How Leading VFX Houses Are Helping Solve Hollywood’s Production Restart Issues

While much of Hollywood ground to a halt during the coronavirus pandemic, VFX houses were among those that pivoted to working remotely, and continued to operate. Staffers around the world at Framestore (“Wonder Woman 1984” and “The King’s Man”) and Weta Digital (“Black Widow” and “The Green Knight”) all were set up to work from home.

Now, as COVID-19 protocols have been put in place in the film and TV industry to restart safely, Framestore’s Christian Manz (VFX supervisor and creative director, Film) and Weta Digital’s David Conley (VFX Supervisor) explain how VFX houses have been working to provide best-fit solutions to productions shooting during coronavirus.

With shooting restrictions being imposed on crowd scenes, VFX houses are no strangers to using computer-generated technology to create a sense of scale and spectacle, whether it’s filling stadiums with fans or choreographing battle scenes.

Conley explains that Weta’s crowd software, called “Massive,” goes back to the company founder Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of The Rings” films. “We’ve added the ability to combine specific motion capture-derived animation cycles with Massive’s ‘fuzzy logic’ artificial intelligence to create highly directable simulated crowd scenes.”

He continues, “For the ‘The Hobbit’ films, we developed a specific tool called Army Manager that allowed us to quickly and efficiently generate highly bespoke movements across an enormous range of characters — all derived from the motion of four actors. We are now looking at deploying more robust machine learning models to this approach utilizing a vast library of motions that spans decades. These ‘one-to-many’ tools that allow for scale without sacrificing artistic control will be an important part of new shooting methodologies that mandate fewer people.”

Similarly, with travel restrictions in place and crew sizes reduced, productions are seeking to utilize LED walls and virtual environments.

Manz says that LED walls were a concept first developed by Framestore for Alfonso Cuarón’s “ Gravity,” and can help negate the need for practical location shoots. LED walls are now commonly accepted as a means of production facilitating real-time compositing while bringing a location to a soundstage, and were most recently used in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Todd Phillips’ “Joker” and Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

He says, “Game render engine technology is being used to create environments that can enable multiple locations to be shot on the same stage, without the requirement for heavy set dressing and set up. Changing location can now be done by simply flicking a switch.”

Conley adds the technology behind LED walls are constantly being built upon as filmmakers expand their imagination to reconfigure films and TV shows. Most recently, the company combined aerial photography plates and CG elements for use on set while shooting key airplane exterior action shots.

Filmmakers are taking advantage of the new workflow, he says: “We don’t expect filmmakers to restrict their imaginations, it will be up to us to come up with new ways to execute them within new safety standards and travel restrictions.”

The trend for virtual workflows had already seen an uptick before the pandemic. If anything, COVID-19 has accelerated the exploration into the possibilities of what VFX houses can provide to studios and filmmakers to help with production and post-production strategies for this new era of a post-quarantine world.

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