How Will Technology Change Acting + Production in 2021?

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Photo Source: Disney+. Pictured – the set of 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 how 2020 broke the mould for productions, and what that could mean for 2021.

2020 was a very different year for the acting community and the wider entertainment industry – you only need to turn on your TV to see productions where actors and presenters are altering their work-life around Covid-19 guidelines; and, of course, the impact of the pandemic has also been harshly felt in live-entertainment spaces like theatres and music venues.

But even in a year such as this, technology has been marching forwards, and in 2021 it’s likely to accelerate. Let’s take this moment, then, to track some of the technological trends that are already changing the face of our industry, and consider what they could mean for 2021 and beyond.

The rise of digitally-altered performers

Digitally altering an actor’s appearance has become a popular technique for major productions, with de-ageing an actor to resemble their younger self becoming a recurring motif in decades-spanning franchises such as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Likewise, we’ve also seen a rise in digital resurrections, where a deceased actor’s likeness will be spliced into a new film so their character can live on. And after some early successes in those aforementioned franchises, we’d expect to see more digital de-ageing and resurrecting throughout 2021.

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As this technology becomes more widely available, we’d also expect to see smaller-budget productions starting to use these technological tricks. The Hollywood Reporter has already revealed that James Dean will be “reborn in CGI” for Vietnam War-drama Finding Jack. Depending on its success, that film could open the door for many more deceased actors to appear again on-screen.

Gaming tech merges with live-actionVirtual production on The Mandalorian set

The lines between the digital world and the physical realm continue to blur. For example, the Unreal Engine software, which Epic Games originally created for building video games, is now used to create virtual backdrops that resemble live-action landscapes for the Disney+ series Star Wars: The Mandalorian.

Using a powerful virtual production tool called The Volume, the crew of The Mandalorian project these virtual environments on-set, allowing actors to react in real-time to the alien worlds they’d otherwise have to imagine.

For now, this is an expensive tool exclusive to Disney’s premium projects, but we’d expect more affordable virtual production tech to appear in the near future, allowing actors at all levels the opportunity to see fantastical environments around them.

Video games get even more real

Insomniac Games showcases the graphics of Spider-Man Remastered

Meanwhile, in the gaming world itself, the launch of the PS5 and the Xbox Series X/S consoles has once again increased the realism that is possible. The manufacturers at Sony and Microsoft can now support faster loading times, more realistic lighting, and higher-fidelity graphics (with up to 8K being supported by the most high-end new consoles). Worlds and characters can look more real than ever before.

For actors in video games, this could mean more detail from their performances – right down to the slightest facial nuances – can make it into the final product. Proof of this can be found in Marvel’s Spider-Man, a game originally released on PS4 but has now been “remastered” for PS5. 

When the PS5 version was being made, the developers at Insomniac Games revealed in a blog that they’d decided to recast the actor who’d been scanned in as Peter Parker’s physical form. This change was made to make the most of the enhanced graphics, which was achieved by getting “a better match” facially for the voice actor Yuri Lowenthal. With this new generation of consoles, then, it seems that studios are already giving a lot of thought to actors, their performances, and how to show more human touches on the screen.

Streaming could supersede cinema

The future of cinema still looks uncertain after the worldwide closures due to Covid-19, and it seems like the changes of 2020 could have sped up the already-significant rise of online streaming services as a home-based alternative to the cinematic experience. 

After The Mandalorian proved that film fans will flock to a streaming service, both the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have begun to create more bespoke live-action series just for Disney+ subscribers: the Star Wars franchise has an Obi-Wan Kenobi series starring Ewan McGregor in the pipeline, alongside other projects, and the Marvel universe has the sitcom-aping WandaVision series, among others.

Various other movie studios are attempting to enter this digital arena, with Warner Bros recently stating that 17 of its upcoming theatrical releases will also launch on the same day on its HBO Max streaming platform. This includes giant popcorn flicks such as Wonder Woman 1984, Dune, and Godzilla Vs Kong, all of which previously seemed tailor-made for traditional cinematic releases.

Warner Bros’ announcement has been met with a mixed response, with blockbuster filmmaker Christopher Nolan telling The Hollywood Reporter: “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”

For actors, though, Hollywood’s shift to streaming could be a good thing. After all, maintaining a paying subscriber base requires a steady stream of new content, which should mean there’s an equally steady stream of opportunities for actors to audition for streaming services’ upcoming movies and series. And despite the pandemic, 2020 has seen an acceleration of global investment into production infrastructure, with money pouring into new UK studios, and exports of British drama at a record high.

Tech tools to help actors and creators
The digital world has found its place in every facet of entertainment from the development of projects right the way through to the way in which we watch the finished product – and that’s not to mention the virtual production techniques and digital de-ageing tech which are both altering the ways in which actors can approach roles.

As this digitisation of our industry continues, we’d also expect to see more helpful tools and cutting-edge tech geared around helping actors on the day. We recently spoke about the interactive recording scripts and helpful “booth screens” that German company Synthesis is offering to video game voice-actors, and we’d hope to see handy aids such as these becoming more commonplace across the acting world in 2021 and beyond, helping actors to keep up as the technological side of the entertainment industry continues to march forwards.

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