Hollywood Professional Association Tech Retreat shows that virtual production is real

Not to mention, easy and economic.

By Andy Marken

We figured this year’s HPA (Hollywood Professional Association) Tech Retreat would be “a little” slow after two years of people going to the set, getting sent home, and starting/stopping projects and work.

Personally, our biggest goal for this year has been to get out and reconnect with people. The only event we had that served as somewhat of a guide was CES in Las Vegas, which was great, but the Palm Springs HPA event still had a question mark.


This year’s HPA Tech Retreat was only slightly different from those in past years. People socially distanced themselves with masks on during sessions, but during the breaks, it was time to get together and discuss their work and options.

It has been a long time since you’ve seen executives so pleased to find out who missed what, who’s been promoted, and what has been going on outside their confines over the last two years, since the last face-to-face event.

In fact, the industry tech execs (studios, content owners, producers/directors, crew, distributors, and production tool/product developers) proved they hadn’t been sitting on their hands or simply filling the hours with Zoom calls. The industry has made significant progress over the last two years versus the two decades before—from the C.B. DeMille era to the George Lucas era. Improvements and advancements have emerged that make both forms of content creation/production—virtual and on-set—better, faster, and maybe just a little easier for the entire production team.

More importantly, the executives in attendance openly wanted to share their insights and information, and learn what others had done in the past couple of years to make content production faster, easier, better, and more economic.

During the presentations and panel sessions, people kept their computers ready to take notes and gather as much information as possible on how to improve their workflow.

In addition to a packed agenda of in-depth presentations and panel sessions, conference management conducted a daylong supersession to demonstrate, discuss, and work with the latest virtual production (VP) technologies. From the moments the doors opened until they closed in the evening, attendees got to experience VP from concept through post in a wide range of production environments including multiple LED walls, cameras, and the latest versions of game engines.

The new LED video walls were hot topics for everyone who attended HPA because they help reduce project costs, dramatically, and enable producers and crews to create even better content more quickly.

In fact, attendees were able to see various LED video wall technologies up close during the supersession and the following exhibitor sessions. LED video walls aren’t exactly new: Disney and ILM showed us their potential with their initial production of The Mandalorian.

Disney and ILM were one of the first teams to use today’s new virtual production LED video wall sets, which they did for The Mandalorian. They found that the video walls helped everyone on the project, including the actors, who could see their environment, rather than simply pretend what it might look like.

Since then, other manufacturers have developed LED video wall technology solutions, making them widely available for production operations and new studios. Thanks to newer, lower cost video wall technologies, new studio outlets and production stage owners have been launching virtual production stages equipped with the LED screen backdrop, quickly replacing older greenscreens and enabling technicians to create a virtual set in real time.

One of the first things directors and project owners found is that the new technology enabled them to minimize the expenses and challenges of shooting in a variety of locations because they could be duplicated with the virtual screen technology. For example, the only “remote” shoots The Mandalorian crew had to conduct were the use of drone cameras to capture details of Arizona’s Monument Valley.

Streaming services, studios, and networks are now producing content around the globe, benefitting local creatives and the rapidly expanding studio/soundstage leasing businesses.

Because of the ability to reduce travel time/costs and deliver a better project in a shorter amount of time, studio owners around the globe have been building new, better facilities. New video production facilities have been popping up in Montreal, Toronto, Atlanta, New York City, London, Berlin, Kenya, Melbourne, Wellington, Singapore, and other major cities around the globe. Even before the facilities are completed, organizations like Netflix, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, BBC, and other content producers are signing long-term leases. Why? Because shooting around the globe is both expensive and increasingly uncertain.

“Multiple location shoots certainly aren’t completely gone,” said Allan McLennan, CEP/Media, Head of M&E Americas, Atos. “But new technologies can help reduce your key budgets—time/money—and provide virtual locations to you, rather than traveling and incurring increased budgets. “In addition, with LED walled stages, directors can manipulate the project’s surroundings and backgrounds, and then decide which creative solution they want.”

However, the full scope of virtual production is more than the wall.

Perhaps the real key to the future of VP is the use of game engines, like those from Epic Games and Unity. The game engines are an integral part of every VP facility, especially the London-based Foundry, and has become the go-to production tool for all the leading studios and post-production houses. To help us understand the power of the technology even more, McLennan pointed to the YouTube segment of Epic’s video series The Pulse, which explains Epic’s view of tomorrow’s real-time TV/filmmaking and virtual production. Executives at HPA’s Supersession did an excellent job of giving attendees overviews of the potential, but you’ll probably want to spend more time at https://tinyurl.com/y2nysc4z and other segments of The Pulse.

Think about it… filmmakers creating and shooting in virtual sets in real time!

