How Virtual Production is Helping to Cut Costs and Reduce Carbon Footprint

Over the past two years, the pandemic has transformed the entertainment industry, forcing studios to rethink the way productions are planned. Smaller crews, budget constraints and COVID restrictions propelled virtual production to the forefront of the industry, allowing a crew to go back in time or into the future and travel anywhere on a project without ever leaving the studio. Virtual sets that replace traditional green screens can use 2D playback of photographic footage on LED walls, or 3D tracking that moves with the camera so the image changes like it would on a real set.

For instance, ILM’s cutting-edge StageCraft LED wall technology, which surrounds the actors with realistic scenes, was used for roughly half the scenes in “ The Mandalorian.” Disney also brought a StageCraft array with 700 LED panels to its new Infinity virtual production stage in Burbank, allowing Hilary Duff to stroll across a virtual Brooklyn Bridge in “How I Met Your Father.”

Not only are productions saving a significant amount of money, they are also reducing their carbon footprint. And it’s not only Disney and Marvel that benefit from virtual productions — the expansion has paved the way for independent features and smaller TV shows.

Virtual production producer Susan Zwerman, whose credits include “Black Panther” and “Black Widow,” is a former visual effects executive producer who moved into the virtual arena. “When COVID hit, I saw that virtual production was starting to take off because companies could not shoot on location,” says Zwerman, who aims to educate directors and producers on how accessible the technology is to all filmmakers.

As more scenes are being captured around the world for use in virtual environments, assets are becoming cheaper. Production director Chris Chaundler at commercial producer Quite Brilliant is a recent convert. “Our industry hasn’t got a good track record when it comes to its environmental responsibilities,” he says, “Huge crews are traveling all over the world with energy-intensive generators, equipment and large one-off-disposal sets. We’re good at communicating what the problem is but too often we are part of the problem.”

Chaundler also set out to conduct a study based on a hypothetical location shoot that showed how a virtual production shoot reduced carbon footprints and cut location costs.

Courtesy of ICON virtual

He’s not the only executive to see the merits of the new technology. FX’s “Snowfall,” now in its fifth season, is a limited budget cable series that adopted virtual production, and as a result saved up to $49,000 an episode by reducing transportation man-hours, shooting time and crew loads.

Virtual production supervisor AJ Wedding explains that he and the showrunners worked with L.A.-based Orbital Virtual Studios, shifting from location shoots to LED walls. “We were able to identify several areas of cost savings and work with them on the workflow changes so that they could achieve the looks they wanted without out-of-control location costs. In the end, the crew loved getting to stay on stage, and the directors and DPs were able to pick any time of day or weather conditions they wanted to see. It created an artistic playground,” he says.

FX’s “Snowfall” used virtual productions this season Courtesy of FX/AJ Wedding

Zwerman feels that many more will adopt the new process as they become familiar with it. “This starts with a broader understanding of virtual production and a larger training effort,” she says. ““It is important to share this knowledge and demystify virtual production so that we encourage more producers and filmmakers to embrace this technology. In a sense, we save our environment by shooting digital ones.”

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