FEST Espinho 2021 – FEST Espinho Industry
Industry Report: New Media
FEST Espinho focuses on virtual production
One of the festival’s Training Ground days was dedicated to this up-and-coming field, and involved input from Nancy Xu, Johannes Wilke, Evgeny Kalachikhin and Pedro Domingo
New developments in the field of technology are constant and increasingly occupy the news headlines. This year, FEST’s Training Ground shone the spotlight on a recent, rising domain that is connected to new technologies and their potential for the development and production of projects within the field of cinema: virtual production. With a day-long set of talks dedicated to this subject, which has become more prevalent in recent years, the festival invited Nancy Xu, of Epic’s London Innovation Lab; Johannes Wilke, of Glassbox Technologies; Evgeny Kalachikhin from Film University Babelsberg; and Pedro Domingo, of Nu Boyana Portugal, to introduce the participants to this form of production.
As something that has combined a set of technologies that were first used for the gaming industry, as well as incorporating elements from the traditional VFX world, virtual production can be perceived as a methodology wherein the physical (motion capture, live-action shoots and so on) and the virtual meet: a combination that has been achieved in the past, but which can now be done in real time, according to Wilke. Even though it relies on new, developing technologies, in virtual production, the past is an important baseline to take lessons from, as Xu explained: looking back at the process of rear projection, for example, and thinking about plate playback (one of the pillars of virtual production). In fact, Kalachikhin, as a filmmaker, reinforced the idea of how virtual production can work as a marriage between new technologies and classic cinematic elements, while not detracting from the experience that some filmmakers and crews might want to gain from the traditional models of production.
Xu demonstrated the extent to which virtual production can actually be put in place, in a full spectrum of projects, from “no CG” to “full CG”. Furthermore, Wilke highlighted the importance of virtual production for previs, something that once again already existed (as storyboards or sketches, for example), but which is now available on a whole different level. And even though it can’t predict every single one of the elements (such as an actor’s performance, for example), it does help solve numerous problems. At this point, the Unreal Engine (UE) and the DragonFly virtual camera were presented as useful tools for this form of pre-production scene pre-visualisation. This is an important element that can help avoid mishaps and setbacks that could potentially delay production. As such, and as in most cases, preparation and good planning are crucial elements that previs can usefully help with: to aid with timing, choosing cameras, defining styles, defining sets and visualising CG scenes before shooting, amongst other elements.
Wilke demonstrated how previs can be done using the Unreal Engine together with UE Marketplace assets, and Xu even introduced the current use of metahumans and Cine Tracer, as well as Live Link Face (tools that are already in use on different types of projects at the moment). Domingo homed in on the specific characteristics of the VFX universe, highlighting how the VFX segment is – or should be – involved at this stage of pre-production, as well as in production and post-production, in order to also avoid technical issues that can pose problems not only in terms of timing, but also in terms of budget. Domingo also reinforced the idea that, in fact, VFX can be used as a narrative tool, as well as a way of looking into subtle improvements that can aid production (and not just for “megalomaniac effects”).
While all of these seem to be elements that are merely part of a specific segment of the industry – or are inaccessible to most filmmakers and projects – Kalachikhin brought it down to the average low-budget project level, showcasing specific case studies in which he has been involved and proving how it is indeed possible to create projects with these sets of tools and this software. The persistent lockdowns caused by the pandemic have inevitably accelerated the need for ways of working and preparing projects with the Unreal Engine, at the same time demonstrating the potential that this kind of technology has to benefit any sort of project, regardless of the budget involved – something that Kalachikhin worked on with students from Babelsberg University. And one of the main overall aspects that was highlighted by all of the speakers was how this field is actively looking for talent: an open call for professionals who might be interested in working in a field that is on the up, and which is bringing new possibilities to traditional filmmaking practices.
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