Hollywood studios are quietly turning to video-game technology as they look to get production shoots delayed by the coronavirus back on schedule, The Post has learned.
Armed with virtual-reality tools created by companies like Fortnite creator Epic Games and Pokemon Go’s Unity Technologies, special-effects gurus are creating computer-generated virtual sets for upcoming films and series from big studios like Disney and Netflix, industry insiders say.
The cutting-edge tech — in which actors are shot inside studios whose walls and ceilings are giant, 4K-resolution LED video screens that can depict, say, a desert backdrop, a rainforest or the interior of a space station — has already been put to use in mega-budget productions like Netflix’s “The Irishman” and Disney’s “Mandalorian” TV series.
Now, a slew of other big studios are in talks to start using it, including Warner Bros., Paramount, Hulu and CBS’ television studio, according to sources close to the situation. The migration toward virtual sets is likely to continue long after the crisis ebbs, they say.
The critical advantage is that virtual movie sets can be assembled to meticulous perfection — from interplanetary landscapes to domestic interiors — by computer geeks working from home. While actors and crews wait out coronavirus lockdowns, the color of the sky or the flapping wings of a pterodactyl can all be manipulated by directors.
“It can get you into production quickly,” notes Kim Libreri, chief technology officer at Epic Games.
Epic’s Unreal technology was used to create ”The Mandalorian,” including the vast desert backdrop for the fight scene in the first episode between Pedro Pascal’s character and the rhino-like Mudhorn creature.
Virtual landscapes will become increasingly typical given the steep costs and uncertainties of travel in the coming months, Libreri says, even in a post-pandemic climate. “The logistics of moving a crew to different locations, it’s just a pretty big deal.”
During the past few weeks, stay-at-home orders have halted progress on a large slate of upcoming films and TV shows. Paramount Pictures’ “Mission: Impossible 7” had been shooting in Italy until the coronavirus hit. Also stopped were Warner Bros.’ “The Batman,” Universal Pictures’ “Jurassic World 3” and Apple’s “The Morning Show,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston.
Nevertheless, pre-production for “The Mandalorian” Season 3 is currently underway, according to a Deadline Hollywood report.
The LED-screen-based tech has a leg up over the traditional “green screen” method, which shoots an actor against a green backdrop and adds the background later, says Habib Zargarpour, head of film development for Digital Monarch Media, which did the visual effects for “Blade Runner 2049.”
“The main advantage is that your shots are for the most part captured in-camera,” Zargarpour says, meaning they don’t need to be altered in a lengthy post-production process.
That’s partly because when actors are surrounded by the virtual sets on the LED screens, their faces, clothing and even the chrome on their motorcycles are bathed in the light from the images on the screens, creating a close match. Unlike green screens, the LED screens also enable actors to see the virtual landscape and react to it in real time.
To create the dramatic, expansive virtual landscapes in “The Mandalorian,” Disney used a relatively poky, 21-foot-tall by 75-foot-wide LED stage from its visual-effects unit, Industrial Light & Magic, that looked like a box with one side open.
Philip Galler, co-founder and chief technology officer of LED supplier Lux Machina, says construction can cost between a few thousand dollars for a small LED screen to millions for a large-scale LED wall built for a feature film.
“The most expensive is the setup,” said Galler, whose LED screens in addition to “The Mandalorian” have powered films like “The Irishman,” “Top Gun 2,” “Rogue One” and “The Rise of Skywalker.”
But rising demand could lower prices for LED studios, Galler said. Currently, there are fewer than a dozen such stages in the world, but Galler anticipates that by July the number will double because of the coronavirus.
Epic Games’ Libreri agrees that interest is soaring during the pandemic. “We can’t give any specific studios’ plans but I can tell you, Miles has been on a lot of conference calls,” Libreri said during an April 13 interview, referring to Miles Perkins, the company’s business development manager.
“Last week was a very, very busy week for me,” Perkins confirmed.