The last decade of filmmaking has seen a digital revolution greater than what many had forseen. Advances in digital filmmaking technology have managed to override the past century of film history by turning entire processes of filmmaking digital. One of the biggest areas that digital filmmaking has influenced are visual effects (VFX). The past decade of digital technology has illustrated what we might expect for the future of VFX.
1 – Pre-visualisation
Over the last ten years, the VFX industry and its technicians have developed and launched a whole range of digital tools which increasingly play a central role in all stages of filmmaking. It’s become commonplace for directors and their crews to ‘pre-visualise’ scenes before they’re actually shot. To do this, crews use post-production before a shoot’s been completed to see how the film will look once it’s gone through its final process. The growing use of digital cameras on sets, almost 90% in 2015, allow ‘pre-visualisation’ to take place on a set itself. During production of Avatar, director James Cameron mixed live-action footage with computer-generated effects directly on set in order to give the crew a sense of how the final scene would appear.
2 – Motion capture
Actor and motion-capture savant Andy Serkis, who has graced screens in several motion capture roles, describes motion capture simply as digital makeup and a way to elevate an actor’s performance. Motion capture technicians track the facial and body expressions and movements of skilled actors in order to then generate characters in post-production. The result is more organic movement which helps breathe authenticity into a film’s character. Films like 2016’s The Junglebook and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes show how motion capture not only lends itself beautifully to human characters but also to animals.
3 – Photorealism
When The Curious Case of Benjamin Button won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 2009, it proved that VFX were not only for sci-fi, fantasy and action films but could create realistic depictions of people. The VFX technology used to subtly age Brad Pitt throughout the film has been further developed as VFX artists can now help entirely recreate actors’ faces with technology. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s audiences saw a realistic and almost uncanny recreation of late actor Peter Cushing in such a subtle way, many had no clue the actor was digitally recreated.
4 – Small-screen VFX
As critics continue to claim that the past decade has seen a television renaissance, budgets for both network and cable shows have continued to increase. Shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones have a reported $10 million budget per episode, totalling $100 million for a full season. With budgets that rival many commercial film productions, television shows can truly invest in incredible VFX that rival their big-screen counterparts.
The film industry is a global one and digital technology has helped fuel its globalisation. VFX continue to push boundaries and the companies behind the technologies are sure to create impressive ways which will empower filmmakers to thrill audiences with breath-taking visuals over the next decade.
In case you were unaware, the first virtual reality films have already arrived on our shores. Jesus VR: The Story of Christ (2016) was recently lacerated in The Guardian. “The acting? Dire. The direction? Awful. The adaptation? Conservative and pedestrian.” But the critic, Peter Bradshaw, admits that the technology is a different story. “It’s the first feature film to be presented in complete wraparound 360-degree virtual reality. And it’s a startling, bizarre, often weirdly hilarious experience.”
The recent wave of technology advancements that brought us the likes of Netflix, Snapchat, and the on going onslaught of social media growth all driven by the consumer. The people want these things and the things keep coming but do they want VR? No one seems to be sure. The technology requires a fast computer. Oculus recommends a high-end graphics card and an expensive Intel i5 processor and this is before their 600 dollar headset. As Tom Brannister writes for Video Ink, “Virtual reality is a top down technology […] It is being pushed by technology giants and venture capitalists, without much consumer traction as yet.”
A lot of the current uses of VR do not need writers. The construction industry is using it to create project models – it’s helping them to woo clients and impress investors. Small subsections of the real estate market are testing to see whether it works as a means to offer remote home viewings. In the military industry VR has been used to train soldiers and doctors. Crane operators are even being trained with it. None of these listed so far require creative writing. These virtual scenarios need to be setup, yes, but that’s not writing in the tradition sense.
This changes when we approach the medical industry, where VR has been used for important therapies and pain management. Bannister tells us “There is a unique opportunity for emotional storytelling here.” And he’s right. Crafting a story to reduce the pain of others is what writing is about. Empathy is rich in novels and studies have proven that voracious reading helps one to relate to their fellow humans. VR is inherently absorbing. Firsthand Technology describes their creation like this:
SnowWorld transports the patient through an icy canyon filled with snowball hurling snowmen, flocks of squawking penguins, woolly mammoths and other surprises. Patients are drawn in, throwing their own snowballs as they fly through the gently falling snow. Often they become so engaged, they don’t realize their procedure is already over!
Clinical trials have shown dramatic reductions in pain for patients. This may be the first ‘children’s game’ to have a rave review from the New York Times. Virtual reality games and movies will need writers just as much as regular games and movies do but the exciting frontier is on the edge of research, among the snowy worlds, and retail brands such as North Face, who are experimenting with VR to add emotion to shopper’s experiences. Visual writing has been evolving ever since cavemen started painting. VR has proven that there are still new frontiers to explore.