Forced to think more resourcefully about how to produce ad campaigns during Covid lockdowns, many brands and agencies are now questioning the viability of circling the globe on constant overseas location shoots – an approach that is neither economical nor sustainable in the current climate.
In recent years, virtual production (VP) has entered the mainstream as a viable alternative that doesn’t compromise on creative clout. This was prompted in no small part by the huge success of Disney’s The Mandalorian, which showcased the stunning results of a studio’s commitment to high-end VP on a flagship TV show.
Shot inside a huge 360-degree video wall, powered by Industrial Light & Magic’s proprietary StageCraft technology, Jon Favreau’s acclaimed series clocked in at around $15m an episode. But that shouldn’t scare off those with more modest budgets: used appropriately, there’s room for VP in most brands’ marketing mix.
“Virtual production is essentially a studio-based version of a traditional on-location shoot,” explains Andrew Park, executive creative director at Team ITG, which operates a well-equipped VP production studio in Birmingham and works with brands such as KFC, M&S and Costa.
“Think of it as a location: you bring all the same people and equipment, but you’re shooting in a volume as opposed to on a set or outside. You bring the location to you: it’s only the size of the volume that dictates what you can shoot.”
HOW VP WORKS IN PRACTICE
At VP’s most basic level, an LED screen can display wraparound static images of virtual locations for photoshoots. Secondly, it can display video output. One common application for this is for driving plates to simulate actors inside moving vehicles – the modern equivalent of a technique pioneered in the 1940s using rear-projection technology.
But the third, most immersive layer is a fully 3D-rendered world, built using the Unreal game engine from Fortnite creator Epic Games. “With Unreal, you’re creating an environment, not just a backdrop,” explains Park. And because the physical camera is synchronised with its virtual equivalent, there’s the illusion of depth and “beautiful parallax motion”.
A typical VP set-up involves a large, curved LED wall behind the action, ‘totem’ screens at the sides, and an LED ceiling. Propping is a vital part of the process, with the foreground and middle ground built as a physical set, and the virtual environment forming the background.
Another approach is to shoot inside an XR Cube, which surrounds actors with two LED walls and an LED floor. They appear to float in a fully digital environment without the need for physical scenery, with possibilities ranging from a photorealistic real-world setting to a stylised animated universe.
ENJOY COMPLETE CREATIVE CONTROL
“There’s nowhere to hide with creative ideas anymore,” declares Park. “Complete freedom, complete control. All those ‘what ifs’ – what if it didn’t rain, or we were able to get a bit more of that particular vista – you don’t have any of those limitations with VP.”
“Provided you’ve got your pre-vis on point, you know exactly what you’re shooting,” he goes on. “The client is on board. And from a film craft perspective, you can unlock all kinds of happy accidents. What if we moved that mountain a little, and shot from lower down? You can see it all in camera.”
Chroma keying and greenscreen techniques were once the closest equivalents. “But anything that involves a huge amount of VFX is like moving into a house without your wallpaper on the walls,” adds Park. For Avatar, James Cameron used a virtual camera to review a comped version of the final shot on set. Now, VP takes it a step further: the virtual world is there for all to see, and talent can see and respond to it in real-time.
With sufficiently thorough pre-production, it’s also a much smoother collaboration for all involved: on a commercial production, the client can review a shot that’s close to the finished result on the day – or even before – rather than waiting for VFX to be added in post.
INVEST UPFRONT TO REAP REWARDS
Approaching VP purely as a cost-saving exercise is missing the point. “That’s not necessarily the case, at least in terms of a per-shoot day cost,” Park points out. “It’s about efficiency: with the right planning, you spend less time on set. You don’t ‘fix it in post’, as the adage goes. In VP, pre-production is a lot longer than a normal shoot.”
Building a virtual environment in Unreal is a major upfront investment, for example. But its potential use can go far beyond the campaign in question. “Once built, you can create other experiences from it,” he explains. “You’re not just creating a background, but a whole 3D world.”
Park gives the example of car brand campaigns, often based around a ‘designer house’ that’s the architectural embodiment of that model. “Say it’s a beautiful Hollywood Hills-style mansion. You could still have that alpha shoot in LA or Seoul or wherever, but then recreate the setting in Unreal. Then you’ve got full control.”
One of Team ITG’s automotive clients, for instance, shot an ATL campaign a year ago in Spain, then approached Park and his team to extend the concept across social. “It was a series of vignettes, with tight close-ups,” he explains. “We shot it with driving plates here, and it worked seamlessly alongside their ATL content.”
EMBRACE MORE SUSTAINABLE PROCESSES
With a more sustainable approach to production now being table stakes for most brands, VP’s potential for reducing the carbon footprint of a shoot – particularly an overseas location shoot – is clear. “You’re in one location that can become multiple locations,” says Park. That means only shipping kit, and transporting the crew, once.
A recent Team ITG shoot with Myleene Klass packed five diverse locations into one VP production, from thick jungle to the side of a mountain to outer space. “Even assuming you could get access to a space station, which you can’t, it would be an eight-day shoot at least,” explains Park. “We did it in two.”
“Then there’s the impact on the actual environment you’re shooting in,” he continues, citing the damage that Danny Boyle’s film The Beach caused to Thailand’s idyllic Maya Bay. “Why not create those environments virtually, rather than wrecking them in real life?”
FIND THE PERFECT BALANCE
With the latest version of Unreal Engine, photorealism is within reach. “It blows my mind what you can do with foliage and water now,” says Park: a year ago, both were off-limits. “Then it comes down to cast, crew, and all the factors that you’d normally have on location.”
But as the technology advances, one potential pitfall is to leap straight to VP before considering whether a traditional approach is more appropriate. “It forces you to ask what this particular piece of content is there to do,” explains Park. “What is the challenge? What are we trying to do here? Can VP be part of the mix, or is it the whole solution?”
He gives the example of shooting in a field in the UK in summer: a straightforward location shoot seems like a no-brainer compared to investing in a virtual equivalent. But weather conditions can be unpredictable, and the complete control of a VP environment could be valuable if time is tight. “You can have golden hour all day,” he says.
“Will it ever fully replace real-life shoots? Not in the foreseeable future,” Park predicts. “But don’t think of it in terms of replicating real life with VP. Flip that question round. Can I do in real life what VP can do?” he adds. “It’s like getting the keys to a toy box. We can go anywhere and create anything.”