What is Virtual Production? Definition & Examples

What is virtual production? Discover its definition in this article, along with a brief history of modern virtual production and real-life examples.
Virtual Production
September 24, 2022
What is Virtual Production? Definition & Examples

Visual effects and digital asset creation used to be reserved only for post-production. Now, that’s no longer the norm.

While some studios still create digital assets in post, major studios have transitioned to leveraging virtual production in pre-production. Virtual production workflows in Hollywood and elsewhere were accelerated by COVID-19, so it's no surprise the $1.60 billion virtual production market value is expected to expand 17.8% annually from 2022 to 2030. But, despite studios and other creators rapidly converting to virtual production, there is one question that has an ever-changing answer:

What is virtual production?

The ongoing discussion among VFX artists and many others show that this question has many answers. Other interesting questions are how has virtual production evolved over time, and why are media assets now created in pre-production?

In this article, we’ll define what virtual production is, how it has changed over the years, and how asset creation has evolved alongside this new technology.

What is Virtual Production?

Virtual Production is the usage of real-time technologies to leverage in-camera visualization and visual effects.

This is a broad definition of virtual production, but one that encapsulates everything under its umbrella: virtual asset creation, management, and other technologies.

In short, virtual production helps media creators visualize digital scenes and assets, such as characters and 3D images. Virtual production also involves creating real-time interactive environments.

How has virtual production evolved?

Virtual production started to grow in fame and application during COVID-19 — but its roots extend further back than 2020.

The true progenitor of virtual production is virtual reality. The first VR head display was created in 1960, complete with 3D vision and stereo sound. It was named the Telesphere Mask, and helped set the stage for interactive virtual reality (and production!) for the coming decades.

A more relevant example of the first live visualization on set is the live action of Disney’s famous The Jungle Book, released in 2016. The production team utilized the Unity 3D game engine to develop live, on-set visuals — in fact, there were 58 different sets and over 200 subsets.

The film received accolades for its achievements in virtual production at the 89th Academy Awards, 22nd Critics' Choice Awards, and 70th British Academy Film Awards.

“We aim to refine the [virtual production] tools and process itself. It’s not cheap, and really hard to do…over time I think these tools will be employed on all productions with big VFX and/or animated content.” - Adam Valdez, VFX Supervisor of The Jungle Book’s Lead VFX House

95% of the movie was shot in sets on greenscreen or bluescreen stages. Adding the environments and characters to live-action plates took nearly 1,000 post-production artists more than a year to complete.

However, there have been experiments with game engines being used for pre-visualization assets before The Jungle Book. While the live-action The Jungle Book had the first PR campaign around its virtual production achievements, the assets focused on backgrounds and immersion, instead of live-action filming.

That’s where Avatar shines. The film kicked off the modern trend of live visualization in virtual production because it was the first film to use a virtual camera during production.

Avatar had about 60% CGI imagery, and leveraged motion capture bodysuits to transmit data to capture the results in real-time, rather than waiting for the images to be rendered. At the time, this technology was groundbreaking.

Zoe Saldana as Neyteri in “Avatar
“Once we’ve laid down a take, the take exists in the digital asset management system. It can be accessed at any time. Long after the actors have gone home, I’m still out there with the virtual camera, shooting coverage on the scene. I just have to play the take back. I can do the close up, the wide shot. … I can even move them around on a limited basis. We do all kinds of things.” - James Cameron on the production of Avatar, 2008

Both The Jungle Book and Avatar are the pillars that built the foundation of virtual production. While there are gaps between their virtual backgrounds and virtual live-action imagery, they are the ancestors of what virtual production looks like today.

Today, virtual production is best described in shows like The Mandalorian. This show’s production has set the stage for future VFX projects. The technology that was used to create Avatar and The Jungle Book have adapted to create new, powerful virtual live environments.

Sample Real-Time Virtual Production Camera from The Mandalorian Set

Instead of green or blue screens like The Jungle Book, LED screens projected the live environment around the actors. Unlike Avatar, the 3D images are generated in real-time, but that scene changes due to the movements and settings of the virtual camera.

In a few years, it will be rare to find a production team that doesn’t use LED walls, virtual cameras, or create any virtual production assets.

How has virtual production changed how media assets are created?

There’s a reason why VFX departments have started to say “fix it in pre” instead of “fix it in post.”

While creating virtual environments and assets almost eliminates the need for on-location shooting, a new challenge appeared. When in the production process should they be created?

Virtual production requires the generation of hundreds, if not thousands, of assets than a team normally would have to generate for an older movie, game, etc. To have more time to edit and use them during production, these assets are mapped out and generated during pre-production, rather than in post-production.

COVID-19 spurred the necessary use for remote VFX production and Digital Asset Management (DAM) software tools. These tools helped large studios and smaller organizations alike pivot their virtual production management from in-person offices to remote production.

Virtual Production is the Digital Frontier for VFX

The history of virtual production is rich in technical developments, as seen in the making of Avatar and The Jungle Book. Shows like The Mandalorian show off the true power of virtual production, and how the future of media creation is ever adapting.

Virtual production has a long history before 2020 — but with advances in virtual production technology comes new asset management challenges.

With potentially thousands of assets under one project, new tools have been created to save VFX professionals from lengthy approvals, remote work challenges, and more. Plus, with COVID-19 requiring remote VFX production, these new Digital Asset Management (DAM) software tools became a lifesaver.

Virtual production has evolved over the last few decades with the help of enhanced planning, digital asset management, and new technology. If your department or organization wants to flourish, consider how a DAM system can streamline your remote or in-person digital asset management.

Schedule a demo with our digital asset management experts today and find out!

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