Virtual Production: What Is It & Why Is It Popular with Studios?

Diana Ipacs

December 8, 2023

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What is virtual production and how does it work? Why is it a promising filmmaking technique? Get the full picture here.


Virtual production is reshaping the film industry, offering an innovative blend of digital and physical filmmaking techniques. Increasingly embraced by studios, it enables immersive storytelling and greater creative control, streamlining the filmmaking process while potentially reducing costs. Although currently more prevalent in larger studios, its influence is growing across the industry.

Virtual production is a filmmaking technique that combines physical sets with computer-generated environments, allowing for real-time interaction and visualization of complex scenes. It leverages advanced technologies like motion capture, augmented reality, LED wall displays, and real-time game engines to blend the virtual and physical worlds seamlessly. This approach offers filmmakers unprecedented creative flexibility, reduces post-production time, and enables more dynamic and immersive storytelling.

In this article, we explore the essentials of virtual production, including its emergence as a viable technology and the key methods of its implementation. We'll look at real-world examples, discuss its advantages and limitations, and briefly touch on its history and potential future in filmmaking and media.

Virtual Production – Bluebird Blog

Traditional Green Screen Technology vs Virtual Production

Traditional green screen technology has long served the film industry as a way to achieve visually stunning effects at the expense of time, resources, and flexibility. Today, virtual production practices have emerged as a powerful alternative, leveraging game engines to enhance the creative process while simplifying logistics for studio productions.

Green screens enabled filmmakers to replace or enhance an actor's environment with computer-generated imagery (CGI) during post-production. This method, while revolutionary at the time, demands an extensive amount of work for both camera crews and visual effects (VFX) artists. It can be challenging to create realistic interactions between actors and CGI elements, often resulting in visually disjointed scenes.

Virtual production, on the other hand, uses game engines like Unreal Engine and Unity to create vivid, photorealistic environments that respond dynamically to changes on set. These digital backgrounds are then displayed on expansive LED screens, allowing actors to interact within virtual worlds in real-time. This shift has opened up new frontiers of creative freedom and enabled filmmakers to experiment with revolutionary cinematography techniques.

Advantages of Virtual Production

Enhanced Creative Control

Allows directors and cinematographers to experiment with lighting, angles, and environments in real-time, expanding creative possibilities.

Real-Time Visualization

Provides immediate visual feedback, enabling on-the-spot adjustments to scenes and settings.

Reduction in Travel Costs

Diminishes the need for extensive location scouting and travel, potentially reducing overall production costs, particularly beneficial for larger studios.

Improved Actor Performance

Actors can interact with more realistic environments, enhancing their performance as they are not acting against a green screen.

Dynamic Environment Control

Facilitates instant changes to lighting, weather, and background settings, offering unparalleled control over the shooting environment.

Safety and Accessibility

Virtual production allows for shooting complex scenes in a controlled environment, enhancing safety.
Useful in situations where filming on location is impractical or impossible.

Faster Production Turnaround

Reduces the time spent in post-production, allowing for quicker project completion.

Environmental Sustainability

As it reduces the need for location shooting and physical set construction, it can be a more environmentally friendly approach to filmmaking.

Scalability and Flexibility

Scales easily from small to large productions, adaptable to various project sizes and budgets.

Integration with Other Technologies

Compatible with other advanced filmmaking technologies like motion capture, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR).

Potential Disadvantages

High Initial Costs

Virtual production requires a significant upfront investment in technology, such as high-quality LED screens, real-time rendering software, and motion capture systems. This can be a substantial financial barrier, especially for smaller studios or independent filmmakers.

Technical Complexity

The process involves a complex blend of filmmaking, visual effects, and technology. It requires specialized skills and knowledge, which might necessitate hiring experts or extensive training for existing staff.

Infrastructure Requirements

Implementing virtual production often requires specific infrastructure, like studio space equipped with LED walls and advanced computer systems. This can limit its accessibility for productions without access to such facilities.

Dependency on Technology

The reliance on technology means that any technical issues, such as software bugs or hardware malfunctions, can lead to significant delays and challenges during filming.

Limited Resources and Training

There are currently limited resources, training programs, and experienced professionals in the field of virtual production, which can pose a challenge for its wider adoption and implementation.

The Technologies Enabling Virtual Production

Several groundbreaking technologies have come together to enable this technique in the filmmaking process:

Motion Capture

By capturing and translating human movement into digital action, motion capture allows for seamless integration of live actors into virtual environments, increasing the believability and realism of the scenes.

LED Walls

Expansive LED walls are used to create realistic backdrops for filming, eliminating the need for green screens and reducing post-production effort. They also provide accurate lighting and reflections for the actors and objects within the scene.

Real-Time Game Engines

Tools like the Unreal Engine can instantly render digital environments, allowing filmmakers to visualize scenes and make adjustments on the fly. This significantly streamlines the creative process and enhances collaboration between departments.

