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Virtual Production in Conversation: Evolution, efficiency, & adoption

Altman Solon is the largest global strategy consulting firm exclusively working in the TMT sectors. This interview, with Director Derek Powell and Erik Weaver, Head of Virtual & Adaptive Production at the USC Entertainment Technology Center, leverages insights from our Emerging Media Tech Survey and Erik's expertise in leading virtual production teams. Even though the film and television production industry is facing a slowdown, virtual production capabilities continue to evolve, creating investment opportunities for studios as costs decrease and efficiency increases.

Derek Powell: Virtual production (VP) has been evolving considerably since the pandemic when it was adopted out of necessity. When VP was first going mainstream, we were reading a lot about these massive, costly stages that were used for big-budget productions. On top of this, over the last year or two, fewer productions were greenlit, and studios were tightening the belt on investments in original content production.

Our most recent Emerging Media Tech Survey revealed production executives report an increase in cost and time spent on VP—which is ironic, considering these tools are presented as an alternative to costly on-location shoots (Editor's note: Over 50% of respondents saw an increase in cost of VP in nearly every phase of development). However, these very tools are maturing year-over-year alongside a diminishing skill gap, which is driving operational efficiencies on set.

In your opinion, how can studio and production leaders make sense of the potential efficiency and return on investment in VP?

Erik Weaver: I think we need to remind everyone that bigger isn't always better. The bigger you build these virtual production stages, the higher the cost from a financial investment and maintenance perspective. These big stages are only appropriate for certain types of productions. There is a range of VP products that can be adapted to different needs and budgets – and I do think productions can find a set-up to match their needs. Take the FX series Snowfall. They used LED walls to film both indoor and outdoor scenes during their final season.

Derek Powell: We've been hearing more and more about "pop-up" VP stages...

Erik Weaver: For sure, these smaller stages can make a lot of economic sense, and I think VP companies that build more compact stages can expand their customer base. Today, we see the use of corporate VP stages for advertising and internal communications rise. During last year’s SAG-AFTRA strikes (and since then), some of these stages had to expand offerings to broadcast or ad-centric content to keep their stages running.

Derek Powell: That’s right, and as the market considers VP for their creative needs, we are seeing them provide feedback to solution providers with capabilities and technology requirements to support their use cases. What has been impressive is witnessing how the industry is rapidly implementing new standards and increasing the usage of newer VP capabilities. The advancements of these tools and technologies, which are increasing utilization and output on set, make the business case for VP more feasible.

If I were a CTO at a broadcast company or a head of production technologies within a studio, what “game-changing” VP developments should I be watching for? How are these developments helping VP meet the needs of filmmakers and content producers?

Erik Weaver: The hardware and software designed for VP are evolving from 1.0 to 2.0. In the past, virtual production stages required specific engineers with a niche skillset, but this is no longer needed. Emerging best practices and methodologies are coming to light, with the SMPTE 2110 standards redefining IP-based workloads. As a result, studios are striving for compliance, which can save them anywhere from a four- to six-frame lag on your production pipeline, preventing latency issues. This is huge for broadcasters.

In the same vein, a few technologies are evolving and driving value for virtual productions.

Derek Powell: Yeah, I noticed changes in areas like LED panels, visualizations, image-based lighting (IBL), and cameras. Could you walk us through this?

Erik Weaver: Absolutely, let's start with LED panels. These are critical to VP's success. In the past, these panels were on large stages and positioned for a specific camera. Today, panels can give filmmakers more flexibility on set, where they can shoot off-access angles and capture footage just three or four feet away from the screen.

In terms of visualizations, the spectrum spans 2D, 2.5D, and 3D tech. Each has distinct advantages and challenges. Right now, there is a surge in the popularity of 2.5D, with advances like NeRFs or Gaussian splats, which streamline environment creation for faster results. There is also a renewed focus on expediting the creation process. In traditional film production, set production requires extensive lead time. Modern filmmaking requires faster lead times and more efficient methods of environment creation.

Image-based lighting, or IBL, can create diverse lights on a VP set, which can imbue more realism in virtual productions and create interactive lighting effects. New technology systems are mapping Unreal and VFX files into lights, which results in a fuller spectrum of the case on set.

Lastly, with cameras, historically, VP crews had a single camera. Today, there are now multiple cameras on a virtual production set. Ghost framing and frame remapping are changing how live events are produced. These features allow multiple cameras to capture different content from the same LED screen at the same time. On top of this, the RED team is pioneering new capabilities that allow the same camera to capture two different frustums. Ultimately, multi-camera setups maximize the amount of footage a production team can capture at each stage, getting the coverage team’s needs without having to adjust and re-shoot scenes many times over constantly.

Derek Powell: Given these developments, broadcasters and studios need to be constantly assessing virtual production capabilities and costs while testing the stability of their tech stack to build their business case on a title-by-title basis. Our clients want to make sure their adoption of new technology fits their strategic and financial objectives. It can be a challenge given the investment required and operational changes needed.

Erik Weaver: Absolutely.

Derek Powell: Let’s focus on the on-set production portion of this equation, which is key when making the case for investment in VP. We have noticed training and hiring production talent to work as VPs is becoming easier. As recently as a year ago, we saw a real skill gap between production teams who could work in VP and those still using traditional methods, but that skill gap is closing. Are you seeing this as well?

Erik Weaver: Yes, absolutely. I think that the people who thrive in this industry love to learn new ways of working. Post-strike, we are seeing a different way to do things emerge. There is room for continuous improvement, and I think that production will change dramatically in the next 5-10 years, thanks to IP-based workflows and VP tooling.

Derek Powell: Reflecting on our discussion, we are going to see VP technologies continue to evolve and improve. While this is complex in both operational processes and technology integration, studios should invest in these capabilities as the cost for these tools comes down year-over-year and operational efficiencies improve. If studios are looking to develop their operating capabilities in areas like virtual production, sustainability, and content supply chain to drive up returns on their bottom-line financials, then this is going to require a transformative journey.

Some of our clients have leveraged the tech for transformation in cost and operations. They've seen positive outcomes in enhanced operational efficiencies, innovative product/service offerings, better decision-making, and new opportunity identification. To wrap up, I want to extend my gratitude to you, Erik, for engaging in this insightful conversation. You offer valuable perspectives on VP.

Erik Weaver: Thank you, Derek. It has been a pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity to catch up with you, and I’m excited about what lies ahead for the future of VP.

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Leadership & Oversight

Derek Powell