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On 19 May, the Marina Stage of the Marché du Film hosted the Cannes Next panel “Europe as a Global Leader in Virtual Production. Visionaries, Platforms and Studios”. The event was moderated by AC Coppens.
How can virtual production be relevant to both blockbusters and arthouse films? Has Europe got the potential to become a powerhouse for this new technology? With these two questions, AC Coppens opened the talk and presented the speakers: Sarah Geeroms and Gregg Young, of Flemish pubcaster VRT; Martin Madsen, of Nordisk Film Shortcut; filmmaker Jannicke Mikkelsen; Mikka Rosendahl, of Zoan; and Alex Wills, of Disguise.
Rosendahl talked through the activities of Zoan, an award-winning metaverse studio based in Helsinki “obsessed with bringing new technologies to life” as well as with “tech combined with high-quality graphics”. He touched upon the creative potential of metaverses, describing them as simulations “based on the real world, the past, the future, an imaginary world or some type of universe or story linked to a brand”. Among other topics, he spoke about Cornerstone, a groundbreaking photorealistic universe made by combining three technologies – namely, the Unreal Engine 5, for its advanced graphics and core mechanics; pixel streaming to access it via browsers; and blockchain, to regulate its economy.
Wills spoke about Disguise’s mission “to empower the next generation of filmmakers through its software and hardware platform and technical services”. The company, which has been active for over 20 years, has extended its platform “to seamlessly connect physical film stages with virtual sets” owing to the rapid development of three key technologies. These are real-time 3D rendering (Epic’s recent Matrix demo is a good example of the latest accomplishments using this tech), GPUs and quality LEDs. Despite the great advancements in the latter field, Wills argued that the key areas for improvement include speed, stability, flexibility and scalability along with the creation of shared standards for practices such as colour calibration. Recent productions in which Disguise was involved include SAS: Red Notice, Foundation, Top Gun: Maverick and Atlanta. Finally, he pointed out how, “to get the best out of these technologies, you need to rethink the whole production process”.
In his contribution, Madsen highlighted how photorealism is “all about lighting”, since one needs “to know exactly what the background of a piece of content must look like”. Then he announced that Nordisk would be opening its first fully screen-covered 360° LED stage (approximately 60 metres wide and 6 metres tall) in August. He also showed how the team managed to create “a very vibrant alien world” for the Netflix show Chosen, rendered on a 10m x 4m screen. While the final result was adequate, it is still a problematic solution compared to the array of opportunities created by 360° LED stages, as it lacks dynamism and flexibility in terms of direction and changes in light.
LED stages are set to enhance the look of the content, the actors’ performances, sustainability and the whole production process (“You can choose locations in a second, and shoot much more”). A new role will be required, that of VP supervisor, who will inherit some of the tasks previously entrusted to the VFX supervisor.
Narrative solutions are highly customisable and potentially endless, as LED stages allow crews to easily shoot scenes set in a variety of vehicles (for example, cars, boats and planes), remote or VFX-heavy locations, interiors with a view as well as pickups and locations that are normally difficult to manage.
Later, Geeroms spoke about the Future Media Hubs (FMHs), whose primary goal is “to boost innovation and accelerate the development of the media industry by facilitating partnerships and mutual exchanges between public and commercial media companies”. The participants meet both in person and remotely to discuss a variety of tech topics “to inspire broadcasters to enrich storytelling and media experiences with gaming technologies”. Meanwhile, Young introduced his work with the Video Snackbar, through which web video creators at VRT can buy or rent new technology and set up test trials for learning purposes.
The panel was rounded off by a short chat with Mikkelsen, who explained, among other things, how her virtual production workflow is based on a “far more holistic approach” compared to that of the traditional one, as all heads of departments start getting involved as soon as the script is ready. Storytelling remains central, in any case: “The story is important for the emotional journey. If you can innovate technology, however, you can gift your audience with a new one.”
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