Historical Milestones & Technological Advancements

  1. 1
    Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI): The introduction of CGI in the 1970s marked a significant shift in filmmaking, enabling the creation of digital environments, characters, and objects that radically expanded the realm of what was visually possible.
  2. 2
    VFX Breakthroughs: As visual effects (VFX) technology grew more sophisticated during the 1980s and 1990s, filmmakers gained the ability to blend live-action footage with digital elements, further blurring the lines between reality and fiction.
  3. 3
    Previsualization: The emergence of previsualization in the early 2000s allowed filmmakers to plan and visualize complex scenes before principal photography, streamlining the production process and saving both time and resources.
  4. 4
    Unreal Engine: The development of the Unreal Engine by Epic Games has played a crucial role in the adoption of virtual production, providing real-time visualization, simulation, and collaboration capabilities that have transformed the filmmaking process.

The growth and evolution of virtual production have been driven by the seamless integration of these technologies and advancements, unlocking new creative possibilities.

Virtual Production: How It's Changing Filmmaking

The mechanics of virtual production have revolutionized the way filmmakers approach the creation of visual content. One of the critical components in virtual production is the use of LED volumes, enabling seamless integration of actors with computer-generated imagery (CGI) environments. Real-time visualization plays a crucial role in streamlining the decision-making process on set, allowing for a more efficient and interactive filmmaking experience.

Setting up an LED volume involves constructing an immersive, 360-degree environment made up of high-definition LED panels. These panels display photorealistic virtual backdrops, which respond dynamically to the movements and actions of the cast and crew. This innovative technology enables the immediate visualization of how scenes will appear in the finished product, a stark departure from traditional green screen filming.

Real-time visualization is integral to the virtual production process, as it allows directors and cinematographers to adjust virtual elements on the fly. This technology improves efficiency and accuracy in the following areas:

  • Scene lighting and shadows: The LED panels cast realistic lighting and shadows on the actors, creating a seamless blend between real and virtual elements.

  • Camera tracking and virtual set extensions: Using specialized software, virtual sets can be extended and manipulated to react dynamically to camera movements.

  • Visual effects: VFX artists can collaborate with the production team in real-time, adjusting and fine-tuning the visual effects as necessary.

  • Pre-visualization (Previs) and post-visualization: Virtual production allows for more accurate previs and postvis, reducing the reliance on costly re-shoots and edits in post-production.

Interactive filmmaking has been significantly advanced through technologies like LED volumes and real-time visualization. The use of LED volumes, in particular, offers a revolutionary level of creative freedom and flexibility.

This method allows filmmakers to see and interact with a realistic virtual environment during the actual filming, rather than waiting for post-production. Such real-time interaction fosters more authentic performances from actors and enables directors and cinematographers to make precise, informed decisions on set.

This innovative approach to filmmaking streamlines several aspects of production. It reduces the necessity for extensive location scouting and logistical planning, as various settings can be realistically simulated within the LED volume.

Moreover, virtual production can significantly reduce downtime during shooting. Adjustments to lighting, weather, and other environmental aspects can be managed quickly and efficiently within the controlled environment of the LED volume, allowing for a more efficient shooting schedule. This efficiency can lead to cost savings for large-scale projects, although the initial investment in the technology and expertise should be considered.

In essence, virtual production, through its blend of real-time visualization and interactive environments, represents a major step forward in filmmaking. It enhances the creative process, offering new possibilities and efficiencies.

While virtual production minimizes certain post-production tasks, especially those related to visual effects that merge actors with their environment, it's important to recognize that it doesn't eliminate the need for post-production VFX entirely. Instead, it shifts the focus, with some of the visual effects work happening in the pre-production phase and requiring different technical expertise.

Virtual Production Process With Game Engines

While virtual production is possible without game engines, engines like Unreal Engine and Unity have become synonymous with the most advanced forms of this technology. 

Implementing virtual production, particularly the work involving game engines, is a complex process that requires a blend of technical expertise, creative vision, and meticulous planning. Let's see the most important steps professionals usually take before shooting a scene using virtual production!

1. Previsualization (Previs)

Conceptualization: Filmmakers and artists first develop the concept of the scene, including storyboarding and visual styles.

3D Modeling: Using 3D software, artists create the digital assets needed for the scene. This includes environments, characters, props, and any other elements that will appear on screen.

Animation: If the scene requires animated elements, these are created and integrated into the 3D models.

2. Game Engine Integration

Importing Assets: The 3D models and animations are imported into a game engine, such as Unreal Engine or Unity. These engines are adept at rendering high-quality, photorealistic imagery in real-time.

Scene Assembly: In the game engine, the scene is assembled. This involves placing the 3D models in the virtual environment, setting up virtual lighting, and ensuring all elements are correctly scaled and positioned.

Programming Interactivity: If the scene requires interactive elements, such as objects that actors can interact with or environmental changes, these are programmed within the game engine.

