New VR system aims to replace on-site filming
On a soundstage no bigger than a large bedroom a cameraman takes up various angles to film a helicopter that isn’t there, landing on a field that isn’t there either.
Until recently, virtual reality was the preserve of the gaming crowd but producers say the technology is on the cusp of a boom that could change forever the way television is done.
Leading the charge is visual effects studio CBS Digital, which has developed Parallax, a VR system that could potentially do away with on-location filming altogether.
The company has laserscanned parts of the United States, overlaying the geography with hi-resolution images to produce fully explorable, 3-D virtual sets into which real actors can be embedded.
Back at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, two actors can exchange a dialogue in a room covered with green screens and optical-tracking cameras dotting the ceiling.
But what the showrunner sees on his camera screen is his two stars walking hand-inhand around a photo-realistic Eiffel Tower or leaning over a perfectly rendered Niagara Falls.
“The biggest advantage is to take away traditional restrictions that filmmakers come up against,” Craig Weiss, executive creative director of CBS Digital, says during a visit to the studio.
“And that would be the arduous task of going to different locations, shooting in the middle of the night. You’re able to bring the world to the stage, have a lot more flexibility and get more work done.”
The problems Parallax solves for film and television makers are numerous. But the most important perhaps is cash — or not having enough of it to bring ideas to life on the screen.
A big proportion of any production budget goes on securing locations and filming in them. The costs spiral when you have to wait until it stops raining, or until the light exactly matches yesterday’s shoot.
The virtual sets being made available by Parallax allow directors to get through something like three weeks’ worth of traditional location work in a day, says the studio. The size of film crews, too, can be cut by half.
“After an initial investment ... the cost of using a virtual set can, in some cases, literally save 100 percent of the costs of on-location shooting,” says CBS Digital executive producer George Bloom.
Bloom, who was vice-president of creative content at Walt Disney Pictures and has 14 years of experience as a director, says Parallax hands control back to the filmmaker.
“When you’re a director, sometimes you feel like you don’t have control because you’re throwing all this vision that you have into a visual effects company’s hands,” he says.
“You have no idea what it’s going to look like until five or 10 days later.”
Fox’s The Last Man on Earth and ABC’s American Housewife have both started using Parallax.
CBS Digital already provides a variety of cutting edge visual effects for Amazon’s Transparent as well as Netflix originals Daredevil, Stranger Things and Jessica Jones.
The only restrictions on what VR can achieve for television is the limits of the human imagination, it says.
The technology is in its infancy although developing fast, and for CBS Digital, the implications for television could hardly be more profound.
The eventual goal is that anyone with a good idea and the requisite storytelling skills — regardless of their access to big budgets — will have “Hollywood in a box”, says Bloom.
“A soundstage is just a nice, comfortable place to work, but it can be Paris, New York, the future,” says Bloom.