Pandemic May Have Helped Content Production Leap Into Tomorrow

Content Insider #708-1 – New Sets

By Andy Marken – [email protected]

“If I should fail to keep these two on the correct path, the basis of our society will be in danger. Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense. I’m a professional.” – Rufus, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” DEG, 1989

A month ago, a friend sent me a screen grab from Back to the Future with Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd) sitting in the time-traveling DeLorean warning Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), “Marty, whatever you do, don’t set the machine to go back to 2020.”

Yeah, been there … done that … don’t want to do it again!

It has been a sucky time for everyone in the M&E ecosystem – studios, content owners, producers/directors, crew, distributors, channel folks and consumers.

But, as bad as the pandemic “was,” the industry overcame a ton of obstacles and made some tremendous advances.

You can almost say the creation of visual stories is better because of it.

As someone observed, “The pandemic actually helped (forced) the industry to move from the C.B. DeMille era to the George Lucas era.”

Since the Gloria Swanson days, the industry has made a continuous set of small step improvements to protect and pamper the actors, create more and more realistic sets/scenes and deliver more realistic and real stories for the audience.

And yes, along the way, its improved inclusion, diversity and increasingly more honest, respectful treatment of the people who bring the stories to life.

With all of the positive improvements, the biggest advance(s) have been in leveraging and accelerating the use of technology to bring content production out of suspended animation.  

Crippling Blow – Covid-19 hit Hollywood and the entire content creation/production industry hard, sidelining thousands of creative folks around the world.  But creatives always find a way to … create.  

Nothing suddenly appeared because of the Covid crisis, but the virus did help them progress and become refined more quickly as filmmakers struggled to reinvent themselves to bring visual stories to life.

Two advancements that have been slowly creeping into the content production industry are cloud technologies and virtualizing content.  

The cloud has become indispensable to content producers because the move from celluloid (film) to digital produced huge volumes of content which eventually had to be worked on by creative audio/video specialists located around the world rather than just the few creatives in town.

No one will claim that the early movement of content to editors, special effects, audio and other creatives was fast, reliable, easy or even safe until most recently, but with the improvements:

  • Specialists were able to work away from the studios where they wanted to live/work
  • Producers were able to work with creative specialists they felt were the best for each task 

The cloud also made it possible for post-production crews to use highly specialized production tools that they used infrequently by the hour or project rather than purchase the entire software bundle (and keep it current with the latest enhancements).  

The tools and people who do the magic with the content we view today are freakin’ awesome.

Adobe, Avid, Black Magic, Lightworks, Autodesk and hundreds of other broad-based and purpose-specific tools can be accessed for a specific task and often even shared with another post professional half-way around the globe.  

And to ensure your team is current with the latest tools and how to get the most from them, organizations like FMC conduct a continuing series of PostlProduction World online events and courses run by the best folks in the industry.  

Money in the Cloud – Cloud storage and delivery services have grown rapidly with strategically located storage facilities around the globe.  As a result, studios/content owners kept production flowing despite the lockdown.  

With cloud service facilities strategically located around the globe, firms like AWS, MS, IBM and others not only give creatives instant access to the post tools but also the projects they need to work their magic on.

It has taken us a long time to trust putting RAW, work in progress, and final projects in the cloud and be assured that the cloud storage will be reliably scalable and secure.  

And yes; it’s faster, more economic and probably more reliable than shipping hard drives of content via FedEx or UPS.

There, we said it … get over it!

We won’t say that the cloud and remote workflows made it possible for people to continue creating great content during the 2020 shutdown, but it sure helped.

That and CDN (content delivery network) services like Akamai that enable pipe-choking 4K/8K HDR content to move from one post facility to another and back to directors/producers to review and approve.  

With this as a solid foundation the M&E industry was able to reinvent itself and get back to work in a totally new and more efficient/effective manner.

First, different parts of the TV, film crew (set design or post-production or VFX) had to learn to work together, remotely.  

One of the first things producers and executive producers found was that the team was more responsive and responsible than when they were physically in the same location.  

The workflow, assignments and deadlines were being handled and people actually communicated more quickly and more effectively using video conferencing and text/note tools to ensure everyone on the team knew the project status at each step of the process.  

Disney’s and ILMs work on The Mandalorian was one of the mind-blowing next-generation technology platforms we expect will become the standard for future TV/film production.

Green Standby – The greenscreen, a standard of the film/TV industry for years, puts people and action in very real surroundings.  

Everyone in the M&E industry is familiar with the good old green screen to shoot your actors/action and then add the appropriate background and content so viewers believe they’re in the desert, on a mountain top, in the ocean, screaming down the highway or flying among the stars.

The results can be okay, super cool or OMG!

Green screen is an established, well-understood technology that post people have learned how to optimize the scene and overcome the shortcomings.

Tomorrow’s Adventure – Disney’s The Mandalorian owes a lot to ILM’s advanced LED Video Wall technology. It delivered the look and feel of tomorrow’s wild west in a closed studio and produced reality without a lot of time-consuming, expensive post-production work.  

But walk onto a set with a LED video wall and you say, “Holy (words you can’t say on TV).”

Disney/ILM used the LED video wall technology in making Cats, The Lion King and The Mandalorian.

The Mandalorian video wall cost upward of $1M and there are already 100 plus installed/being installed in studios around the globe and a couple of hundred more on order.  

