During times of struggle, the inevitable is often accelerated. Companies that were dying go bust, new ways of working, that were once seen as too disruptive to the established norm, or simply too expensive, are fully embraced in order to survive. Companies that innovate thrive and new voices find their place.
The Film Industry is one such industry that has just started a major metamorphosis. What will become known as ‘The Great Film Production Renaissance’, has begun. Make no mistake, it’s going to effect everyone.
I’ve spoken at length about changes that are afoot with distribution, exhibition, agents, producers, and audience ownership, which will each contribute to this renaissance. But today, it’s the crew and support vendors turn.
You didn’t think they’d be left untouched did you?
A New Way To Make Films & TV
Reduced crew sizes, minimal extras, reduced international travel, restricted contact with key personnel, are the key dictates that are being passed down by studios, networks, and insurance companies in an attempt to get productions back to work and minimize the risk of COVID-19 infections which could stall a production and inflict millions of dollars worth of damages to a production.
With these forced adjustments will come new norms and cost savings that will be hard to roll back when the all clear is given and a viable vaccination is available en masse. Now before you roll your eyes or dismiss what I am about to say, know that all this is already in motion both from the biggest tent pole movies and TV shows (The Jungle Book, The Mandalorian etc.) through to the most innovative indie filmmakers working in a garage. Yes, it’s not gone main stream yet…
But all that’s about to change.
On May 13, 2020, Epic games announced their new Epic Games Unreal Engine 5 which will be released publicly later in the year. The Unreal engine allows game developers to create photo real visuals that are extraordinary.
With such rapid advancements from Unreal, as well as others in the VR space such as Unity, Blender, etc. its only a mater of time before it impacts film departments in every production around the world.
The future of film and TV will see a huge amount of projects vying for the limited sound stages that are available around the world. Sound stages where crews don’t have to travel, the environment can be controlled, and economies of scale can be achieved through reduced unit moves etc.
The use of stages in nothing new, but what is revolutionary is the use of 3D photo-real worlds. Green screen and LED screen technology such as Lux Machina’s high-resolution 8K video backdrops will become common shooting practice in the industry. Yes, there will be people that hold out and say it will never be as good, just as we saw with the movement from silent to talkies and most recently from film to digital, but this technological advancement will mean that, in the not too distant future, film crews heading out to multiple locations with big basecamps taking up street space and having to deal with the limitations of a real world environment will be a rarer occurrence on a shooting schedule and one that will most likely be met with a groan from the crew who have got accustomed to all the benefits of a single place of work.
Now the digital camera revolution took fifteen years, this is going to be a lot quicker…
Pixar led the way matching storytellers with technologists to push one another to greater heights. But it was incredibly expensive. Today, a filmmaker can team with a game developer/VFX artist and build amazing worlds - this is quiet different from the process and pipeline for traditional CGI, and so much cheaper especially with the future of content library licensing or brand/product/tourism placements which I will get to in a moment.
Take, for example, this test which was shot by Seattle based filmmaker/VFX artist Ian Hubert who built this world in Blender and filmed the actress in an abandoned church in the middle of a forest:
Now, if you think this will only work for sci-fi work, take a look at the video below that reveals just how much of last years Academy Award Winner was green screen and you didn’t even notice - shooting this today could be even more green screen or much of the house could have been a video backdrop given how spaced out the rooms are:
It’s not a big leap to see filmmakers lean into even more of these VR environments. With a little bit of imagination, it’s easy to see how 60–80% of all the TV shows and movies we watch (especially outdoor scenes, large rooms, or vistas through windows) will, in the very near future, actually be billions of digital triangles (Nanites as the folks at Unreal/Epic Games call them) that make up these 3D worlds, and the majority of all productions will be studio based.
The advanced gaming technology, coming online as we speak, is literally a ‘game’ changer. Rapid adoption will be driven by the impact of Covid-19 and the need for entertainment businesses to protect themselves from any future lock downs (be it from Covid or another virus). But as more productions embrace these models, it will be the overall cost savings that will pave the way for this way of shooting to become the dominant way of making movies. Filmmakers from around the world will no longer be confined by budget and geographic location access to shoot their stories. They no longer need massive crews to support their roaming villages. And they can make projects at a scale that would have shocked David Lean, all from the confines of a small gymnasium and an online network of global digital artists who can earn a decent living working away from the West’s major metropolis and their associated costs of living.