3. Virtual Cinematography

Camera Tracking: To ensure that the virtual and physical cameras align, motion tracking systems are set up. These systems track the position, orientation, and lens settings of the physical camera and replicate them in the game engine in real-time.

Real-Time Rendering: As the physical camera moves, the game engine renders the virtual environment from the camera’s perspective, adjusting the imagery in real-time to match the camera's movements.

4. LED Wall Setup (If Used)

Building the LED Volume: For scenes using LED walls, a stage with LED screens is constructed. These screens will display the virtual environment.

Calibration: The LED screens are calibrated to ensure color accuracy and alignment with the game engine’s output.

5. Final Adjustments and Testing

Fine-Tuning: Filmmakers make final adjustments to lighting, textures, and other elements in the game engine to ensure everything looks as realistic and cohesive as possible.

Rehearsals and Testing: Before the actual shoot, rehearsals are conducted to test the integration of the virtual environment with live-action elements. This helps in identifying and correcting any issues.

This process allows filmmakers to visualize complex scenes accurately before and during filming, offering a high degree of control over the final output. The real-time nature of game engine rendering also significantly reduces the time and cost associated with post-production visual effects, as many elements are effectively 'shot in camera'.

Real-World Implementations: Noteworthy Virtual Production Examples

Virtual production has revolutionized the filmmaking process, creating breathtaking visuals and immersive experiences. Here's a look at some iconic examples that demonstrate the power and potential of this technology.

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron's "Avatar," released in 2009, showcased early applications of technologies that would evolve into virtual production. While not using virtual production in the contemporary sense (with real-time environments and LED walls), the film was pivotal in advancing performance capture and 3D technology. "Avatar" set a foundation for future developments, blending CGI-rendered environments with live-action using green screens and motion capture.

The Jungle Book (2016)

"The Jungle Book" was an early and influential example. Favreau and his team utilized a blend of motion capture, CGI, and photorealistic rendering to bring the film's animal characters and jungle environment to life.

The production made innovative use of virtual reality in pre-visualization, allowing the filmmakers to enter and experience the CGI environments before actual filming. This method significantly impacted how live-action and CGI elements were integrated, setting a precedent for future virtual production projects.

The Lion King (2019)

Directed by Jon Favreau, the 2019 version of "The Lion King" utilized virtual production to reimagine the classic story in a photorealistic style. Although primarily an animated film, the production team used a real-time game engine for extensive pre-visualization, allowing them to plan camera movements and lighting setups before actual animation began. This innovative use of technology streamlined the production process and expanded creative possibilities.

The Mandalorian (2019–)

Jon Favreau's "The Mandalorian" extensively used an LED volume, with the background and environment rendered in real-time using Unreal Engine by Epic Games. This approach was groundbreaking in saving time and resources, offering exceptional creative control and flexibility, and is a great example of virtual production's capabilities in creating realistic, immersive environments.

Virtual Production: FAQs

Q: What exactly is virtual production in filmmaking?

Virtual production is a technique that combines real-world filming with computer-generated environments, allowing filmmakers to visualize complex scenes in real-time. It integrates technologies like motion capture, real-time rendering using game engines like Unreal Engine and Unity, and LED wall displays to create immersive and interactive sets.

Q: How does it differ from traditional green screen techniques?

Unlike green screens, which require actors to perform in front of a blank screen to be replaced with CGI in post-production, virtual production allows for real-time interaction with digital environments. This approach provides immediate visual context, enhances actors' performances, and allows for more dynamic camera work, reducing the reliance on post-production VFX.

Q: What are the advantages of using virtual production?

Virtual production offers several advantages, including real-time visual feedback, greater creative flexibility, reduced need for location shooting, and lower post-production costs. It enhances the realism of actors' interactions with their environment and can significantly speed up the production process.

Q: Are there any disadvantages to virtual production?

The primary disadvantages include the high initial cost of setting up virtual production infrastructure and the need for specialized technical expertise. Additionally, the complexity of real-time rendering can present challenges, and the technology may not be suitable for all types of scenes or productions.

Q: What role do game engines play in virtual production?

Game engines like Unreal Engine and Unity are central to virtual production, providing the real-time rendering capabilities needed to create photorealistic environments. They allow for dynamic changes to lighting, scenery, and other elements, enabling filmmakers to adjust and experiment with different visual effects on the fly.

Q: Can this technique completely replace traditional filmmaking methods?

While virtual production offers significant benefits, it is not likely to completely replace traditional methods. It is best used as a complementary tool, particularly beneficial for scenes that are difficult, expensive, or impossible to shoot in real life.

Q: How accessible is virtual production for smaller film productions?

Virtual production can be challenging for smaller productions due to its cost and the technical expertise required. However, as the technology becomes more widespread and accessible, it is increasingly being adopted by a broader range of filmmakers, including independent and smaller-scale productions.

Q: What is the future of virtual production in filmmaking?

Areas like augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and machine learning are expected to further enhance its capabilities, making it even more versatile and accessible to filmmakers across the industry.

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