How Hollywood is using virtual reality to change the way movies are made

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Hollywood is always looking for ways to entice moviegoers into theaters—and what better way to do that than with technology? Technology has clearly changed other historical institutions, like sports, and the movie industry is no exception.

Already, IMAX screens offer immersive viewing experiences that rival those seen in theme parks. D-Box seats offer movie viewing in 4D, allowing you to feel on-screen explosions and ride along in a car chase as your seat tilts with the turns. 

Then there’s the behind-the-scenes technology that helps producers and directors make movies: tech like motion-capture and computer-generated imagery (CGI) has been used by filmmakers for a long time, but no technology has both worked as a draw for audiences AND helped Hollywood make movies.

That is, until now. 

Hollywood studios, producers, and directors alike are all turning their collective attention toward virtual reality and learning how to use VR to both tell stories and immerse moviegoers in brand new adventures.

Just Like Being There    

In Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, there’s a scene where a futuristic aircraft swoops through the cavernous valleys of Wakanda; the valleys overflowing with lush and giant waterfalls. For the location scout, it would be momentous to finally see this location appear on-screen.

The thing is, the location doesn’t exist. 

Working with virtual landscapes doesn’t come without problems, though. James Clyne, a design supervisor at Lucasfilm, was responsible for designing elements that would be part of the train heist scene for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Clyne helped design the Imperial train that would be the main set piece for the sequence; however, when the film’s production leads started questioning if characters could actually manage the fictional gap and jump between the trains, well, Clyne had to find out for himself. 

But how do you experience something that's fabricated for the big screen and thus doesn’t physically exist? 

For Clyne, the answer was in Lucasfilm’s Virtual Scout technology, which is typically used by designers who want to take a life-sized virtual tour of their CG creations. The application helps designers get up-close and personal with the details of their designs, and assists directors who want to visualize shots in a virtual space.

Clyne uploaded his model of the train to the Virtual Scout application—which is housed in a small office on the Lucasfilm campus—and as he tells, “virtually” climbed aboard:       

“You put the goggles on and you’re standing on a train car 60 feet up.” 

Clyne then asked the Virtual Scout team if he could, “Run and try to jump.”

The team was a bit taken aback, Clyne said. “They were like, ‘Well, we’ve never done that. We usually just have people slowly walking around the room.’”

Nonetheless, with Clyne’s train design potentially on the chopping block, he had to try. And try he did.

“I just put my back against the one wall and I ran. But I was able to do it! And I went back and reported back to production, the directors—I, normal Joe, can jump over that!” 

Clyne solved a potential production problem using virtual reality, and so have other filmmakers.  

Mastering the Digital Domain

One of the companies that continues to exploit and pioneer the use of technology in moviemaking is Digital Domain

Founded by filmmaker James Cameron and special effects wizard Stan Winston, Digital Domain has been at the forefront of technological filmmaking. They use VR to give directors, actors, and production teams advanced tools that help them visualize the action, using multiple camera streams and even virtual cameraman.

For instance, they’re using virtual reality to help render virtual set pieces and characters that can be used “on location” during pre-production and the filming of live action. 

Let’s pause, because if you don’t have any experience in filmmaking it can be hard to visualize.

Imagine you’re an actor on a green screen set. The “set” you’re standing on is being created digitally, inside a computer. The green screen is used to mask out the film negative so artists can then add the CG set later. 

But as an actor, wouldn’t it be helpful to have some idea what backdrop you’re supposed to be acting against? Tossing on VR headgear can now help you see pre-visualizations of computer-generated characters and sets—just like it did for James Clyne and Solo. For a director and DP (director of photography) on set, they can now visualize a different angle—one that can only be seen “virtually.” 

(Here's a look at the making of Ready Player One, to see how filmmakers utilized the HTC Vive to help bring a virtual universe to the big screen.)

This “virtual set” method dates back to when James Cameron made Avatar. Cameron assembled an on-set production team that included a CGI unit that helped pre-visualize set pieces as the scenes were shot. The director and his actors could then see (in real time both during and after the shot), what the finished product would eventually look like, even though the elements only existed in a computer.    

Using Virtual Reality to Make Movies

Making movies for virtual reality presents its own set of problems. The next time you put on a VR headset, watch a live-action film and put yourself in the shoes of the director. To make the movie, they would need a camera, sound equipment, crew, and a set. But 360-degree cameras capture everything. So how do you get the shot? 

Then, of course, there’s the on-screen action and story arch. In a theater, the audience is captive and everyone is looking forward. With VR, the audience can look wherever they want. As a director, you have to take all these things into consideration and, in a sense, direct the audience.

Directors exploring virtual reality as a filmmaking tool are trying several techniques to combat these problems, like building immersive sets and removing any production crew or equipment from the shot beforehand. Framing the action also becomes more important, guiding the audience to follow the action, as seen in the animated film Invasion.   

It’s why executives at major studios tend to lean toward directors and producers that have worked with technology like virtual reality and CGI—they understand both the benefits and limitations tech can provide. 

The Future of Filmmaking

Filmmaking has always been propelled by technology. In the 1950’s, 3D ruled the local movie houses. Advances in camera technology and practical special effects propelled blockbusters like Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park through the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays, sometimes practically whole films are computer generated.    

Virtual reality still has a way to go before it's adopted wholly by the film industry to make movies, but it's already beating a path to the box office. 

With TV entertainment and production values that rival film, it’s not too far-fetched to think in the future you’ll go to the movies for a completely customized movie experience, not unlike something out of Ready Player One. Want Luke Skywalker to fight dragons as you ride along for the massive battle against Thanos and his army of little pink Trolls? Drag. Drop. Press play. 

Make no mistake, mastering the digital domain is the key to the future of filmmaking.

Have a child who wants to take the next step? Check out our video editing courses or virtual reality summer camps

A photo of Vince

Vince has worked as a camp director for iD Tech. Previously, he spent over 20 years in the video game industry, working for companies like Sony, Microsoft and Disney. Vince has his nerd card fully stamped, with his favorite stamps including: Pokémon, D&D, comic books and of course, video games.

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