It’s going to take a big mental shift for some, some have already made the leap, and some will come out of know where - VR natives that have a story that they are burning to tell. Here’s where we are going to see some big changes for production and film crew:
Sound stages: We all know there is a massive need for sound stages driven by the spike in content demand. The cost to build these 20,000 SQFT stages is huge! The larger stages will still be in demand, but expect to see a huge amount of productions needing a couple of 3,000–7,500 SQFT video backdrop stages instead. In the video below you can see how Disney+’s ‘The Mandalorian’ shot a good number of scenes (around 50% of the series) in a 1,500 SQFT video space.
Camera Team: Under the new way of shooting, sweaty minivan drives scouting physical locations are kept to a minimum. Instead, The camera team can spend their pre-production time in vertical worlds mapping out camera angles and testing lenses just as they will look in the final movie. This will give rise to more creativity as the options become endless. Move a wall in a two hundred year old building - no problem, travel down from the top spire of a cathedral to land on an MCU of our leading actor, easy. The options are endless. The realm of the camera department will become restricted to shooting scenes with talent; all those establishing shots, cut aways of props etc, ‘we’ll grab them in post’. And because we now have access to locations whenever we want, the idea of pickups and reshoots become easy - load up the background and we are ready to go.
Opportunity: Expect pre-viz heads of departments to become a key member of the camera team similar to the way a storyboard artist might have worked closely with a director and DP. In the case of productions that utilize video backdrops, you’ll find that the traditional CGI team, that have thus far worked in postproduction, will now work in preproduction alongside the director and DP setting everything up for the actual shoot.
Location Departments: The locations team is going to go through a big change. Scouts will be sent to find the perfect location, just as they are now, but the past concerns about crew parking, size of the rooms for camera and lighting, availability of hotels for cast and crew etc., plus the proximity to other locations, will all go out of the window. Instead, photos will be taken and a director will approve the interior of a house in Kansas to be matched with the exterior of a house in Oklahoma. Once the location has been approved, the locations team will go back to the location with their new photogrammetry tech team and spend a day or two capturing megascans of the location and all the items in the room. No big crew. No massive transportation team. That location, forevermore, captured on a hard drive.
Opportunity: For major studios, they will retain the world wide rights for that location and they’ll be able to build their own location libraries with locations being able to be reskinned and adjusted based on the production designer and directors vision. BUT, there will be a ton of independent films that will be capturing locations and several virtual film location libraries will emerge. We are already seeing this in the gaming industry where you can buy a 3D castle, a hut, a 10 acre forest, or an exact replica of the Oval Office for between $25-$1,500 a license (a lot less than the $1,000 - $15,000 daily location fees, plus other costs, for a ‘real’ world location).
Major ‘known’ locations and environments will do exclusive deals with libraries for their mega scanned 3D environments; think Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford (Harry Potter), Al Khazneh (the giant sandstone temple in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade), Alcatraz, Grand Central Station in New York. You’ll be able to shoot scenes in all of them for a fraction of what it would usually cost and from the comfort of your own studio base (wherever that might be).
Props: The props department is going to be split in two. We’ll have the traditional hand props which will be a small number of physical props that actors need to touch. And then the digital props. Props buyers will be able to scour digital libraries to purchase licenses for all the dressing props they need to put into an environment.
Opportunity: Just as with locations, there are fortunes to be made from these digital props libraries, and again they already exist in the gaming world where you can purchase the license to a set of ‘road work’ props (signs, lights, diggers etc) for $25.
Companies will emerge that will team with traditional props houses and 3D scan their entire inventory. Independent prop buyers will search the world scanning props and uploading them to libraries where they earn $10 license fees over and over again for years without purchasing the original prop, storing it, or having to fix it when it breaks. Essentially props masters will become IP owners in this new world. Yes, many of these could be built from scratch in the digital realm but many filmmakers will prefer to use real world objects that have been digitized so they retain their unique scratches and nicks. They’ll believe that it adds more authenticity.
Product Placement: Just as there is a cost for renting locations, moving unit bases, permits, facility vehicles, overtime for wrapping out etc., there will be costs to creating these 360 environments. But with the libraries available, as we have seen within the gaming community, expect the cost to come down drastically from what we have come to expect from CGI budgets. In addition to this, expect product placement teams to start getting really busy.
Opportunity: Brands and tourism locations will have a vested interest in mega scanning their products and locations and, subject to the filmmakers restricted use to ensure nothing untoward goes on around the brand, they will make their scans available for free and for possible pay-to-play fees on larger productions. You need a car? Toyota will have their full lineup mega scanned ready for you. Need a living room? The entire Ikea product line will have been scanned including many of the rooms they mock up in their showrooms. Four different Starbucks cafes, three different McDonalds layouts, a Boeing 737 from American Airlines, Eurostar station and trains, the Thunder’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, The Bellagio in Vegas, or a full Marriott hotel, will all be made available for movies and TV shows to use without any impact on their ability to serve customers in the ‘real’ world.
