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How virtual production is transforming storytelling and the creative process

12 July 2021

This article first appeared on Advertising Week written by our Group Chief Technology Officer, Anton Christodoulou.

The essence of brilliant storytelling through a visual medium is the ability to transport and immerse the audience in the moment, by painting a picture of a place, people and possibilities that invoke all your senses – the art of great storytelling forms the bedrock of our creative industry.

The power and accessibility of the tools available to support the creative process are improving exponentially. Visuals have evolved from black and white to colour; sound from mono to stereo, to fully immersive spatially aware surround sound; and special effects from practical to CGI, and now into a combination of both, merging realities – be they physical, virtual or augmented.

Brand storytelling with virtual production

Those of us working in brand storytelling has always looked to the film and TV industries for inspiration, even if we could not match their budgets. And this is where virtual production is such a game-changer – it enables us to deliver Hollywood quality storytelling without the blockbuster spend.

Advances in 3D content creation, real-time video game engines, camera tracking and LED screen technology, now provides a creative toolset that brands can use to quickly create visually rich, inspiring and engaging content and experiences. Put simply, virtual production allows us to seamlessly blend the physical and digital worlds in one shoot. This is beyond the green screen – what you see is what the director, the actors and the crew see during filming. Using video game technology, we can create any photoreal background, location, or scenery we want, whether it exists or not.

Real people can interact with these digitally-created worlds, and physical objects appear realistically within the virtual environment. Using camera tracking technology, the focus and perspective of the environment moves with you, as we’re filming. It makes the whole experience more stimulating and realistic for the actors and the audience while providing extreme flexibility at the moment, and therefore better results.

This introduces a new bar in high-quality production for brands in a more immediate, efficient and cost-effective way, because it removes the additional costs for transport, logistics, actors and props that are usually required when shooting live experiences and video ad campaigns.

You can make in-the-moment adjustments to the production, such as altering the time of day or weather, reshooting from any angle, or even turning a linear ad into an interactive experience. Real-world constraints can be bypassed so that it becomes feasible to create shots that would be impossible in the real world – you can literally change the angle of the sun if necessary.

Virtual production means more can be achieved in one place – not only can the backgrounds be changed and manipulated, but you can also reuse the same assets across different mediums such as AR, VR, online and print. Streamlining your asset pipeline will ultimately allow brands to break down the barriers between the technically complex requirements of product design and delivery, and the creative storytelling demands for marketing campaigns.

With so much possible in one space, the sets are greener. You don’t need to physically build as much, so there is less waste. It becomes an extremely carbon-friendly way of achieving complex, multi-location shoots. Six different global environments in one day? Transported to another galaxy? No problem.

Virtual production with Epic Games' Unreal Engine

At Imagination, we recently received an Epic MegaGrant from Epic Games. The support has enabled us to fully embrace ground-breaking virtual production techniques using Unreal Engine, and work with brands to create cinematic live, or as-live, content, indistinguishable from the real world. To test the limits of what is possible with this technology, we created a Hollywood-quality teaser featuring Triumph’s Trident 660 motorcycle, in a story featuring a female protagonist solving crime and delivering justice in a dystopian world.

We created a futuristic cyberpunk world reminiscent of the cinematic landscapes created by Ridley Scott and Zack Snyder. In the trailer, our protagonist Phoenix Jackson (played by July Jones) travels through this world, creating a sense of scale and spanning day-to-night.

The level of control and realism possible with virtual production is one of the key things that sets it apart – for instance, we used the reflective surfaces of the real sunglasses, motorcycle and puddles on the ground to bring the action and neon urban landscape to life. We also had real and digital versions of the bike, so we could use either, both, or multiple bikes, depending on how and where it was needed in the film. Watching the film, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and digital versions. And all this was achieved in a 5m x 5m studio space in central London with a crew of only 13 people.

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Click to watch our six minutes behind-the-scenes film

The advantages and capabilities this unlocks are particularly apposite, as recent events have restricted travel and seen some brands cut their marketing budgets while introducing remote and virtual working. Virtual production negates the need for multi-location shoots, allows you to continue shooting if a product doesn’t exist or is delayed, and there’s less risk of exposing sensitive information or embargoed products on location.

Innovative storytelling is the foundation of bringing brands to life and creating rich, multi-layered and engaging experiences. As content consumption soars the delivery of brand experiences across multiple channels is becoming increasingly complex. Virtual production can help bring brands to life by creating high-quality, cost-effective content and experiences that tell stories in the most compelling ways.