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Virtual Production Roundtable with Angran Li, Evan Welch, and Erik Castellanos

As we see virtual production rise to the forefront, we spoke with designer Angran Li, who has worked on the Disney Short The Little Prince(ss), and Erik Castellanos and Evan Welch of Happy Mushroom. The three discussed their individual journeys into the industry, the rise of virtual production, and the future of film. We spoke about what they’ve learned from this new era in film and challenges they’ve overcome throughout their careers. With virtual production growing in popularity and the film industry shifting with it, Angran, Erik and Evan offered their insight and expertise. 

Hi Angran, Evan, and Erik. It’s nice to meet you all! I want to get us started here by asking how each of you came into the virtual production designing space?

Evan: Hey there! Thanks for having us. I’m sure we each had a separate path into it, but it can be funny how quickly goals align along the way. I came along into virtual production from a purely transitionary mindset, making sure assets had the desired format and fidelity to pass from the art department into VFX. Eventually, I learned just how important this transitory role was as we all worked to define what ended up becoming a virtual art department in the coming years. I would later learn that this was all happening in tandem with Erik’s time on MouseGuard and Angran’s time on other projects. 

Erik: It's great talking with you; I came into virtual production on the film MouseGuard. I came to video games after working on Sony’s God of War. The transition was interesting, to say the least. When I first worked with Virtual Productions, I had a videogame dev mindset; my scenes were to run very efficiently at a high framerate but understanding what cinematic fidelity demanded and how to get it was something I had yet to comprehend.

Angran: I walked into Virtual Production by accident, probably a happy accident. There was one day my friend Yuri Bartoli texted me and asked if I was free at the moment to possibly start a show with him. By that time I thought he’d ask me to work in the art department because we discussed that previously, but by the moment I showed up on his project I realized it was a virtual art department he runs.

evan welch

Evan Welch

What is something each of you has learned while working in virtual production that you think has changed your perspective on your craft?

Evan: Somewhere on the path we discovered that the introduction of new technology could bring us back into an older, more organic way of thinking. Working in a virtual art department has allowed us to break down some barriers and open the space. Between VR scouting and a suite of tools the buzz of the term, Virtual Production is easy to understand. The thing that most surprised me about the process was how willing to learn every creative I have encountered has been. In an industry so full of bluster and “I told you so” mentality, something about virtual production invites an atmosphere of humbleness and learning that can only be beneficial to the craft and all the people involved.

Erik: The answer to every question can be found in the block-out phase. When I first started in virtual production, blocking out was just a simple step. Now, with years of experience, I can confidently say that the block-out phase is anything but. The Block Out phase conversations with key creatives. Take for example the process of approving a traditional set. Numbers are run, architectural drawings and finishes are drawn & picked, and at the end of it, all people are anticipated to buy off that something will fit the narrative they are trying to tell. The traditional way of grounding that process is through illustration, but what that truly lacks is a grounding perspective, the truth of is one of the first parts of creating a set, it's where cubes and basic geo are placed to get a feeling of the environment and stage. At a phase this early, you can show key creatives; Directors, Cinematographers, Digital Producers, etc. how the set is looking with an agreed-upon camera lens package, and they can already tell you how to light it, how they’ll film it, and where hero assets should go.

erik castellanos

Erik Castellanos

Angran: Building the world and sets (digital construction) in Unreal Engine is world-changing, it’s a new workflow that involves a lot of knowledge of the VFX pipeline and understanding of how to design environments in 3D with new technologies. From a design perspective, I agree with the quote ”Art challenges technology. Technology inspires art.---By John Lasseter. I need to understand how to construct the world, so I know how to push the limits and not be limited by the program's tech. I developed a new skill set after I worked in the Virtual Art Department. Understanding how photogrammetry works really helped me to understand what Art can achieve.

Angran, you recently worked on Disney’s, The Little Princess, how does your creative process shift with each project you work on?

Angran: Haha, I feel like I’ve been hard on myself, I can’t be settled with comfort. When there are no challenges, I feel so sleepy and unproductive. I recently did a shoot to push me back to the real, constructed world. When I worked on The Little Princess, I blocked and drafted all locations we scouted that were in the Director’s consideration. I missed the speed I had to measure all locations, I was almost like a droid. It felt so nice to work in virtual sets in front of a computer, but I also feel so alive back to locations and physical sets. I was just telling Evan the other day that I flipped the entire house location “upside down,” but with no L&D (lost & damage) after we wrapped. It was a super long day with crews shifting, I was super exhausted but felt productive and happy. And that’s also how I felt about The Little Princess when I think about it. It was so much, but that’s why I love production design.