In addition to this, the impact that tourism already sees when a location is used in a movie (‘The Beach’ was responsible for a 22% increase in tourism to Thailand and the house used in ‘Downtown Abby’ is selling an extra $500,000 worth of admission tickets each year) means that aggressive tourism departments at country, state, and local levels, could see a massive benefit from mega scanning their key locations and making them available to filmmakers.
Actors: Talent contracts are going to become interesting with this one. First, expect to see the number of background artists drop drastically. This was going to happen with COVID-19 anyway, only now with each frame requiring digital work, the effort to bring in digital extras will be minimal. There will always be a demand for ‘real’ background artists that will be seen close to the talent for sure, but anything further away, or out of focus, they’ll be digital. Now to the contracts. Expect all cast members to be scanned at the start of production. These scans will then be used as backup for additional shots, over the shoulders etc., where supplementary support is needed. Now the question comes about the IP rights to these digital representations. Obviously use-rights will be heavily restricted and security measures in place to make sure they don’t get leaked, but for the big stars, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a “Modeler to…” credit (or similar) whereby, just as with an actors personal makeup and hair stylists, the actor insists that it is his or her own person that oversees the use of their virtual model in any movie. This extends control and supervision over how they are being used in the production.
Opportunity: Actors can all tell a story of being stuck in their trailer as lighting, set dressing, camera, or grip, run behind resulting in the talent being given just 5 minutes to perform as production is running over schedule. In this future, production becomes more about the actors performance than ever before. But as many who have worked on green screen will tell you, it takes a particular skill and the ability to really ‘act’ and react to what is not there - which is why as soon as the cost of video backdrops comes down (which it will do thanks to Moore’s Law), this will become the method of choice for everyone over green screen. Now many in the ‘unreal’ space will say the true future is in CGI actors, such as the influencer that agency CAA just signed. But that’s not going to happen main stream for a long time as audiences are drawn by other humans - it’s the reason why animated movies use celebrities for the voice over of leading characters vs unknown actors which would be a lot cheaper.
Make Up and Hair: We are seeing it already in the gaming world where they are turning to Hollywood artists to help create lifelike digital people. Make up and hair artists will have to start to understand the technical jargon and workflow processes to assist in post production and ensure the bleeding between reality and VR is seamless. In addition, there’s going to be much more scrutiny over their work. Just as HD changed the game because of the detail it captured, VR will bring a whole new set of obstacles as actors faces are captured in greater detail and in close up for every setup so that models can be perfectly replicated for additional footage if needed. Mistakes have the ability to be compounded once taken into the digital world.
Opportunity: Hair and Make up have the opportunity to be on productions longer as they are needed in post production to advise and consult on how characters are showing up.
Costume: Now this is an interesting one. Traditional costume for leading actors will still be vitally important, but expect all clothing to be scanned for future use together with costume buyers finding a new business as they scan clothing for background use down the line.
Opportunity: Expect Angels of London - one of the top costume rental houses in the world with over 1 million outfits - to digitally capture all their inventory and offer it for license. Why not use the same one uniform for all digital soldiers? Because filmmakers will want to get as close to real life as possible and each uniform carries it’s own story in terms of wear and tear and it’s details like this that graduate VR into the real world (John MacInnes of MacInnes Studios just did this with an original David Bowie costume & retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch have been scanning vintage clothing for years to replicate wear and tear for their products). But this won’t just be the realm of major costume houses, there will be independent costume finders who look for different costumes that they might be able to be license, scan, and upload to libraries just as photographers have been doing for years with platforms like Getty Images. Again, IP for costumers.
Times are changing. To close this out, I mentioned Epic Games announcement about UR5 and I couldn’t leave without showing you the amazing detail thats coming from this engine. I’m not a fan of the character or camera work, but you can certainly see how these environments can be used in film. And remember, just as we’ve seen with streaming services HQ’s being located outside of Hollywood, these major gaming companies aren’t located in La La Land either. For example, Epic Games is based in Cary, North Carolina, and Blender is based in Amsterdam. With such developments happening outside of Southern California, it underlines the erosion of geographic dominance for our entire industry.
These are truly exciting times.
Changes are happening in every corner of the industry and there are huge opportunities for people to tell highly impactful stories, limited only by their imagination, that can find a niche audience who can be communicated with at the touch of a button.
But even with all this, just as it did 100 years ago, the key is a great story. If you don’t have a great story down on paper to begin with it doesn’t matter who has the power, what the distribution options are, or what technology is available for you to film.
Story. Story. Story. Never underestimate the power of story.
What are your thoughts on this new way of working? Would love to hear your comments below.