What does the role of the Producer working Virtual Production entail? Part I

June 14, 2021

Written by Dr Jodi Nelson-Tabor

How to Be Good — On location at the Stockwell Street Studios, University of Greenwich

The role of a Producer across any of the creative sectors (i.e games, film, apps, commercials, immersive media) always involves a multitude of tasks, specialised skills and exemplary organisational talent. Virtual Production is no different. However, in this new landscape of film production, there is a partnership quickly emerging between games and film sectors which are overlapping. The Producer needs to grasp an understanding of this new environment and workflow in order to thrive in this emerging field. Having a keen understanding of how VP works and the ability to communicate across multiple, interdisciplinary teams is key to a successful production. Also, knowing that VP front loads most of its production activity in the previz phase (previsualisation) the role of the Producer plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the entire project.

In Part I of this week’s article, myself and colleague, Dr Lindsay Keith, Line Producer (Part II) on the How to Be Good VP project, will discuss a few key differences in that of VP compared to more traditional forms of production roles across film and TV. Specifically, there are key components of the pre-production (previz) phase of VP that need to be highlighted, such as the idea of iterating the process of development and creativity, the script writing and execution within Unreal Engine’s application, the script breakdown and how that impacts the schedule of the production (when location changes are actually all in one single studio), how communication between all departments, creative and technical must be approached and where a common language needs to be created, and some key elements around the hardware and tech requirements (i.e. lens calibration), and data wrangling that all play a part in this new real-time, virtual environment.

Putting up the stars for the Mo-sys Star Tracking system in the green screen studio

The Iteration Process & Team Communication

Iteration was briefly described in the first article, but more specifically, it’s important to note that this back and forth process through the entire previz phase of pre-production, was key to formulating the creative and technical vision of the film. 80% of the film is made in previz, meaning that all Heads of Departments (HoDs) decisions, even post-production and VFX, has an impact upon the lighting, sound, visuals and in-camera effects using Unreal Engine as the virtual environments for which real-time production will collide. For our production, all HoDs met each week for (approximately four-six weeks) for 2–3 hours over zoom for a remote production meeting where we previz the film working with our creative technician, Dr Andrew MacQuarrie in Unreal Engine. In these meetings, each session involved the planning and placement of virtual lighting, camera, lenses, production design, blocking of virtual characters (actors) and made key production logistics decisions that would be documented onto a storyboard, which provided the visual road map that we executed on set (see What does the role of a VP Director entail? on July 5th). Every time one HoD makes their creative and technical decision, that impacts the other department’s and thus the need to iterate through all production elements in an effort to finalise the film’s execution in order to get as close to final pixel as possible to execute uniformly during principal production. There is room for changes whilst on set, but the more you can finalise and solidify in previz, there will be less downtime and costly overruns to production.

Using Padlet as a timeline for our iteration process to document meetings and research elements for processing into production

The Script as the Visual Roadmap

Despite the different workflow and its integration into real-time technologies — VP still starts with the script. What’s important to take away from the script writing process and how it’s applied to VP is to first understand that in traditional film and TV production the script serves as the roadmap for the specialisms to then envision and build the visual, sound and production elements of the story into a tangible production. All HoDs take the script from Production (once it’s broken down; see below) and align their creative vision with the elements of the script and story. VP is no different. However, the script now takes on a much more important role in that the writer must become more flexible in terms of script changes and iterate with the entire production team, as tech and creativity have an impact on its making — which may or may not impact the final outcome. For example, in this project, I extracted a scene from a traditional TV series I’m writing to use for the VP production, but once we introduced Unreal Engine (games engine) into the creative decision making and visual process of the production, there were many changes and limitations within the production logistics, budget, lighting, green screen considerations, etc. that required the script to change in order for us to be able to produce it. There are a few key considerations of note.

How to Be Good — Script Breakdown example

Unreal Engine’s Impact on Story

This of course is the compromise of the writer working in this virtual space. Depending upon the production budget and the Producer’s vision for the film, using Unreal Engine assets either will depend upon hiring games designers (expense and time) to create the story world from scratch (think The Mandalorian), or, in our case, with a small budget we had to utilise Unreal’s Marketplace and acquire a free or inexpensive existing locations/ environments to fit the story world as close to the original in the script. That required me to rewrite the original location for the entire scene from a derelict salvage yard location, to an industrialised air hanger.

Green Screen Limitations

Shooting in Hybrid-Green Screen VP also required specific script changes regarding lighting and production design elements that also had to be rewritten. For example, I had a scene where a piece of broken glass was to cause a reflection from a flashlight that alerted the lead character to believe she was not alone, but for which caused green spill. Or there was a moment when the lead character was to walk through a puddle splashing her feet and we couldn’t have water on the studio set, nor splashing water in the green screen environment, which would cause a keying problem. In another scene, there was a broken fence she was to crawl through, for which we had the real prop on set to match the virtual one in Unreal, but because of the small mesh wiring design of the fence, it caused a moire effect.

Script Breakdown & Scheduling

All of these changes and iterations will impact the scheduling as well and it’s important the Producer understand the tech requirements and its impact on the creative story in order to stay on top of this production process. Not only to reign in runaway time and budgets getting out of control, but also to keep on top of all the production considerations where line production comes into play.

How to Be Good — Shooting Schedule example

(See Part II) where Dr Lindsay Keith will expand on the Producer’s Role and discuss key elements around Line Production.

Follow the series/thread at #H2BG on Twitter @GREdesignSchool.

A team of filmmakers and academics at the University of Greenwich have created a micro-short film entitled, ‘How To Be Good’, in collaboration with industry leaders at Storyfutures Academy and Mo-Sys engineering to explore and document workflows in virtual production. In the first article of the series, principle investigator Dr Jodi Nelson-Tabor discusses what virtual production means in different contexts and how producing ‘How To Be Good’ sheds an important light on how VP can be a managed and harnessed to create films that would otherwise be cost prohibitive and complex to shoot.

To follow the series, click on the following: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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Dr. Jodi Nelson-Tabor

Dr Jodi Nelson-Tabor is a Filmmaker, Writer/Producer, Sr Lecturer & Creative Consultant working across the traditional and immersive creative economy sector.