Filmism.net Dispatch June 12, 2022

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First things first, an update to a recent Filmism.net Dispatch in which I ruminated on the new entertainment business climate where studios are engineering as many content channels as they can, many more than they used to get just from theatres followed by home video and then broadcast on TV.

As I said at the time when discussing the 'public demand' for Warner Bros to release the Snyder cut of Justice League ; 'The line between a heartfelt, grassroots movement by fans and armies of fake tweetbots unleashed by the studio calling for the #Snydercut is probably lost to history...'

I smelled a bit of a marketing conspiracy behind all that social media chatter about releasing the Snyder Cut, and it seems I've been partly vindicated.

But to today's business. Because so many big movies employ them so routinely, you might think green screens are one of the most entrenched, immutable movie technologies there's ever been, destined to stay around for a long time yet.

But what if green screens are our era's DVD, destined to make a huge impact quickly, burn hot and bright and then be relegated to history just as quickly?

Since Jurassic Park there's been a generation of screen actors for whom the ability to emote against a stagehand holding a long stick with a ping pong ball on it is an essential skill.

A little over 20 years ago Liam Neeson complained so bitterly about it he overshot a little, telling the press he was retiring from acting after the experience of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

But since then, anyone who's ever appeared in a Star Wars, Marvel, Harry Potter or any other movie released during the US holiday seasons has drawn deep on their personal experience to convey a tornado of emotion directly to a 43-year-old gaffer named Chad from Pasadena, wearing a Chicago Bulls T shirt and showing an inch of butt crack while holding some visual marker for where the monster/dinosaur/robot/alien will be animated in later.

Being able to react to something that's not there is as critical today as landing on your mark, and green screens are as common on movie sets (both on sound stages and exteriors) as video village and the catering table.

But inasmuch as post-produced CGI can be said to have been mainstream now for 30 years (and has thus actually tripled DVD's true commercial lifespan), you might not know its death knell has already been rung.

Several very high profile projects (mostly on TV where the economic investment to prototype new production methods isn't as steep as in feature films) are using virtual production. If you haven't heard of it already, you soon will.

It's a production method where anything from traditionally animated CGI to game engines are used to create backgrounds, environments and even characters and they're being projected/displayed to the actors right there on set.

A game engine is the underlying framework of a world you want to create. As the name suggests it came from the world of gaming. Designers and programmers create the aesthetic and behaviour of the world they want in their game and apply it to the substrate of a featureless 3D space (although the practise is a lot more complicated than that).

The 3D space takes on the characteristics of your designed environment and gives your characters (themselves designed elements with their own rules of behaviour and looks) somewhere to exist and interact in. As the game player you then control where they go and what they do with a controller according to the in-game story.

But in a movie, you don't have to build the entire world your characters will live and act in. Unlike in a game, the audience isn't controlling the character and sending him/her/it where they want to go.

You only have to build the environment that's going to appear in your 16:9 or 4:3 frame because you know where the characters are going to go according to your script. And you can still use a game engine to do it.

In fact it's increasingly the case that as a producer you'd be nuts to do it any other way, because your CGI blockbuster will still need environments and their behaviours to be built digitally anyway, and the likes of Unity and Unreal (game engine publishers) have done the 'substrate preparation' for you.

Pay for all that development and programming and you're just reinventing the wheel.

Now, the above isn't a completely new thing. It's being done in VFX providers all over the world, backdrops and environments designed and delivered to the production while principal photography is done with the actors on the location or sound stage, dots all over their faces for motion capture or Chad from Pasadena holding a tennis ball with a red 'x' in the air.

What's changed is that now, the set can be surrounded by giant LCD screens that display the world they're living in to the actors directly. The primeval forest, endless sweep of space, deep blue of the undersea world or castle keep reaching towards the sky are right there in front of them, just like they appear to us.

Chris Nolan did his share of pioneering the practice in Interstellar when he had screens set up outside the windows of the Endurance set so the actors inside could see the visual effects of space, wormholes and black holes just like the audience could.

In Solo: A Star Wars Story, the scene of Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his cohorts taking the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace was done by having the Falcon cockpit set raised about two storeys off the ground on a huge gimbal to simulate movement, a huge LCD screen in front of the actors displaying the hyperspace tunnel effect we all know and love from Star Wars lore.

Put all that together and you have The Mandalorian. Both series of the Disney+ juggernaut were filmed in a sound stage in downtown LA with rudimentary sets and props for the actors to directly interact with.

But the production never left for exteriors in exotic ports of call like other films and shows do. The four walls and sometimes even the ceiling were covered with screens, the environments built in game engines and projected right there for the actors to do their thing against.

It isn't quite at the stage where Chad from Pasadena won't be needed at all. Backgrounds projected for the actors on set are just that; the locales they're in at the time.

They can't pick up an object or talk to another character without the X's on a stick method.

But here's where virtual production will move into the future. Put the entire workflow described above into VR (and develop a system where actors can see in VR without bulky Oculus headsets) and they can move around in and interact directly with entirely digital environs. Scale that up to all the 4K and HD standards and it'll soon be indistinguishable from reality.

The director then needs only to select the best position and angle for his/her virtual camera and record the action, and the digital eggheads render out the whole scene for broadcast or projection.

Your scene is complete without you building a single set and potentially without having to build anything else in the real world either.

Hollywood isn't there yet, and even though The Mandalorian was an effective proof of concept, it won't catch on until it becomes cheaper than draping huge green curtains everywhere with markers and eyelines painted all over them and then outsourcing all the background visuals to a VFX vendor in Vancouver, London or Mumbai.

But as much as we loved $50 cases filled with a spool of magnetic videotape on a cultural level, the future of $2 platters of plastic that contained the same information was assured.

When the computer could paint a convincing tornado, exploding planet, collapsing building or pair of armies crashing together on a battlefield, it meant the days were numbered for the upside-down emptying bath effect, superimposed miniature or throngs of extras.

Green screens are everywhere, but they might be gone quicker than you think.

On screens now and recently, I can never quite understand how Adam McKay's films generate such negative comment. Some critics really took against Don't Look Up, and sure it might have been a little bit freewheeling, but it had something to say, said it, and said it entertainingly and funnily.

Aussie director Justin Kerzel looked at the Port Arthur Massacre (or at least, the culture that led to it) in Nitram. American actor Caleb Landry Jones is transformative as the anti-hero, and I haven’t liked all Kerzel's films, but his talent is undeniable in every movie.

Also good was Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore's latest documentary about how broken the American body politic is. Audiences everywhere seemed to really cool on Moore but I you always liked what he does, he doesn’t disappoint here.

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