June 22, 2024
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                                                                     Navigating the Virtual Production Landscape: A Reality Check on Growth

In the ever-evolving landscape of virtual production, the excitement surrounding its potential often overshadows the ground realities. The surge in facility constructions globally, exemplified by ambitious projects like NEOM in Saudi Arabia, prompts a critical examination of whether demand can match the supply. While NEOM aspires to become a hub for every industry, including production, the question remains: does the fervour surrounding virtual production align with tangible growth statistics?

The notion that “if you build it, they will come” echoes sentiments from the iconic “Field of Dreams.” However, tangible examples, such as the removal of large virtual production stages like ILM StageCraft in Pinewood or Pixomondo in Canada, illustrate that being a market leader or merely constructing facilities doesn’t guarantee sustained demand. Numerous organisations, for reasons of confidentiality, have downsized their virtual production ambitions, altering plans or locations reactively. Moreover, many proposed global stages, announced through press releases, never materialised, painting a picture of aspiration exceeding execution.

Despite the advancements in virtual production technology, it’s noteworthy that a significant number of cases still rely on pop-up setups, signalling a discernible gap between aspiration and adoption. Even renowned entities like ARRI in the UK, while likely achieving one of the highest occupancy rates for a virtual production stage, are faced with industry averages that, for most, hover below 50%. Additionally, conversion rates from inquiries to shoots remain a challenge, often settling below the 10% mark.

Government funding has become a lifeline for some companies, with the utilisation of R&D initiatives or training programs such as the Co-star initiative in the UK or collaborative projects with educational institutions like LAMDA. While these initiatives are positive signs, they also underscore the challenges within the industry. The educational sector is playing catch-up to technological advancements, necessitating the convergence of courses. This not only emphasises a skills gap but also potentially limits the future talent pool’s diverse perspective for the successful application of their knowledge and experience on-set across various roles. Heads of Departments (HoDs), commissioners, producers, and location managers grapple with the convergence of technology and its optimal utilisation in production. Arguably, pop-ups have an advantage in this context, as the right service provider can understand the unique specifications needed for each production, offering a flexibility that standardised virtual production stages may lack.

The quoting process for virtual production introduces an additional layer of complexity. In contrast to the straightforward process of purchasing a car with a clear specification and add-ons, virtual production costs are intricately connected to budget, script requirements, and pre-production timelines. It is crucial to determine virtual production stage specifications and requirements based on these factors. However, a common approach involves providing blanket quotes with little awareness or consideration of the importance of pre-production, leading to negative experiences on shoot days.

For lower budgets and indie filmmakers, the cost of virtual production poses a significant hurdle, exacerbated by recent industry challenges like mass redundancies due to SAG/WGA strikes. Unity and Epic Games, as industry leaders, are not immune to these challenges. The struggle to find accessible stages within budget constraints raises questions about the sustainability of the market.

Moreover, companies entering the virtual production space must look beyond merely acquiring stock, competing on size, or possessing the latest equipment. In a market where there are more players than productions utilising virtual production, it becomes imperative for companies to understand the community, economic challenges, and how their unique service offerings align with the demand and challenges that truly need addressing. Success in virtual production goes beyond catering solely to cinematographers or directors; it involves collaborating with VFX houses, previsualization experts, establishing connections with new contacts, and, importantly, fostering a reliable and resilient crew network.

The parallels drawn to the gradual adoption of technologies like solar panels and electric cars, which took over two decades to reach recognised market levels, highlight that virtual production’s success hinges on overcoming social and economic infrastructure challenges. The need for education, alignment with realistic applications, addressing technical, budgetary, and skill-related obstacles, along with a holistic understanding of the market and its demands, are crucial steps towards ensuring the gradual, sustainable growth of virtual production. Furthermore, acknowledging the evolution required among game engines and the imperative to automate workflows adds another layer to the equation. A cautious and informed approach will be key in steering the industry away from a potential technical recession and towards a future where the promise of virtual production becomes a widespread reality.

Additionally, it’s crucial to note that virtual production is not a replacement but an additional tool in the toolbox. It has the potential to bring creativity, inspiration, cost-efficiency, and speed to certain aspects of production. However, a comprehensive understanding of the production process and the right skill sets are imperative for its successful implementation. It’s about more than just selling; it’s about servicing, partnering with other industry suppliers, and addressing needs and skill gaps. Collaborating on these growing pains will contribute to a higher success rate as technology and understanding organically develop.