Have there been any challenges that you’ve each overcome while learning the ins and outs of virtual production?

Evan: That's the beauty of the whole thing, isn’t it? What drew me to film production in the first place is that it is an inherently collaborative art form. While there are a select few arthouse solo filmmakers, the genre itself precludes working with a team, and any virtual production workflow is just the next iteration of that. With that comes the inherent team-building aspect that no one person can possibly know the whole pipeline. I like to describe my role as that thing line between the practical set and the LED screen. Working to define that border and approach the set extension in the best manner for the budget and the story. While artists like Erik will understand the technical requirements of producing assets for a game engine, I’ll know how to translate those assets back and forth with art directors and construction to make sure every step of the process is iterable.

Erik: Of course, Virtual Production’s in and outs are created in 3 parts, RealTime best practices, Cinematic quality, ICVFX (in-camera VFX) engineering. Most artists find themselves well experienced in 1, learning the other, and ignorant about a 3rd. One of the biggest challenges I'm currently facing is understanding ICVFX’s best practices and being able to understand what stage teams and engineers have to go through to get art on the volume.

Angran: Whenever I think about virtual production I now can only think about Unreal Engine because it’s a super program that can address the 3 parts of virtual production, which I know it’s not as accurate a definition as Erik’s. I think that’s a better definition overall. But I think working in Unreal really makes me feel like it’s iterating every 3D program. It is used or can work with almost every 3D program that has been developed so far. On the project I just finished, we have artists that use Cinema4D, Maya, Zbrush, Rhino3D, Blender, etc, and I personally got to use reality capture to generate 3D scans from the real world and send them to Artists to clean up the models. Unreal can take a lot of things in one Master Level, but when it’s going towards shooting, the frame rate will be an issue for the camera, it won’t give a butter-smooth camera movement.

angran li

Angran Li

So it challenges the program in a very engineering and technical way for the shoot. I think from a Design perspective, someone needs to call out what goes into virtual sets, and what goes into paint overs for post-production. I think when people think about computer design programs, they want to know what they need to learn, though I think while the world is building there will be so many more programs coming out, and there will always be new technology developed. It’s very important at least for me to understand the process of how things work in the 3 parts that Erik mentioned, because as long as the definition of virtual production is set, all the skills or programs are more like serving the pipeline. Which is for sure a huge challenge.

Evan, you currently specialize in genre work, what is something you’ve learned about world-building?

Evan: In the end, it has always been about establishing a language and tone to the story you are trying to tell. I do think that the draw of a good genre story all lies in the script. With an enhanced power of allegory and distanciation from the subject matter, genre work and “high concept” storytelling will always have a place in the audience's hearts. Virtual production utilized well could allow for incredible democratization of this kind of storytelling. The unfortunate reality of things in the “high concept” realm is that they have a built-in price tag. You say “Fantasy” and everyone thinks the budget needs to equal the lord of the ring. Star Wars for sci-fi. Independent films have shown that the same genres wielded wisely can capture our imaginations. ICVFX has an expensive price tag now, but virtual production can save quite a bit of money by properly ideating on these high concept stories and paring them down to their base ideals to help reduce traditional genre bloat. 

Each of you have worked on various projects within the field of virtual production, how do you see the opportunity for films to utilize this kind of technology growing in the future?

Evan: The funniest part of all the buzz around virtual production is the idea of ICVFX. I won’t get too heavily into why these are different things, but I recently joined a period film that is not utilizing LED screens, but I discovered that they were utilizing 360 panoramas and VR to scout and prep a variety of locations. Whether the term is used or not, filmmaking is moving into the world of virtual production. I hope, in the next few years as these massive LED volumes begin to pay for themselves, that we see a world of films that are not anticipated to be VFX heavy utilize it in a non-destructive way.

Haha, don’t quote me on this, but I have a memory of reading an article about the film Ladybird, and how it had to utilize VFX on the driving sequences to capture the mid-2000s accurately. I see a world in the next few years where indie darlings, period costume dramas, and many other films live on an ICVFX stage at some point during production. It just makes sense when you look at the logistics of shooting in 1600’s mansions/museums and the logistical nightmare that entails. 

