and whether it will affect something else. There is a lot of curiosity about how [different aspects] are intertwined; for example, if people understand that the rendering power is not adequate for the processing delivery of the content, then that will slow up the schedule and affect everybody. So taking note of all that in communication with each other [is a big part of] improving production efficiency.”
As befits a still-emerging sector, Nowak expects the surrounding academic and training environment to develop markedly in the years ahead. Job descriptions are “get closer to being more transparent,” while more extensive VP courses geared towards producers and directors are inevitable. She also urged a more rigorous approach to data optimisation in what is – by any standards – an intensely data-heavy area of production: “It does require some kind of strategy in the industry as the needs are pretty comprehensive, although I think that more extensive pre-planning [can certainly make a major difference].”
Virtual production: ‘A commitment to R&D funding’
Published in the final days of 2022, the latest Global Film and Video Production Report from Altman Solon provided a host of illuminating findings about VP sector growth – while also exploring some of its more existential challenges. With 40% of those surveyed now using VP tools, the recent growth trajectory is in no doubt, although broader economic factors on the media landscape could be starting to have an impact.
Derek Powell, Director of Altman Solon, told IBC 365: “With increased scrutiny of production budgets, we have seen some pullback in the number of projects being greenlit in recent months. However, virtual production is increasingly becoming a tool the creative community wants to use to produce their stories. In part, this is due to the cost and time savings that VP brings to the table, but also because it allows them to keep innovating the movie-making process. [Therefore] we continue to see a commitment to R&D funding in VP to further develop the tools and technologies to support filmmakers’ requirements. The next generation of VP tools will have the benefit of gleaning the production experiences of the current set of VP offerings, building on what’s working best, and delivering new solutions to the marketplace. Going forward, VP should become more cost-effective and time-efficient, while allowing for filmmakers to continue innovating how they make films and programmes.”
The low-carbon potential of VP has been much discussed, but as Powell indicated this is something that will require rigorous planning and execution. The reduction of travel-related carbon is one undoubted benefit: “Since VP requires fewer crew members to be on the production set, it can help mitigate the immediate environmental impact of filmmaking by reducing travel.”
But the impact of the colossal amounts of data that will have to be generated, moved and managed cannot be underestimated. “Over the long-term, VP’s data-intensive nature requires a significant amount of storage, processing, and movement of data/files. To address this issue, other parts of the technology stack, especially data centres and component makers, need to take the lead in making the production process more sustainable. As production companies become larger consumers of storage and cloud services, they will have more leverage in demanding sustainable practices from their vendors.”
Virtual production: ‘A noticeable change in representation’
In terms of inclusivity, there are considerable grounds for optimism, with Powell noting that production companies are “already making strides in prioritising the recruitment of diverse candidates for VP jobs. The survey reveals that 52% of respondents reported an upswing in recruitment efforts and a noticeable change in representation over the past two years. [Moreover] executives we interviewed for the survey made it clear that the old, networking-heavy recruitment models that have been used in Hollywood for decades won’t cut it for VP. Studios must now seek candidates in adjacent industries like gaming, AR/VR, animation, automotive and transport and architecture, as well as increasing on-campus recruitment to find candidates with the necessary technical skills.”
Along with the fundamental technical skills involved in day-to-day production, the survey underlines the importance of building strategic and business support functions to ensure that the foundations of the sector are both stable and substantial. “Through VP, studios can collect and analyse more data than ever, but currently this is not happening as much as it could,” said Powell. “Some of this is due to cultural challenges or inertia within the organisations, but there is also a lack of talent with strong analytical or business strategy experience who can prove the case for more data use. Recruiting data experts from sectors like tech and finance could help, but there needs to be buy-in throughout the organisation.”
If those aspects can be successfully addressed, then the sector’s future looks assured. Last word to Powell: “Ultimately, it will take some innovative business leaders at the studios and streamers to convince their organisations to prioritise data use. The benefits of using data to the efficiency and bottom line of a production are significant.”
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