How to get started with virtual production (2024 guide)

Ever tried to magically make a character pop into a fantastical world? 

It’s kinda like yanking a rabbit from a hat, except in our scenario, it’s a silverfish. 

Picture this: a magician, wand twirling, and voila! A silverfish instead of a rabbit.

A silverfish? Now that’s a plot twist even Houdini wouldn’t see coming.
GIF Source: Giphy

Not your typical magic show, right? 😉 

In the movie biz, the real sorcerers are filmmakers, just like you. 

You folks whip up incredible illusions that leave viewers scratching their heads in wonder. One of the coolest tricks in the book? Placing a character in an environment that doesn’t exist in the real world.  

But how’s it done?

Green screens used to be the go-to method.

However, there’s a new kid on the block that’s shaking up the film industry. 

Enter virtual production. 

Here’s what it is and why it’s such a game-changer.

Table of contents

What is virtual production?

Ever seen those jaw-dropping cinematic scenes in live-action films, where the hero is scaling an Everest-like peak and simultaneously firing arrows at the baddies? Bet you’ve wondered how they pull that off, right?

Well, spoiler alert, the actors aren’t actually hanging off a mountain (too risky!). The secret? 

Green screens.

These nifty tools are the unsung heroes of videography. They allow video editors to weave in visual effects (like our mountain) during post-production. All the magic happens behind the scenes.

The process is a meticulous labor of love. Editors painstakingly tweak the green backdrop, frame by frame, carefully inserting the visual effect so it doesn’t clash with the actor.

Yes, it’s a heap of work, and it’s all in the details. But the results? Pure cinematic gold.

She’s beauty, and she’s grace…
GIF Source: Giphy

With virtual production, LED screens display visual effects like towering mountains in real time. So, while you’re filming, it genuinely feels like you’ve got an actual mountain right there on set. Wild, huh?

Virtual production is a clever blend of different tech wonders. 

You’re probably already familiar with two of these filmmaking techniques: augmented reality (AR) and computer-generated imagery (CGI). 

These are the power tools editors wield to create virtual sets and environments on location in film production.

Let’s be real. Building sets from the ground up? That’s a slow grind. And jetting off to far-flung locations for shoots? Stressful. Not to mention, it can make your budget weep.

Sure, hitting the road with the crew and immersing yourself in new cultures can be a blast. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of time and budget management, it’s a whole different story.

Once shooting wraps up, you’re still left with a heap of editing in post-production. Just for those headaches alone, it’s worth exploring other options.

And that’s where the magic of virtual production steps into the spotlight.

Imagine crafting virtual sets using gigantic LED screens and the 3D Unreal Engine, a real-time 3D creation tool used in video games. 

Plus, forget about adding visual effects post-production. Now, you can bring them to life in pre-production, tweaking them as many times as you need. 👌

So, what are the perks of virtual cinematography? You get to 

  • Make on-the-spot adjustments while filming.
  • Have more control over your lighting setup.
  • Cut costs on set building and prop shopping.

But wait, there’s more! 

Get ready to become hooked on virtual production by seeing how it actually works.

Behind the curtains of virtual production 

There are two technological wizards pulling the strings in virtual production.

First up, we have the Unreal Engine. The Engine is mostly used in video games. Virtual production helps developers craft ultra-realistic environments and finesse game mechanics.

But the magic doesn’t stop there. The Unreal Engine also steps up the game with immersive capturing and superior perspectives. How? By syncing those cameras with the Unreal Engine.

For instance, take a look at Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. The environments are mind-blowingly realistic.

Then there’s Fortnite. Sure, it may not boast the sculpted backgrounds of Hellblade, but it nails the game’s vibe. Plus, it’s a perfect showcase of the Unreal Engine’s power.

Finally, we have StageCraft. This on-set virtual production technology was first spotted in action in The Mandalorian. It’s a godsend for filmmakers, letting them visualize shots within a CGI realm like never before.

You’ve probably seen StageCraft flexing its muscles in other productions too. Remember Game of Thrones? The producers used it to scout out virtual scenes in the early stages of production. 

And who could forget Avengers: Endgame? Yep, StageCraft was behind the scenes there too.

Both these technologies are miracles when it comes to giving you creative control over the production process. 

You can whip up realistic virtual sets for each scene, then project them onto LED screens set up behind the physical set. This covers everything from dialing in the perfect camera angles to managing visual effects and lighting.

