Foundry at HPA: the cutting edge of tech

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Hollywood Professional Associated (HPA) Tech Retreat, a 3-day event which took place in Rancho Mirage, California, between February 17-20.

It serves to bring together industry-leading thinkers and companies spanning engineering, technology, creativity and business, with talks and discussion focused around the creation, management and dissemination of content across the media and entertainment landscape.

As a limited-attendance event, the HPA Tech Retreat is strictly capped at 700 guests. Happily, Mathieu Mazerolle, Foundry’s Senior Product Manager for cloud, counted himself amongst them and used the opportunity to explore how cloud factored into the Retreat’s hottest topics and technology.

Read on for first-hand insight into HPA, cloud technology, and the top trends that came out of the Retreat that you should know about.

HPA: The Supersession

Perhaps the most hotly anticipated event of this year’s Retreat was Tuesday’s Supersession, which, for the first time, presented a live production of shots for a short film, using real time technologies and capture directly to the cloud.

HPA Tech Retreat Supersession Promo 2020 from HPA on Vimeo.

The HPA’s decision to host this first-of-its-kind supersession isn’t a coincidence. Much talk and discussion at HPA 2020 centered around pipelines—especially virtual production—and how filmmakers can better visualize their work with real time, cloud and machine learning technologies. The Supersession provided a perfect opportunity to show this in action, with these same technologies being utilized to get the short film—The Lost Lederhosen—completed before the day’s end.

It’s virtual production at its speediest, fuelled by wider calls for an immediacy of feedback during on-set production. We’ve already written about how game engines can provide a robust, real time previsualization workflow that encourages wider creative collaboration earlier on in the production pipeline. But how, and in what ways, can cloud technology build on these benefits and facilitate clearer on-set visualisation amidst emerging trends that point to this as the future?

The HPA Retreat, with cloud as one of its major focuses, provided some answers. And a major one was…

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LED Screens 

There’s a good reason why LED screens are the hot topic on everyone’s lips. They’ve already proven hugely successful on feature shows like The Mandalorian in facilitating on-set VFX and compositing workflows that were previously inaccessible until post-production, as discussed in our previous article.

Early challenges to LED screens include expense, and the limitations that come with only being able to render from the point of view of one camera. There isn’t the option of having multiple witness cameras, and the camera being used can’t be moved too fast or else what is being rendered to the LED screen can’t keep up. And because LED screens have a fixed pixel density, The Moire effect can rear its head, often requiring the background to be slightly out of focus.

Yet these limitations seem trivial in light of the unbridled potential that LED screens can unlock for virtual production. ‘Every hour is golden hour’ was the common sentiment shared across the HPA Tech Retreat in regard to LED screens, reflecting the idea that film crews don’t have to scout sets or deal with weather woes in order to get the perfect shot.

If a director can have a picnic scene in a forest at the drop of a hat, the challenges of LED screens seem that much easier to deal with. And when the capabilities of cloud technology are factored in, these challenges can be even further offset.

Keeping pace with cloud

The immediate, real time nature of LED screens facilitates doing more stuff on-set. Naturally wrapped up in this is the idea that those involved in on-set production want to do and see more, whether that be quick edits, rough cuts, or to play around with the time of day at the touch of a button.

Because of this fast pace, the quality of production can suffer a drop, leading to rapid relighting, compositing or touch-up work, especially with the inclusion of props inside an LED screen-backed set.

And here’s where the benefits of cloud can really be felt wholesale when used in conjunction with LED screens and, by extension, virtual production, since it serves the ideal of having everything shot sent to a central place where all the different tools can seamlessly interact with it.

Cloud on-set is very handy. Artists can do a rough cut on the spot with images downloaded from the cloud and merge these in different takes, so there doesn’t need to be as long a wait for everything to be brought into a final cut as part of post-production. On-set color grading further fuels this immediacy of feedback; once directors and cinematographers have a good color grade figured out, they can be more confident about how shots will look in post-production, and how lighting will be consistent across sequences and shots to capture the overall mood of the film. Doing this on-the-spot saves a lot of time, providing important up-front creative freedom.

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The future’s bright...

Doing more on-set is very en vogue, as the rising interest in LED screens and virtual production is testament to—both at the HPA Tech Retreat and beyond. Cloud technology seems perfectly paired to this rising trend thanks to the ease and accessibility with which it manages the rich data generated on-set.

It’s a perfect melting pot of technologies that happily work to facilitate wider creative collaboration between artists and directors, earlier on in the production pipeline, to make the lives of those working in post-production that little bit easier. Once filmmakers, directors and artists are happy with their creative vision as expressed through rough cuts, quick edits or other on-set data, these can be sent along the production pipeline to post, where they’re refined and polished to the quality that viewers have come to expect from their favourite films and series. 

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