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Virtual Production 101: How Does it Work, how can it Revolutionise VFX?

Since the release of the 2019 re-imagining of The Lion King, the term ‘Virtual Production’ has become ubiquitous in the process behind the film’s creation. The award-winning team and VFX studio behind the movie, MPC Film, highlighted the huge role Virtual Production played in making Disney’s The Lion King a reality.

In this explainer, we parse what Virtual Production means, what it entails, and how it can shake up VFX and future films.

What is virtual production?

Put simply, Virtual Production is an innovation advanced by Technicolor that allows filmmakers to lay out and establish a film in a digital environment before going on a physical set. According to Technicolor, this includes defining lensing, set dimensions, asset placement, and exact camera movements.

Jon Favreau, director of The Lion King, explained: “MPC helped build the tools for virtual production, which is a technique that we innovated for The Lion King, using a game engine platform to emulate live action film production in a VR space – even though the film is completely digitally rendered, every environment is made digitally by the artists at MPC, and every character is keyframe animated.

“The tools were being refined constantly; it was a real learning process all the way through. And now MPC has a suite of tools that are available to any filmmaker based on the innovations that we made on The Lion King.”

Adam Valdez, VFX Supervisor for MPC Film who worked on The Lion King as well, explained Virtual Production as “a means of combining virtual production and game technologies with a fully tracked system where we can keep a database of everything we do”.

What platform does virtual production use?

Virtual Production continues to evolve via the Technicolor Virtual Production pipeline, “a proprietary, multi-user, real-time collaborative VFX authoring and data tracking platform”. This platform allows filmmakers to track everything from concept art and lenses to assets and camera movements.

How does it work?

The platform makes use of a combination of immersive technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality as well as CGI and game-engine technologies, allowing filmmakers to “see their scenes unfold as they are composed and captured on set”.

Ultimately, filmmakers who want to utilise Virtual Production will have access to stage-like digital environments that feature “virtual equipment that precisely replicates its real-world counterparts”. You can, in real-time, move around objects and assets on your set as well as experiment with camera angles and lighting. Plotting these elements in real-time lends itself to a more efficient workflow without multiple recreations of assets and going back and forth.

What are the benefits of utilising virtual production and how can it potentially shape the VFX industry?

One of the biggest advantages of Technicolor’s Virtual Production pipeline is it allows real-time collaboration among filmmakers, regardless of where they are in the world. They can use tools that “simultaneously integrate and manipulate live action and computer-generated assets”.

Steffen Wild, Head of Virtual Production for Technicolor’s Pre-Production Studio, underscored this benefit: “It’s not that we haven’t worked together across departments before, it’s the immediacy that’s the differentiator, allowing filmmakers to interact with digitally created objects and characters in real-time. It brings the live action set experience into the digital realm.”

“In the same way that digital cameras allow immediate review of shots, virtual production allows us to create high end images in real-time so we can see straight away if we got the shot, or if we need to go again,” he added.

But it’s the boundless creative space and freedom that makes the innovation a game-changer.

“No physical stage means no limitations,” remarked Elliot Newman, MPC Film VFX Supervisor.

Newman, who also worked on The Lion King, cited a specific example of a time when Virtual Production was most effective creatively in making the film.

“In one of the earliest tests we did – with Rafiki – we put him through five or six different lighting designs from the library of images we had built,” he said.

“We wanted to keep the naturalism as close as possible to a real location shoot – and to what the team had seen and captured in Africa. Seeing Rafiki was the first moment that Jon (Favreau) really responded to and could see the movie becoming what he had envisioned.”

A glossary of everything Virtual Production can be found here, while the full breadth of how Virtual Production was utilised for The Lion King can be explored here.

Learn more about our Augmented Reality services here.

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