And yes, the cost has been steadily dropping as more walls are installed and studio owners (and producers) see the creative possibilities.  

Chase Scene – Pinewood Studios in Atlanta completed one of its initial LED video wall installations in the midst of the pandemic–just in time to meet the car action scene needs of a number of projects, delivering realism economically and safely.  

Last fall, Pinewood Studios in Atlanta opened its LED-stage virtual production service in partnership with MBSi, Fuse and SGPS/ShowRig.  

The initial LED-stage system will be used to eliminate the need for traditional car process trailers and set-builds in addition to reducing the cost and production time.  

There are already plans to expand to a larger permanent stage facility since the initial LED-stage system is already booked for … a few months.  

The game changer for the industry has been the solving of camera parallax, real-time interactive lighting, real-time interaction with video elements and real-time interaction with cast members and virtual characters that have been programmed in.  

Discussions – A member of The Mandalorian crew discusses an upcoming scene with Carl Weathers (l) and Pedro Pascal on the ILM LED video wall set.  

Unlike traditional green screen sets, actors can see the background and cinematographers can match perspectives and camera parallax so that it looks like an actual location shoot and the lighting is more dynamic.  

For example, with The Mandalorian, the LED walled stage directors were able to manipulate their surroundings, providing endless creative opportunities.  

But perhaps one of the best “Ah Ha” advances for film/TV production came when a few creative crews took advantage of the real-time technologies built into game engines like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and Unity.

Kathleen Maher, analyst and editor at Jon Peddie Research, explained that we don’t have to wish for a production advance because it’s already available from firms like London-based The Foundry which has become the go-to production tool during the pandemic by studios and post-production houses like Pixar, ILM, MPC, Disney, Weta Digital, DNEG, Framestore and other shops.  

The best part was that she pointed me to a YouTube segment of Epic’s  video series The Pulse that does an excellent job of explaining Epic’s view of how real-time filmmaking and virtual production is taking film/TV production to a whole new level for film/TV production just when we need it most.

Truthfully, we spent about three hours studying this video – https://tinyurl.com/y2nysc4z – and other segments of The Pulse and all we can say is “Freakin Awesome!”

 The great thing is that it’s not just for deep pocket tentpole projects, but it can be affordably and creatively used by indie filmmakers who want to take their projects to a whole new level.  

Our friend Mark Poppin, founder of BabelTechReviews, who knows that all things are possible with VR, patiently explained how game technology has become a fundamental part of the way today’s filmmakers create and shoot in virtual sets … in real-time.

We probably should have realized this because games have become so “real” since the days we worked with Atari.

Kathleen and Mark noted that the software allows multiple production folks to create open worlds with textures, near-perfect lighting and the ability to tweak the scene/set almost instantly.

Kathleen said that technology continues to evolve to enable production team members to collaborate on the virtual sets regardless of where they are located or where the shoot location is. 

She emphasized that the pandemic has caused a horse race among tool makers to innovate virtual production methods.

One Location – Before the pandemic, crews often went on location in a single country or in several countries, but that came to a screeching halt during the lockdown.  Thanks to the rapid acceptance of virtual production tools, remote production became a distant memory.  

“We aren’t saying multiple location shoots are completely gone,” Kathleen commented, “but it’s entirely possible to reduce the time and money budget by bringing locations on various parts of the globe to the crew rather than traveling to three or four countries to set up and shoot segments that are then brought together in post.”  

An excellent example of this was with The Mandalorian where crews used drones to capture detailed images of Monument Valley in Arizona.

Ride ‘em Manda – By using virtual reality technologies like LED video walls and realtime technology tools like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and Unity, directors in almost any budget range can produce breathtaking stories without having to travel to distant locations or construct expensive sets. 

Then, with Unreal Engine and/or Unity, they used the data to “build” the rock formations and desert on set.  

Going beyond that, the folks in The Pulse virtual production video said they could see a time when producers could almost eliminate physical set construction and instead draw from a digital library of virtual sets, select those that best worked for a specific segment, digitally modify them, shoot the scene and prepare for the next segment without using a single hammer, nail, saw or board.

It helped production teams maintain their schedules during the pandemic and it’s only logical that it will become standard practice in the future.  

Smaller scenes, fewer extras, more contained sets and fewer people on-set that aren’t involved directly in the creative product are certainly possible.

The industry has already embraced and proven distributed workflow in the cloud and over the network with team members sending, accessing and working on film segments around the globe.

Using today’s enhanced technology, will certainly help content producers create better, more “real” content as we emerge from the minimalized closed sets people have had to work under for the past 6-12 months.  

So, maybe being forced to create/produce fresh, new content under the Covid-19 cloud wasn’t such a bad thing after all?  

Naw, indie filmmakers are a creative bunch. They would have gotten there without the masks, social distancing, positive tests … and worse.

But sometimes it takes a little adversity to help the industry become more creative and work forward.  

Or, as Bill said in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “It’s pointless to have a triumphant video before we even have decent instruments.”

Andy Marken[email protected] – is an author of more than 700 articles on management, marketing, communications, industry trends in media & entertainment, consumer electronics, software and applications. An internationally recognized marketing/communications consultant with a broad range of technical and industry expertise especially in storage, storage management and film/video production fields; he has an extended range of relationships with business, industry trade press, online media and industry analysts/consultants.

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