Real-time production: barriers and opportunities

In our last article on real-time production, we discussed what a real-time "nirvana" could look like in the fields of pre-visualization, on-set production and post-production. While the future certainly looks exciting, reaching it will hinge on overcoming a succession of barriers.

We’re experiencing technical difficulties

As is often the case with burgeoning film practices, the first hurdle to mass adoption is the quality and availability of technology. The fact is, while real-time technology does exist, its quality is yet to reach the point that it would be universally acceptable in the final cut of a major release. Anything currently made in real-time will still need some level of post-production to iron out the creases.

Coupled with this is its current availability. Unfortunately, real-time production in its current state needs a lot of people, expertise and - most importantly - money. For that reason, it remains a niche feature of high budget blockbusters. For more fiscally challenged films, real-time technology is simply out of reach - at least for now. Location filming, plus post-production, makes more financial and logistic sense.

Luckily, technologies develop. And, as they develop, they reduce in price and become more widely available. In 1985, when John Lasseter created a 20-second scene for Young Sherlock Holmes involving a fully CG knight, who could have foreseen directors like Gareth Edwards creating the effects for an entire feature from the comfort of his bedroom?

Film Camera

Digital directors, analogue auteurs

There is a human element in this that it would be remiss to ignore. When it comes to filmmaking, the availability of the most incredible, ground-breaking technology is a moot point if the director simply doesn’t want to use it.

While they’re a rarity, a director who embarks on a project with a fully realized vision of how their movie will turn out will have less of a need for real-time production tools. In one respect, this could be an advantage for a studio. Having decisions locked down at the beginning of the production process means that costs can be saved through the knowledge that all work will end up in the final cut. However, for directors who prefer more freedom of decision in their work, real-time will be a boon.

Let’s imagine a filmmaker directing a vast fantasy epic combining human actors with virtual beasts and battlegrounds. A scene involving a pivotal skirmish has the capacity to make or break the project’s success, yet the director wants to keep their options open; wants to hunt for that perfect angle as if they were on the ground, not staring at a green screen. Here’s where real-time could play its part. With the battle pre-visualized and the main characters filmed on a virtual set, the director could manoeuvre actors to react in real-time to unfolding events.

Real-time production won’t ever be the only way to create a film, of course. That much is clear from the endless variety in filmmaking techniques today - but to receptive filmmakers it can become an extra weapon in their armoury. Ultimately, directors choosing between using real-time or not could become just as familiar as those who encourage their actors to improvise, and those who prefer to stick to the script.

With challenge, comes opportunity

Yes, challenges exist. But the good news is that there are a raft of studios currently propelling the development of real-time production - and making seriously impressive content with the potential to have lasting ramifications for the industry.

One company leading the charge in the use of virtual sets is Stargate Studios, through its "Virtual Backlot". It’s the world’s largest collection of film assets - from stock footage to location photos and CGI props - that, when combined with live action cinematography on a virtual set, gives directors almost limitless possibilities.  

Behind-the-scenes footage of the studio’s XXIT demo shows the technology used to its full potential. From the five-minute mark in this video onwards, you can see how director Sam Nicholson shoots a scene with, quite literally, his back to his actors - preferring to see the world he is creating through the virtual composite on his monitors.

Perhaps a higher-profile - and bigger budget - example of this style of filmmaking was used during the production of Rogue One. Gareth Edwards has certainly come a long way from creating visual effects in his bedroom, as Industrial Light and Magic worked with the director to create a real-time system to allow him to physically map out his CGI shots as if he was actually hovering around the Death Star.     

It isn’t just suited to spectacular science-fiction, however. Less dramatic perhaps, but certainly just as effective, Stargate’s virtual set know-how has been in demand from naturalistic dramas like Showtime’s Ray Donovan and even traditional sitcoms like House of Lies.

Virtual Production Kit

Inspiration from other industries

The gaming industry has long been known as a hotbed of real-time activity, with practices that could soon be transferred to film. Developer Ninja Theory’s work on the game Hellblade has pushed the boundaries of how CG scenes can be created, to the point that they can be shot almost as intuitively as live action.

The company’s demo at Siggraph 2016 showed off the capabilities of what it describes as "real-time cinematography". Here we see an entire CG scene shot with motion capture artist Melanie Juergens, from set to final edit in a matter of minutes - rendered entirely in real-time. Directions are given as they would on a live-action shoot, with shots sequenced instantly and layered to create the cinematic performance. It’s quite a feat.

As technologies progress, and digital avatars can pick up the more nuanced facial expressions of their motion-capture artists, we can be confident that the end result will only become more polished. Real-time technologies are showing that, with the right directors in place, exciting storytelling abilities are within reach.