Erik: It's difficult to say since the tool has so many uses, but one of the Virtual Production's best uses is how to get instant feedback. With this mindset, production can use the idea “What can virtual production do for us?” “What lens package should we get” this demands a block-out environment and set dressing to gauge the scope of what can be practical/ digital. “What time of day do we shoot?” We can take a look at the environment further and show them how the time of day affects your shot. “We heard about final pixel and we’d like the same treatment on our production.” Then we know to focus on quality and reach that bar. As this technology grows and production gets more familiar with it we can use it to get instant answers from previs to final pixel to ensure a smooth shoot date.

Angran: If I heard this question 10 years ago, I would say it’s gonna be a huge hit in 10 years, but I only experienced it affecting us now. I felt like I’m rushed by time because this technology and production are already here right now, and it didn’t give us enough time to develop the knowledge to understand how things work with design strategies. I feel like I need to compress 10 years of knowledge into 1 year to be able to work with VAD (Virtual Art Department). It’s already in use in a lot of commercial spaces and music videos. I recently heard from the DP who I worked with on The Little Prince(ss) that he was shooting LED screens and loves it. He was telling me how amazing he feels about those LEDs, and I was like “yeah, sounds like that’s a new thing the Art Department would need to use while building sets from now on.” Also even without LED screens, a Virtual camera can also shoot sets directly through Unreal.

Erik, you specialize in real-time rendering, how do you apply those skills to your environmental designs?

Erik: It's true, that’s how I started. My background helps greatly in my leadership role, knowing about GPU and CPU management in a pipeline that revolves around frames per second means assets my teams work on are ensured to be easily digested into the engine and are optimized for the quality that Unreal demands. This means that more and higher quality assets can be added due to how optimized everything else in the scene is to accommodate it. You’ll find that wrestling with memory constraints is a mindset most people in the games industry are used to and all have their tricks to get around.

How is virtual production changing the way that movies are made from each of your perspectives? What is the next trend in this world?

Evan: While I can go through a bunch of technical headaches about what makes ICVFX possible, they could all change by the time this article is published. Erik and Angran will speak to some ground truth adages that will remain the running case for years to come. In the end, filmmaking has always been about problem-solving and designing the shot, The Night of the Hunter is a perfect example of how to use forced perspective, silhouette, and a number of other techniques to hit the desired effect. In the end, ICVFX is just a much smarter, more technologically advanced version of what we’ve been iterating on for 100 years. That is not meant to devalue the techniques, it is instead elevating them as part of a rich history of film production design. The truly revolutionary part of the process is the ability to storyboard, plan, and iterate before a single frame has been recorded. These conversations about story shot choice and background are both as old as the medium and a totally fresh take all at the same time. 

Erik: Virtual production is uniting the pipeline. We now have meetings where previs, directors, DPs, and Cinematographers are sitting down and talking about what they expect from every shot, their goals, and the complications of what they’re seeing. As for the next trend, I’d love to see a more real-time approach to set dressing, where we can have baked lighting on specific assets and swap them in real-time with alternatives that also have lighting and Global illumination prebaked on so they’re integrated into the world around it. I’ve seen it with Arch-Viz projects and would love to start getting that world worked into virtual production.

Angran: I think optimization is a word that people think about in a technical term, but I think from a design perspective it has things to do with foreground and background in camera frames. When I just started work in Unreal, I had a conversation with Evan about how we can make decisions to use texture in 1K, 2K, 4K, and 8K. I think it’s almost similar to how we model things in Rhino3D or Drafting, we know what scale we are drawing for Director plans, overall plan, sections, full-size detail, or ½” Window and Door details. And it would be super helpful for optimizing if we know the shot list, so we know what’s in-camera focus and what's further back. It will probably also help to define what’s a physical construction build and what’s in an LED screen.

And finally, how can we connect with all of you further to see your future projects?

Evan: I’m striving to be more active on multiple platforms, but Instagram is definitely the beating pulse of what I am working on in the day today. 

Website: https://2and20design.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/2.and.20/
Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/evanoptics/

Erik: Oh that's nice of you, LinkedIn is where I love to post my team and my work. Always excited to share updates with the world as far as great Virtual protection tools, examples, and new projects go.

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/erik-castellanos-752a5b149/

Angran: I would say I’m more active on my Instagram and my website which are attached here: 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/angranli/?hl=en

Website: https://www.angranli.com/

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Thank you for reading! Click to learn more about Evan Welch, Angran Li, and Erik Castellanos.

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