What is Virtual Production and why should I be interested in 2021?

Written by Dave Johnstone

If you want to engage an audience in 2021 you need to understand virtual production. As we ease out of the pandemic and audiences become more sophisticated and more demanding, virtual production, done well, is a great way to connect your presenters, your audience and your content, making sure your message gets heard and remembered.

“Our audience are bored of Zoom Meetings* and we need to do something better”
“We tried green screen and it looked weird”
“Extended Reality is way too expensive for what we need”

*Replace “Zoom Meetings” with any standard meeting application, poor Zoom – it’s not their fault but they do seem to have become the catch-all scapegoat for all boring meetings, but as we know a bad workman blames their tools and these are just tools, what is broadcast onto these platforms is what matters. No one ever complained of, ‘book fatigue,’ they just found a better book to read.

If any or all of the above phrases are ones you have heard or said yourself and you are still not confident of the solution, you need to read on and discover how Virtual Production can help.

So what is Virtual Production?

Virtual Production brings a level of humanity and normality to the world of virtual engagement; ironically by taking presenters out of their real world bedroom/kitchen/study/office/studio and placing them into a computer generated environment (or transported to a different real world location – but more on that later).

The technique has been used in Hollywood for decades but was recently made famous by Oprah Winfrey in an interview with President Obama.

Audiences prefer to watch and engage in interactions that look and feel natural, there is a reason why TV chat shows did not translate well to the Zoom format during lockdown. The problem is not that people won’t stare at screens for hours (anyone with teenage children will agree), the problem is that the content needs to be engaging, watching people interact is engaging, so how do we do that in an interesting way?

Virtual environments allow us to put our presenters wherever we want, the boundaries are limitless. Present your next keynote from the peak of Mount Everest, hold a breakout on the edge of the arctic tundra or host your next “fireside chat” next to a fire pit in the middle of the Serengeti. Or, as has been disappointingly more prevalent, recreate a standard anodyne conference theatre from any of a hundred hotel basements from around the world. Just because you can go anywhere doesn’t mean you have to, the location needs to be right for the content but why people feel the need to install fake truss and fake rigging in a fake world is beyond me (how long before we see our first “fire exit” sign hanging above a virtual door?).

Once you have your environment you need to decide how to place your presenter into the space and there are two schools of thought – Extended Reality (xR) or Green Screen. xR is the new kid on the block made famous by the Disney hit show The Mandalorian whilst Green Screen is what they have been using to present the weather forecasts since the 1970’s. So xR has got to be the best right? Perhaps, but does that make it the right one for you?

xR explained

In simple terms actors and presenters stand inside an LED volume and the virtual environment is shown on the screen, placing the presenter in the chosen environment. Done properly the screens are not only behind the presenter but completely surround them on all sides, above and below. This allows you to extend the background in all directions, transporting the presenter anywhere in the world.

As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to everything, the primary benefits of xR are:

  • It allows the talent to see the environment they are being placed into, making it easier for them to react to what is happening around them.
  • The ambient light that emits from the screens helps with the impression that the presenter really is in “a field of red poppies”

The biggest drawback? Being new technology means people are learning and it is generally fairly expensive to use. When you are producing a Disney blockbuster this is not a problem but it is hard to justify the value and necessity for this amazing visual feast for a simple discussion between two eminent experts in the field of network engineering, for example.

Green Screen explained

Green Screen places the presenter against a green background and then uses software to remove the background colour leaving you with a presenter you can place against an exciting background or into a different environment. (Interestingly the background doesn’t need to be green, so if your subject is the Jolly Green Giant or the Incredible Hulk, you can film them against a blue background instead, the theory is still the same).

This tried and tested technology is very familiar to many people and there are many tried-and-tested greenscreen studios around the world meaning it is easy to ask your presenter to simply go down the road into a local studio.

The downside, apart from it being quite tricky for an inexperienced presenter to imagine the scenery around them, is that the low entry cost has resulted in some fairly poor examples of floating presenters, poor keying or edging on the cut out of the presenter and films that looked distractingly unbelievable.

Which is right for me?

Choices about what is the appropriate, ‘tool for the job,’ will come down to budget and timeline.

Some people feel that the choice is between expensive and over the top (xR) or cheap and not very good (bad green screen). It is easy to see why people in the corporate world are not sure how to make the most of virtual production.

The good news is – high quality and affordable virtual production is possible, it has been a journey but we believe we have found a workflow that can deliver. We are heartened to see it is the current favoured approach for venerable broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV and we are excited to bring a high quality solution to the market.

Our approach has been to double down on the problems of traditional green screen, to use our understanding of the power and flexibility of cloud computing and to blend the innovation of the games industry with the robustness of the broadcast industry. As a result we are able to offer a live broadcast without the hovering presenters thanks to live in-scene lighting control, realistic shadows and reflections. Creating environments that look, feel and behave like a normal environment. Using our cloud production infrastructure we are able to give a lighting designer control over the lighting in the virtual environment at the same time as the real-world studio to create a perfectly lit scene. This can be taken a step further to integrate multiple studios into a single seamless production.

The pandemic has placed incredible restrictions on those who have traditionally engaged their audience face to face, with presenters strewn all over the world we are now able to place presenters from different sides of the world into the same room for a presentation that feels much more like a natural fireside chat. As we ease back to normal via hybrid we will need to deal with presenters being located in a different space to their audience, a theatre of 1000s of people are going to struggle to see the value in watching a giant Zoom on an auditorium screen – so the need for creating an engaging presentation will persist for quite some time. We believe virtual production using green screen and quality processing or as we call it at Beings, Beyond, is the key to making this a success. If Beyond can deal with the challenge of filming with a glass of water in a green screen studio, it can deal with anything!

If you would like to see a demonstration of how Beyond works or have more questions you would like answered on the topic of Virtual Production please click here to get in touch.

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