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Hollywood embraces new era of virtual actors and holodeck shoots

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 06/05/2021 Io Dodds
a man looking at the camera: Future of film illo © Provided by The Telegraph Future of film illo

It was Paul Walker's younger brothers who made it possible to reanimate him.

After the beloved co-star of the Fast and the Furious films died in a car crash in 2013, Caleb and Cody Walker submitted to high-definition face scans at the University of Southern California (USC), creating enough data to superimpose a seamless digital mask onto a lookalike actor in hundreds of finished shots.

"It looked amazing. You really couldn't tell the difference," says Kathleen Haase, special projects manager at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies who is credited as a producer on Maleficent, Logan and 2015's Point Break remake.

Partly funded by the US military, her lab has drawn Hollywood stars from Will Smith through Hugh Jackman to Angelina Jolie to mint their digital doubles. Post-Covid, though, inquiries from studios have spiked.

USC's digital facsimiles are just one example of the novel technologies and methods boosted by coronavirus that could transform the next few decades of film and television. Hollywood moved mountains to keep the show going under lockdown; it may never go back.

"There were a lot of trends in the industry that were [already] making progress as a consequence of technological breakthroughs," says Ben Grossmann, head of the Los Angeles visual effects studio Magnopus. "But Hollywood hadn't really been incentivised to fully commit to them yet – until the pandemic hit, and they had really no other choice."

"We were already encountering a demand for these things before the pandemic... these techniques were proven out of necessity, but will probably persist for matters of budget and logistics long after the pandemic has passed."

a close up of Paul Walker in a dark room: The late Paul Walker as agent Brian O'Conner in the ultimate chapter of the franchise built on speed 'Fast and Furious" - Jaimie Trueblood/ Film Stills © Provided by The Telegraph The late Paul Walker as agent Brian O'Conner in the ultimate chapter of the franchise built on speed 'Fast and Furious" - Jaimie Trueblood/ Film Stills

Cross-border collaboration

It is hard to say the same of the elaborate safety protocols – the bubbles, zones, PPE, home filming kits and more – enforced by leading film and TV unions, which have eaten up anything from 5pc to 15pc of costs depending on the type of picture.

While they may remain in place through 2021, few will miss them once they cease. Virtual meetings are another matter, and are likely to stick despite industry mystique.

"There used to be this mandatory dinner before productions started," says Henri Dragonas, an LA producer specialising in celebrity TV adverts. He says video calls are too efficient to ignore, though they may shift the balance of power between directors and petitioners for their time.

Kathryn Arnold, an entertainment consultant and expert witness, says some of TV's totemic "writer's rooms" will go virtual, allowing more cross-border collaboration.

Film sets too have been spread across time and space, with locations scouted in virtual reality (VR), cameras remotely controlled by directors, technicians adjusting computerised backgrounds on the fly and actors composited together from their separate homes. Handmaid's Tale star Elisabeth Moss was able to plot out her scenes from quarantine using a virtual recreation of the set. 

Dragonas predicts these methods will assuage the industry's endemic logistical conflicts, allowing jet-setting talent to align their schedules without being in the same country. They could also help companies like Netflix hit their climate targets.

'It's making movies like it's a multiplayer game'

The most profound change may come from "virtual production", which combines these tricks with the raw computing power now available to producers on tap. Grossmann, who supervised 2019's VR remake of the Lion King and 2016's half-real Jungle Book, describes how off-the-shelf video game engines such as Unity and Unreal (made by Fortnite creator Epic Games) can render CG characters and backgrounds visible to cast and crew at the moment of filming, rather than laboriously inserting them after months of post-production.

"It's making movies like it's a multiplayer game," says Grossmann. "During the pandemic, a film crew could operate film equipment from an adjacent stage, never having physical access to the actors who would be standing 'in front' of that film crew on another stage... what we're realising now is that your filmmakers and your actors and crew may be in other states or other countries."

a man holding an orange umbrella: George Clooney's recent The Midnight Sky was shot before LCD at Shepperton Studios in Surrey - Philippe Antonello © Provided by The Telegraph George Clooney's recent The Midnight Sky was shot before LCD at Shepperton Studios in Surrey - Philippe Antonello

For The Lion King, crew members donned VR headsets and built scenes together before running through takes ('Oh, no, let's have the tree view over here; that lion should be over here,'" says Hanse, describing the process). Other titles, notably Disney's fantastical Star Wars serial The Mandalorian have put actors in front of giant walls of LCD screens that appear realistic when filmed, creating what Grossmann likens to a Star Trek-style "holodeck".

The UK is well-placed to become a centre for such work: George Clooney's recent film The Midnight Sky was shot before LCD at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, while Epic Games is pouring resources into its London film unit.

These virtual backdrops could be discussed and changed on set just as actors and directors might revise script between takes, assisted by remote artists moving around "inside" the virtual background. Whereas the stars of 2015's Jurassic World had to act scared of tennis balls on sticks (dinosaurs pending), actors could simply see what they are supposed to be acting with.

Hollywood's 'tech vortex'

In the longer term, none of this may be necessary. USC's face-scanning facility is actually a by-product of its real goal: to wholly automate the creation of realistic "digital humans" with sufficient artificial intelligence (AI) to interact fluidly with real people. That would let tiny studios and video game makers do cheaply what currently takes dozens of artists.

"We talk about replacing actors with this technology," Haase says. "We almost don't need actors anymore. If you wanted to make a movie with all deceased people, you could do that... you're limited by your own imagination. You can literally create about anything in the computer, and the effects are increasingly going to be hard to discern."

That is precisely what many studios are now thinking about. Haase says the pandemic has pulled them into a "tech vortex", forcing them to think about unpredictable future shocks to their industry. One such shock could be the rise of film-like interactive experiences featuring AI-powered characters.

Naturally, Hollywood is keeping its eye on the money. "[Studios] are looking for new ways to generate content and monetise their intellectual property," says Haase. "It could involve the Marvel characters, or it could involve the Harry Potter characters. And it's not a movie; it's something new."

Read the first two parts of our series on the Future of Entertainment:

PART 1: Out of tune: How the pandemic has changed live music for good

PART 2: Rise of robot artists challenges what it means to be human

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