Virtual Set Productions Are Reality

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Hollywood is an old-fashioned town in some aspects. Once I saw an ad for a digital editing software enticing would-be users to edit like “Spielberg,” without realizing that Steven Spielberg never used a digital editor in his life. In “Catch Me If You Can,” most of the colorization is created by placing colored pieces of glass in front of the camera lens.

However…

There is, of course, “Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow,” where all scenes are virtual and poor Gwyneth Paltrow must constantly pretend that a blue cylinder in front of her is really Dr Totenkopf’s evil assassin. As I was checking the spelling of Dr Totenkopf on the web, I found this review of “Sky Captain” from IMDb resident film critic:

“Despite the fact I enjoyed ‘Sky Captain,’ I am still thankful these films are the exception rather than the rule. I still prefer films with real (or at least partially real) sets and shooting locations. I’ve read comments here about the quality of the acting in this film and that’s a pitfall for so-called ‘blue screen films.’ Even a great actor has a challenge when standing against a blue screen and pretending to respond meaningfully to something that’s not really there. The acting here isn’t down right corny, but I believe if the key players had more real surroundings to play off of, the performances would have improved.”

While many of us can relate to the critics’ worries and longing for at least partially-real sets, there seems to be an emerging consensus that colored pieces of glass will only get you so far. It seems that as more movies (like the recent “300”) create all sets digitally, the poor actors do not have fun anymore.

However….

I believe the situation is about to get better, if not for actors, than certainly for directors, lensers, producers and other studio executives. Using technology from the latest generation of 3D graphics cards that helps create amazingly realistic images, it now becomes possible to put synthetic actor avatars live in a real-time photorealistic virtual production set. The set includes well-lit and subsurface scattered skin on avatars, full splendor of lush surfaces and sophisticated lighting effects, all delivered to any place on earth via a broadband web connection on a $1,500 laptop.

High-quality pre-vizualization can and does save a lot of money during the production of movies today, but there is one final step still missing. If you can recreate a realistic film set on a laptop, why not bring together all the creative people on your production team inside the virtual set so they can collaborate in real time regardless of their actual physical locations? Give them laptops, connect them to the web using advanced 3D collaboration software, and allow them to work together at any given time.

Production team members in New York will no longer need to saddle up their environmentally-sound Priuses, drive to the local airport to the waiting LearJet, drink cold coffee served during the 6-hour flight to Los Angeles in order to make minor changes in camera angles and lighting at the studio for a proper shot in the next Gwyneth Paltrow flick. Gwyneth herself does not have to leave the comfort of her London apartment to venture to uncivilized USA, where everyone discusses work issues all the time, etc.

It is only a matter of time before studio executives realize the significant savings in set creation and staff travel as well as the easy scheduling of busy talent. When they do, distributed virtual film production will change the industry. Of course, once these great-looking sets are on the web, temptations will arise to allow all viewers to participate, perhaps even contribute their own content, but that is a topic for the future. In the end, virtual sets with live participants will not only save money but appeal to more creativity, resulting in better-looking movies.

Sidebar: While virtual production sets may sound like science fiction, the ability to create sets virtually can be done today using a software product from Caligari called trueSpace7.5. 3D sets and actor avatars that are built in any 3D authoring package can be uploaded onto a server and viewed within trueSpace7.5. Production team members can virtually “walk” around the set together, editing every conceivable aspect of a shot including modeling details of the set, advanced lighting and camera positions. Even the actors’ pre- scri pted walkthroughs or live interactions can be mixed, combining live actions with scri pted behaviors in any way desirable for instant 3D or 2D recording.

Roman Ormandy is the CEO of Caligari Corporation. Caligari was founded in 1986 and has remained at the forefront of 3D authoring for the Web age.

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