And then, action! It’s time for cameras to roll. 📽️

A typical virtual production workflow goes like this:

  • First stop: the development stage. This is where the magic of a story idea takes root and gets the thumbs-up from stakeholders.
  • Next, is the bustling pre-production stage. This is where the real grunt work happens. You’ve got the virtual art department (VAD) and VFX vendor on the case, designing virtual sets, props, and characters for the film.
  • Then, it’s lights, camera, action in the production phase. Here, the film starts to come alive as the virtual assets whipped up by the VAD are beamed onto the LED walls.
  • The post-production phase happens after most of the heavy lifting is done. Here, you’re polishing and piecing together scenes to carve out that final, dazzling cut.

Virtual production is already turning heads in the filmmaking industry. And we could wax lyrical about the benefits it brings to the table. 

But every golden child has its quirks, right?

Let’s dig into the pros and cons of virtual production, so you know exactly what you’re signing up for.

5 perks of virtual production

One thing’s clear: Virtual production spares you the headache of building physical sets from scratch. Instead, you get to build hyper-realistic virtual environments. .

But wait, there’s more. 

Let’s dive into some other sweet, sweet advantages of virtual production:

Environmental control

Ever wished you could play Mother Nature and control the weather? Or time? Or even natural lighting?

Well, with virtual production, you can do just that! No more fretting over unpredictable on-site shooting conditions. In a virtual set, crews can flip scenes, adjust the time of day, or change the weather with a few clicks.

Creating virtual environments also means waving goodbye to physical props and sets. This doesn’t just save on resources; it also slashes pollution and waste. Look at you, going all green and eco-friendly! ♻️

And the cherry on top? No need to scale real mountains for that epic shot. You can stay snug in your chair, sipping your coffee and occasionally throwing out a dramatic ‘Action!’ 

Truly boundless creativity

Kick things off in pre-production. Getting a head start lets you dive deep into a sea of ideas, leading to even more stunning sets, shots, and visual effects.

And all this before the cameras even start rolling!

Immersive environments

Imagine virtual environments projected onto LED walls, creating a fully immersive 360-degree world. Directors and actors can see it all around them, making it a breeze to visualize the final shot. No more guessing games!

This not only cuts down time on set but also helps dodge those pesky reshoots. Plus, it’s a win for actors. They get to interact with virtual scenery, characters, and props they can actually see, leading to stellar performances.

Quick transitions on sets

Say goodbye to downtime. With virtual production, the crew can flip from one scene to the next in a snap. No more tearing down physical sets and building new ones.

You can film a variety of scenes in a short span of time within the virtual environment. Just switch up the scenes on the LED wall, and you’re ready to roll.

Cut costs and ditch location headaches

Virtual production is a serious money-saver. No need to jet off to pricey, far-flung location shoots. You can pull off the whole shebang from one spot, slashing production costs big time.

The flip side of virtual production

While it’s got plenty of perks, virtual production does come with a few hitches. Here’s a peek at some of the challenges you might face:

  • The skill factor: You’re going to need a crew who know their way around motion capture or virtual reality (VR). Finding folks with the right skills and know-how isn’t always a walk in the park. And gearing up a team with the necessary expertise? That’s going to take time and resources.
  • The unconventional workflow: For filmmakers accustomed to traditional production techniques, the switch to virtual production might be a bit of a culture shock. Adjusting to the new workflow could be a tough nut to crack for some.
  • The cash and complexity conundrum: Virtual production means investing in cutting-edge tech and hiring skilled pros. For small production houses or indie filmmakers, this could be a tough mountain to climb.

But hey, it’s not all cloudy skies. More often than not, the perks of virtual production totally outshine the hiccups.

All you’ve got to do is tackle these little bumps in the road. Once you do, you’ll be creating films that are nothing short of spectacular. Films so good, they’d even have old Ebenezer Scrooge on the edge of his seat.

So, it’s settled: virtual production could completely flip the script on your filmmaking process.

But what exactly do you need to jump into this brave new world of production?

Let’s dive into that in the next section!

Setting the stage for a virtual production studio

So, what’s the secret recipe for setting up a killer virtual production studio? Is it all about the spice, a.k.a. a mix of high-tech tools and software? 

Well, partly. But you’ve also gotta bring the nice — the talents of top-notch pros.

Get the balance just right, and you’ve got a cocktail that’ll whip up some truly eye-popping visuals. 🤯

So, what’s on the shopping list?

  • Real-time 3D game engines: These are the magic wands that bring epic games and photorealistic sets to life. Use them to project characters onto LED walls in virtual production. A shining example? The industry-standard game engine, Unreal Engine 5.
  • LED walls: These are a video editor’s blank canvas. Built from LED panels and powered by a graphics card, they’re ready for editors to wield their virtual paintbrush and bring the virtual set to life right on the screen.

