What Do Actors Need to Know About Virtual Production?

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Photo Source: Disney+. Pictured – on the set of Star Wars: The Mandalorian

Acting in the Digital Age is a series that explores the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly changing industry. In this edition, Backstage looks at the rise of Virtual Production, and what it means for actors.

“Virtual Production” is more than just a buzzphrase. You may have heard the term bandied about to describe all manner of fantastical-sounding tech advancements in the filmmaking space, but it’s actually a specific – and real – technology that is helping actors and crew members in meaningful ways. That’s why it’s worth taking the time to familiarise yourself with it and to consider what it could mean for your future roles.

How is virtual production helping filmmakers?
Virtual production can occur even before an actor arrives on set. During the development of 2019’s The Lion King remake, director Jon Favreau and his crew worked closely with London-based visual effects house Moving Picture Company (MPC) to pre-visualise the CGI-heavy film in a virtual environment.

Favreau and his team (above) donned virtual reality (VR) headsets to visit a digital approximation of the Serengeti, which had been made by MPC using a video game engine. Working with gaming-like controllers, Favreau and co could start making decisions in real-time: they could decide where the “camera” should be placed in any given shot; they could drop digital characters into scenes, and they could try out lighting ideas. It looks more like an in-development video game than a finished movie at this stage of production as the expensive CGI hasn’t been added yet, but this type of virtual work can be a major stage in a film coming together.

MPC’s Adam Valdez, a VFX supervisor who worked on The Lion King, tells us: “The way I think of virtual production is simply that it’s where physical production methods and the computer meet. There is a clear interest from filmmakers to be more hands-on with all of this. They see it as a dry-run for making their films, as a way to get their creative minds into their scenes, and I expect actors will start to be more involved.”

How is virtual production helping actors?
Jon Favreau followed up The Lion King by working on another major Disney project – and it’s one that truly brought actors into the virtual production fold. That project was Star Wars: The Mandalorian, a live-action TV series that has already aired its first season on the Disney+ streaming service.

This time, Favreau worked with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Epic Games on special effects, and together they built a powerful virtual production tool which allowed actors to see otherworldly environments all around them during shooting. This was achieved with a series of massive LED screens, collectively known as “The Volume,” which could display pre-prepared backdrops in a scene during filming. Take a look at this video to see the Volume in action:

At 21 feet tall and 75 feet in diameter, the Volume is a ground-breaking virtual soundstage. It provides a detailed digital background to complement and inform the actors with real props that are working in the foreground. As an added advantage, the filmmakers can tinker with environments – for example, remove a mountain, rotate a room or make a sunrise last for ten hours – in order to get the perfect shot on the day. 

It’s easy to imagine the advantages for actors when they can actually see the planets, spaceships, and other spectacular things that are mentioned in the script. Compared to working against a green or blue screen (or a tennis ball on a stick), the Volume provides actors with a greatly enhanced sense of engagement with their surroundings. This, in turn, enables actors to generate more natural and convincing performances, with more spontaneity and reactiveness.

How have actors reacted to the Volume?
ILM’s Richard Bluff, Visual Effects Supervisor on The Mandalorian, tells Backstage that actors got substantial benefits from working with the Volume: “Feedback from our actors has been overwhelmingly positive, and despite everyone knowing they’re walking onto a stage surrounded by LEDs, the illusion quickly allows them to forget the artifice of filmmaking, and they are immediately immersed in the world we have created for them.”

He explains: “You often hear that ‘acting is reacting,’ and just as dressing an actor in a costume influences their movement, immersing them in a fully photoreal environment has a measurable impact on their performance as a whole, allowing them to bring the character and the story to life on an emotional level.”

This, Bluff agrees, is a lot better than some of the alternatives: “When actors are surrounded by green screen, they have nothing to play off of – it simply doesn’t give them anything to work with, and all too often they are unaware of what their surroundings will ultimately look like in the finished scene.

“With ILM StageCraft, our ability to immerse the actors in any imaginable location allows us to provide a magic window into the world they’ve rarely been exposed to during production outside of concept artwork.”

Compared to simply “using your imagination” to try and picture an environment, a rig like the Volume symbolises a true leap forward for acting in CGI-heavy productions. Bridging the gap between the real and the imagined, it could be the future of how actors work on blockbuster productions. Actors just need to arrive on set prepared to react to what they can see – surely that is so much better than pretending to see it?


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