The Case For Virtual Sets
By Julia Leescu
What do news anchors, TV show cooks, secret agents, weather news reporters and Roman emperors all have in common? Their screen reality is created with the help of virtual film reality!
What seems 100% real is a beautifully, masterfully created illusion.
Whether it is behind an always changing studio background, residence of Count Dracula or burning Rome, modern digital technology helps the filmmaker to create spectacular movie sets for a fraction of real cost of location.
The way this magic works is by using a green, blue or even black screen during the shoot and later replacing it with selected visuals involving a process called keying. The technology behind the process is called “creating a virtual set”.
“Virtual set” actually has two meanings in the film world: one “virtual set” technology is used for TV and another is used for film productions. The difference between the two lays in whether the keying process mentioned above happens in real-time or way after the first filming during a more complicated process of image compositing.
Let’s take the first type: TV and web producers use virtual set technologies in a way that allows them to broadcast their video with an already replaced background.
Real-time video switchers like Tricaster in conjunction with dedicated software like Virtual Set Editor, allow us to put our anchor in any situation conceivable: a minimalistic studio set or in front of that erupting Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name.
You can use your own created setting for that purpose or choose from the bunch of pre-created background visuals, because yes – there are architects, designers and other artists who daily create literally thousands of backgrounds for this purpose.
Because of its real-time component, broadcast keying possibilities are not entirely limitless today: They can produce background replacement in a controlled environment with prepared lighting such as a TV studio. Their convincing application is not as dramatic as film effects.
Next time when you’re watching that nice CNN anchor woman or that witty FOX News weatherman, realize that they are dancing around some dull green-colored panels while dedicated software creates the reality that they are talking about.
Virtual sets used in film industry work differently. All artists that take part in a virtual set creation for a movie completely and extensively understand the language of film and the power of each frame they are creating. All their efforts will be focused on finding the best visual representation – the most effective “virtual set” that the story needs.
There are wonderful and very elaborated virtual set designs that seamlessly recreate anything that director or producer can think of. Those virtual sets support the illusion of fictional world even when camera makes complicated movements: crane shots, dolly slides, traveling shots and so on.
What virtual sets can do to films is pure magic. I love using “Sin City” as an example because it is probably the first film that was shot on green screen from start to finish. The creators of this haunting neo-noir had the guts to shoot all scenes using virtual set technology.
How can one profit from virtual sets?
Here are some good practical examples that I’ve witnessed:
1. First of all, virtual set technology saves money and time.
All the hard work of set builders, set designers, electricians and painters can now be replaced just by intelligent technology and a couple of people operating the process.
The days of big studio pavilions and built film sets might as well become a history one day. Just think about spending lion’s share of your movie budget on something meaningful!
Apart from that, being able to reset the camera faster after each shot will allow you to film much more in one day, which effectively creates budget economy on the film set. Expert producers are relegating to CGI and virtual set technology everything that is not essential to their story, thus creating a sort of second camera team for portions of the screen that don’t need élite treatment.
2) If you run a TV show, virtual sets always help you to give that “dynamic” feeling to the interviews and other on-screen activities.
What is more boring than someone speaking on a dull static background? Our optic nerves are yelling at the show creators: do something! Don’t let them just sit there! And yes, sometimes the producers do turn to virtual set technology.
What if you produce a cooking show episode with the melting ice cream background, or a weather report with Antarctic penguins dancing behind your weatherman’s back? Virtual set technology will help you to do that so your audience will never ever use their remote controls while your show goes on.
If done right, virtual set will convey a sense of big production value to the audience and will always add layers of visual sophistication to the final result.
3) Giving more freedom to producers and crew.
Who does not love freedom? Film and TV crew professionals nowadays hardly stay or work at one place. Since majority of pre-production and post-production film tasks are now done by international media professionals remotely, why can’t the same be done to production?
This year virtual set technology allowed me to remotely run a web show half a planet away, on a 3-cameras set up with green screen. To make it happen, a careful lighting set-up was involved and all TV hosts’ movements were rehearsed several times. We’ve also agreed about special timings when the show hosts would speak, so I could remotely adjust the background according to the subjects discussed on screen.
Being in different hemispheres, we’ve managed to record the presenters’ performances online with the help of Tricaster hardware and a software for remote operations.
My conclusion? The new level of freedom given by virtual technology allows you to work with any host and any producer, without being limited only to a pool of local talent.
If all the bullet points above make you pondering about creating your next movie or TV episode with the help of virtual sets, it can indeed be a great idea. However, please keep in mind the following:
– In some cases no virtual set can replace the natural beauty and ambiance of certain locations. So yes, your crew will still have to carry all equipment up that 3000 meters high mountain and your cameraman will still have to sweat in the middle of Dubai desert during that camel race.
– There were film scenes shot with virtual set technology that had to be cut out because of imperfect conditions that were used when they were recorded. When you work with virtual technology, make sure you have tested the setup before. Accurate keying is vital for good integration into a virtual set.