Oh, and by the way, they go by another name too: LED volume.

  • Virtual reality headsets: You’ve  seen these funky gadgets before. They might look a bit out-there, but they’re key for tracking camera movements in relation to the LED wall. Plus, they’re ace for virtual scouting in the digital realm.
  • 3D capture and animation tools: Picture games like The Last of Us. The characters are uncannily realistic, complete with human-like emotions and natural movements. With these tools, developers and editors can craft 3D models using laser scans, then sprinkle on visual effects like reflections and particles.
  • Graphics processing units (GPU): This specialized processor is all about speeding up graphical rendering. The better the GPU in your computer, the more detailed the display when you’re projecting onto LED walls.
  • Virtual cameras, lenses, and rigs: The meat and potatoes of any virtual production. The in-camera tech includes camera-tracking technology for capturing shots. With rigs, you can pimp out your camera with all sorts of accessories.
  • Capture card: You’re probably familiar with the concept of streaming (and no, we’re not talking Twitch here). This nifty device streams live camera footage to a computer, which can then be sent to the game engines.

Don’t forget, you’ll also need a few other virtual production tools, like personal computers, iPhones, and iPads.

But remember, gear is just gear. Like a recipe without a cook, it’s not much more than a collection of stuff. You need the magic makers, the kitchen wizards who bring it all to life — think the head chef, the sous-chef, and the whole culinary crew.

So, who are the maestros who make the magic of virtual production happen? Let’s meet the team:

  • Producers: The ringmasters of the project, they need to be well-versed in the ways of virtual production. They keep the show running smoothly from start to finish.
  • Directors: They’re the ones calling the shots, literally. They oversee everything from angles and virtual set designs to the cast and more.
  • Director of photography (DP): They’re the eyes of the operation, controlling how scenes are captured during production.
  • Virtual art department (VAD): These are the architects of the virtual worlds, optimizing them for real-time rendering.
  • Virtual production supervisor: The team’s coach, making sure everyone’s on the same page and knows what’s up.
  • Video editor: The story’s curator, choosing the best shots to tell the tale and rearranging clips as needed.
  • Production designer: The visionary of the set, deciding what goes in the foreground and what gets rendered on the LED wall.
  • Virtual production operator: The quality controller, ensuring the virtual scene is spot on.
  • Virtual imaging technician: The gear guru, making sure all your hardware is in tip-top shape.

So, you’ve got your gear and a crack team ready to roll. Now, all that’s left is to wave your magic wand and dive right in.

But before we jump in, let’s zoom in for a closer look at how the virtual production pipeline actually unfolds.

Cooking up a virtual production

Just like any master chef preps their ingredients before getting down to business, you’ll need to have your key components ready to roll. 

Things like your 3D engine, LED walls, camera tracker — you get the idea. Make sure everything’s set up and good to go before the cameras start rolling.

Now that we’re prepped, let’s walk through the steps of the virtual production process:

Step 1: Pre-production planning 

This is where you sketch out the blueprint of your film: the story, vision, virtual scenes, characters, and all the bells and whistles. 

Next, it’s time to huddle with the production team to see if your vision can take flight.

Step 2: Visual asset creation 

Once everyone’s on board with your ideas, it’s time for your virtual art department to start painting the world in the game engine. 

They’ll need to make sure the scenes sync up with the overall story and the aesthetic you’re aiming for.

Step 3: Performance capture




Now, the real fun begins. You’re rendering the virtual environment on some serious computing power, all while keeping track of camera movements and syncing them up with the scene.

Next, position your actors in front of the LED panels. This ensures the camera captures them against the virtual scene backdrop.

And just like that, it’s as if the actor has been whisked into the virtual world. Pretty neat, right?

Step 4: Post-production and finishing touches 

This is where you put the cherry on top.

You’re fine-tuning the clips with color grading, compositing, and other tweaks to amp up the overall look of the scenes. 

It’s all about creating that final, flawless cut. 🤌 


And there you have it, you future Spielberg, you – a crash course in virtual production!

Armed with this knowledge, you’re all set to dazzle your audience like the esteemed filmmaker you are.

But wait, don’t dash off just yet! We’ve got one more ace up our sleeve for you — a nifty trick that’ll make your virtual production journey even smoother.

Streamline your virtual production workflow

Oh, wait! We left out a pretty sweet perk of virtual production. It’s all about how it opens up a world of talent, letting filmmakers hire masters regardless of their location.

Not everyone needs to be on set when the cameras roll. With this production technique, you can have team members collaborating from just about anywhere.

So, how can you ensure a smooth sailing collaboration between you and your crew?

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