Virtual Production Generates Buzz At NAB Show
One technology gaining momentum at this year’s NAB Show is “virtual production,” using high-quality LED displays in combination with sophisticated graphics rendering engines to provide photorealistic backdrops that talent and physical props can be placed in front of to simulate a real-world on-location experience. While green screen-based “virtual set” technology has been around for decades, the benefit of virtual production is that much of the visual effects work is done in advance and tweaks can be made while shooting instead of fixing them in post.
The popular Mandalorian series on the Disney+ streaming service is perhaps the best-known example of this production technique, but it has been taking off across cinematic, commercial and live production. Several vendors at NAB were showing new LED displays aimed at virtual production, including Sony and Planar, along with associated cameras and robotic control systems.
And the NAB party on Monday night was hosted at the 40,000-square foot virtual production facility just opened in Las Vegas by Vu Studios, a startup that already owns large virtual studios in Tampa and Nashville and is currently building another in Orlando.
Attendees [including this reporter] could get firsthand experience with Vu’s virtual production through the “Unreal Ride” outside Central Hall, where they could sit on a prop motorcycle and simulate riding through a futuristic city. The demonstration included a background rendered in Unreal Engine and displayed on a Vu LED wall from Vu, with a Bolt X Robot camera system from Mark Roberts Motion Control capturing the (simulated) action.
A panel discussion at Devoncroft was also dedicated to the topic, including creatives from Warner Bros. Discovery and Industrial Light & Magic and two virtual studio owners, NEP’s Prysm Stages and Vancouver-based Versatile.
Rob Bredow, SVP and chief creative officer of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), said ILM has done 100 productions that made some use of virtual volumes, often in combination with traditional sets. ILM found that script pages shot in the volumes were produced 30% to 50% faster than those shot in traditional sets. And in the case of The Mandalorian, going all-in on virtual production meant that the time between seasons of the show could be cut by two to three months.
“There are a couple things you can do with that 50% faster, or 30% faster,” Bredow said. “You can use more days or get more high-quality creative, or you can do things that are more spectacular than you could ever do if you had to build it all for real. Or you can do it for less days, and just go faster with it.”
Sony has created a dedicated group that brings together expertise and resources from its camera and display businesses to help facilitate virtual production. In addition to its Venice digital cinema cameras, the company was also demonstrating at NAB its new Crystal LED B-series display that is custom designed for virtual production. The display comes in two pixel pitch sizes and allows virtual studios to build LED “volumes” — the industry term for the three-sided virtual space that often includes a ceiling — to their desired size and resolution. Each panel features an anti-reflection coating, a 170-degree wide viewing angle and a wide color gamut.
Jason Metcalfe, sales support engineer for Sony Imagining Products and Solutions, said virtual production isn’t just for tier-one Hollywood productions. He said Sony has drawn interest from children’s TV shows where the premise is visiting fantastic environments like the moon or the bottom of the ocean.
“High quality at scale, in a rapid production timeline, is really beneficial to some smaller productions,” Metcalfe said.