What’s Going on at Virtual Production Studios? [6 Questions]

What is the latest technology at virtual production studios? How many studios are there in the world? Find out more in this article.
Virtual Production
September 24, 2022
What’s Going on at Virtual Production Studios? [6 Questions]

Virtual production has become the modern method of filming live-action scenes and adding visual effects. When you're watching The Mandalorian, there’s a good chance that the scene was filmed with LED walls that projected the live environment, with the help of Unreal’s real-time engine. That's modern virtual production.

But what are the key elements about the virtual production studios that help make films, games, and media possible behind the scenes? For example, how many studios are there, and do they all use the same software?

To help shed light on the current state of the industry, we’ve curated six facts about what’s happening at major virtual production studios below. Let’s start with the first, and most common, question:

1. How many virtual production studios exist right now?

There are roughly twenty to fifty virtual production studios that are in business in 2022, but there are 120+ larger LED studios around the world. There are many differentiations between studios because there are different levels of services provided by different studios.

Some studios own the facilities, while others produce the digital content, and there's studios who do both. Below are three of the most notable virtual production or virtual art studios for reference:

Happy Mushroom

Happy Mushroom is its own virtual art department. They create real-time environments, 3D models, virtual production workflows, and more. This studio has worked on The Mandalorian, Black Adam, and more!

Industrial Light & Magic (ILM)

ILM was created by George Lucas in 1975, right when he started to develop Star Wars. The organization has a global team of over 1,200 employees and has worked on over 350 feature films.

Lux Machina

Lux Machina specializes in virtual production, in-camera visual effects, display technologies and creative screens control. They were recently acquired by NEP, who has projects in 25 countries with over 4,000+ employees.

2. Who was the first virtual production studio?

Lightstorm Entertainment was one of the very first virtual production studios. It was founded in 1990 by James Cameron and Lawrence Kasanoff. The first film they created digital assets for was Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It was released in 1991, just one year after the studio’s creation.

Lightstorm Entertainment is more commonly known for its work on the record-smashing film, Avatar, but over the years the studio has collaborated on James Cameron’s other projects such as:

  • True Lies (1994)
  • Titanic (1997)
  • Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

3. How many software platforms do virtual production studios use in their day to day?

Virtual production teams use a variety of software platforms, such as real-time engines, digital daily solutions, 3D applications, asset management platforms, and product tracking systems.

Real-Time Engines

The most widely used real-time engine is the Unreal Engine, which was developed in 1998 by Epic Games. The Unity Engine, another real-time engine used in virtual production, is the key part of virtual production for films. It was originally created for video game development in 2005.

In an ideal world, virtual production studios could condense everything in the real-time engine. While that is a goal for the next generation of VFX studios, today many studios leverage other software in addition to real-time engines.

3D Applications

Due to how technologically advanced film and media creation has become, there are various 3D applications that virtual production studios leverage. The main four are as follows:

  1. Zbrush
  2. Autodesk Maya
  3. Autodesk 3ds Max (Formerly 3D Studio Max)
  4. Houdini

One of the main reasons why production teams are still using Maya is because studios have built up years of character technology, specifically around rigging, simulation, etc. For studios to move their assets into a real-time engine, the real-time engine must replace (or improve upon) segments of the pipeline that traditionally happened in 3D software applications.

This is why some virtual production companies use real-time engines and 3D applications with the support of a DAM. However, a DAM offers more integrations and functionality than most 3D applications on the market.

Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMs)

A Digital Asset Management system provides virtual production companies (and vendors!) with a single source of truth for their digital assets. These platforms provide real-time collaboration and allow multiple teams to create and approve content while also securely managing files and their permissions.

DAMs are quickly becoming the #1 virtual production platform for studios around the world. This new technology has become the beating heart of live-action film sets and general digital asset creation since COVID-19.

Virtual Production Tracking Systems

Chakra 3D Studio is another example of an Autodesk’s product that major studios leverage during production. This software integrates with the Unreal Engine and Unity digital assets and helps studios track their assets.

4. Have virtual production studios completely moved away from software like Maya to real-time engines?

In 2022, most virtual production studios have not moved entirely into real-time engines. Some have, but this has yet to become the norm for major studios.

5. How many vendors do major virtual production studios usually collaborate with?

While every virtual production studio is different, there is a baseline. The lowest number of vendors that work with a major studio is usually five to six.

However, some studios can work with as many as fifteen vendors. When a large virtual production studio has a large project, like an Infinity War sized film, vendors are the perfect partner to support a studio’s digital asset needs.

6. How do virtual production studios manage their digital assets?

Major studios are evolving their use of technology to go with virtual production. For example, many companies use the cloud with some level of version control to manage their digital assets. However, many of these solutions are cobbled together, and often lacking crucial capabilities like:

  • Tagging capabilities
  • Secure sending
  • Secure permissions
  • Digital rights management

Increasingly, major studios like Marvel are turning to more robust Digital Asset Management (DAM) tools. That’s because virtual production DAM platforms, like 5th Kind’s CORE DAM, are crafted solutions that offer a suite of solutions for managing digital assets – from organization and storage to security and digital rights management.

The Secrets of Virtual Production Studios Revealed

If you were wondering about the recent developments within virtual production studios, you now know:

  • An idea of how many studios exist
  • Who the first VFX studio was
  • How many software platforms a studio uses
  • How common real-time engines are
  • How many vendors studios work with, on average

Why some studios don’t use a DAM yet, but should

One of the more major developments in the virtual production industry is that many studios are now using a DAM system to house and manage their digital assets. Security, file management, and other perks are not provided with most version control software platforms.

Schedule a demo with our digital asset management experts today and find out if a DAM is right for your production team!

New call-to-action