The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the VFX industry to innovate, adopting new workflows and accelerating the development of core technologies for modern VFX production. But how have things changed, and who stands to benefit in the emerging landscape?
Speaking with industry experts and surveying the broader industry conversation, it's clear that the studios, artists, and VFX houses who pivot to virtual production and cloud-based distributed resources will be best prepared to seize the opportunities presented by the "new normal."
"I think anybody who's got a mandate to deliver content to keep their business model moving is inevitably going to have to look at how to integrate these technologies into their productions," says Asa Bailey, virtual production supervisor and founder of On-Set Facilities.
Bailey had been helping VFX companies, studios, and creative artists transition to virtual production techniques and remote visual effects workflows for years before the pandemic erupted. Over the last few months, the phone has been ringing off the hook as demand exploded.
So how is virtual production evolving, and how have VFX houses been adapting? Let's dig in.
Trending Virtual Production Techniques
For a look at the current landscape, we'll set the stage with some trending virtual production techniques.
The first thing that may spring to mind is giant LED volumes, notably used extensively during the production of The Mandalorian. Here, a wraparound series of LED screens display a photorealistic background, generated in real time, which automatically adjusts and tracks to the camera position. Rather than guessing in front of a green screen, everyone on set, from the actors to the focus-puller, can see what the shot will look like.
But virtual production is much bigger than LED screens. It also includes virtual cinematography for CGI and mo-cap-based productions, where actors and crew move around in an empty physical space while working in a virtual set equipped with VR goggles and motion-capture-tracked cameras, dollies, and physical props.
MPC's VFX Supervisor Nick Davis explained his choice to leverage this technique for the CGI sequences of the recent film The One and Only Ivan to Befores and Afters: "We could have done the whole thing with just previs and postvis, and you could have sat there with animators and artists working on their computers...but I think what this approach did was bring the same shooting style and the same organic feeling that we had in the practical photography into the virtual photography."
Opportunities in Virtual Production, Cloud-Based VFX Houses
According to Bailey, the pandemic has brought many of these bespoke techniques, pioneered by a small group of industry experts, into the mainstream. In turn, it's created more opportunities for artists to work in new crew roles with new technology and production processes. Those willing to adapt their "traditional" skill sets to these new environments are developing sought-after expertise—there's only increasing demand for on-set data adapted previs and the creation of pregenerated yet real-time-rendered set extensions.
The pandemic has also spurred the adoption of an entirely cloud-based visual effects workflow, where previously brick-and-mortar VFX houses maintained their own render farms and creative hardware, often servicing hundreds of artists in-house.
Taking the VFX workflow remote could lead to more flexibility for creatives who put in overtime at the office. It also throws regional constraints out the window and opens up opportunities to tap into a wider talent market. Cloud computing and technology are set to play a huge role in enabling that transition. In this model, a VFX studio can tap into a global talent pool working with nothing but a thin client to get started each day from wherever they are—and when new projects demand more resources, they can rapidly expand their workforce simply by leveraging more machines in the cloud.
For those VFX studios with an existing investment in expensive hardware, the cloud still offers useful opportunities for the same kind of flexibility in their workflows. A hybrid cloud model enables studios to ramp up additional resources quickly on an as-needed basis when projects exceed existing resources. When the "burst" period is over, studios can simply spin their cloud resources back down.
A People-Centric Approach to Remote VFX Workflows
Jellyfish Pictures, a UK-based VFX house, has pivoted to an entirely virtual VFX production pipeline since the pandemic temporarily closed its physical offices—a process which CEO Phil Dobree described to Animation Express. Dobree articulates the main pain point for scattered colleagues: how to communicate effectively and maintain a cohesive company culture while spanning the globe.
"For our clients, we have integrated a review tool into our pipeline, which grants access for clients to review content seamlessly and simultaneously in 4K," Dobree told Animation Express. "This allows for both our artists and clients to be able to screen-share, update, and annotate in real-time."
It's still hard to say how exactly the pandemic will ultimately affect the VFX world moving forward, but companies are getting creative about how they navigate the current landscape. Through collaborative, remote workflows and cutting-edge virtual technologies, production is still on. Recognizing that people are still the solution amid all this technical innovation helps nurture and attract the best talent while working remotely—laying the groundwork to come out on top in the long run.