Tomorrow’s lookin’ good

While we really hate to admit it, the past two years of steady content flow proved that VP also includes a strong dose of cloud production and storage. Almost every organization that supported this year’s HPA had a cloud-based solution, including Adobe, AWS, Arch, Ateliere, BeBop, Convergent, Deluxe Media, IBM, Azure, Rackspace, Dolby Labs, EditShare, Eluvio, Equinix, FPT Software, ICVR, Iyuno-SDI Group, Microsoft, Nagra, Atos, Perforce Software, CloudShift, Signiant, Sohonet, Sony, Teradici, Testronic, Veritone, Vubiquity, Wasabi, and others.

The cameras, lenses, transmission, monitoring, LUTs, shading/live color timing, and other solutions were an integral part of the supersessions. In other words, the cloud has become indispensable to content creation teams.

Trust us, cloud production and storage are more complex than shown in the graphic above—a lot more complex. But it gives you an idea, if you think about it a little, of all the places where things can go wrong.

One of the first benefits producers found is that they weren’t limited to editors, special effects, audio, and other creatives who were local. Instead, they could almost instantly work with the best talent on the planet.

McLennan emphasized, “Producers, executives, and team members are all finding they can be just as responsive, productive, and responsible than if they’re in the same office or even the same time zone. They can check, modify, adjust, readjust, and work in real time more efficiently and, in many ways, more effectively, than before.”

The major concern everyone in the content development, production, and distribution field has been security, accessibility, and transmission bandwidth because they accumulate a lot of valuable content they may need later.

Original and insurance files are still secured using on-prem physical storage, but creative teams have been able to finish projects by moving content directly from the camera to the cloud and almost instantly make it available to authorized specialists to work on at their workstations or remotely in the cloud.

Moreover, better cameras and sensors provide very high in-camera data rates and allow very low on-set acquisition. Reusable high-speed media made it fast and easy to simply keep cameras rolling to capture everything… just in case. And all that content, from beginning to end, is used by just about everyone on the production team who needs to ensure content quality and that the finished work meets everyone’s creative standards.

It doesn’t sound too tough until you realize that digital content builds up quickly when you’re shooting in 4K or 8K UHD (ultra-high def), HFR (high frame rate), WCG (wide color gamut), HDR (high dynamic range), and just about every acronym you can think of.

It’s a lot of data, and it all must be saved/preserved, just in case, including:

  • Original Media exactly as shot
  • Protection Clone (never to be touched)
  • Worker Copy (files renamed, organized)
  • Protection Copy of Worker
  • Studio Copy of Worker
  • 3rd Clone of Worker for safety
  • Output of project
  • Clone and 2nd Protection
  • Archive

That’s a big bunch of data!

 “Storing and moving content to and through the cloud has been a major initiative for the industry in recent years. The global lockdown placed extra pressure on studios and production teams to make it an integral part of their project’s workflow,” said McLennan. “There are still some of issues to be worked out, but we’ve been able to keep the work flowing. The combination of videoconferencing and the sharing of screens to make more informed decisions on what-if and alternative approaches have resulted in more efficient, effective, and secure solutions than the industry’s past physical storage/exchange approach.”

The transmission bandwidth is the biggest challenge production teams deal with in moving around terabytes of creative data. While you may have heard that now since we have 5G connectivity everywhere, sending big data files across the country or halfway around the globe is fast, simple, and reliable because we now have the bandwidth.

It’s not true, and it will be years before 5G will be everywhere and reliable! For this reason, most post work is done with proxy files (low-res copies of the originals), which can be easier to work with on a facility’s on-prem system as well as in the cloud.

Despite the periodic hiccups, remote workflow is here to stay. The trend started well before the pandemic. The pandemic simply accelerated the trend and enabled the industry to use it in all aspects of the film/show life cycle… even work that was being done in the same city has shifted to remote.

The industry has always been decentralized and was already moving to fully digital production, so this was treated as just another step in providing a newer, better, and faster way to efficiently deliver quality content.

HPA attendees had to make some tough decisions this year—Milk Duds or popcorn. In addition, the Palm Springs event was an excellent opportunity to discuss new product/project requirements without a lot of people bothering you. (Source: HPA)

The 2022 HPA Tech Retreat Supersession just added more credibility to the fact that virtual production will be used by everyone in the industry, regardless of the budget… very soon.

And yes, NAB is just around the corner, and we’re looking forward to it!

Andy Marken—[email protected]—is an author of more than 700 articles on management, marketing, communications, industry trends in media & entertainment, consumer electronics, software and applications. Internationally recognized marketing/communications consultant with a broad range of technical and industry expertise especially in storage, storage management and film/video production fields. Extended range of relationships with business, industry trade press, online media and industry analysts/consultants.

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