“Virtual production”: the term is as widely used as it is poorly understood. In the past decade, as this technique — or, rather, set of techniques — has gained currency in filmmaking and vfx, people who use it have been at pains to explain what it is. But nobody has done as thorough a job as Epic Games, which gives a comprehensive overview of the subject in its brand-new Virtual Production Field Guide.

The 98-page document, which Epic has made available to download as a free PDF, is addressed to industry people, but it’s accessible to anyone with a basic understanding of the filmmaking process. It presents virtual production as an array of tools based around computer technologies, chief among them real-time rendering, which help filmmakers to visualize, shape, and adjust synthetic elements in their film relatively early on in production. Most recent blockbusters have employed it in some form, from The Lion King to Avengers: Endgame. Prior to the PDF and for a more concise introduction to the subject, check out Cartoon Brew’s explainer.

Essentially, the Field Guide makes the case that virtual production boosts the filmmakers’ creative agency, while also saving them time and money. The document runs through all its varieties, including different kinds of visualization, performance and motion capture, and an application of in-camera LED walls so cutting-edge that Epic can’t even mention the projects on which it’s being used. “Virtual production is poised to be one of the biggest technology disruptors of the visual medium,” it concludes.

Chapters are dedicated to the ways in which virtual production can aid specific filmmaking roles, such as editors or stunt coordinators. Industry figures, including director Kenneth Branagh and vfx supervisor Ben Grossmann, explain in interviews how they use these techniques in their own work. And while virtual production is chiefly associated with animated or effects-laden blockbusters, the Field Guide notes that they can benefit a broad range of productions including tv series, sports broadcasts, musicals like Bohemian Rhapsody, and small-scale indie productions.

Epic isn’t doing all this out of altruism. The company makes no secret of the fact that it is the developer behind Unreal, one of the two major real-time game engines (the other being Unity, which isn’t mentioned in the document). Rapid improvement in this technology is what’s driving the boom in virtual production, and you can expect to hear a lot more about it if you’re attending SIGGRAPH next week. Unreal’s website features a wealth of resources on the subject; Unity’s website also explains how its engine can be used to make films.

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