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Asia Poised for Boom in Virtual Production, Says Epic’s Dean Reinhard

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Dean Reinhard, technical account manager, Southeast Asia, at Epic Games, and an evangelist for virtual production spoke this week at an Asia TV Forum & Market panel on virtual production. He chatted with Variety after the session and identified Asia’s strengths and weaknesses with the technique.

Variety: What do you think the possibilities are and the strengths of VP in this region?

Dean Reinhard: “Asia is in a really good spot. It’s a really rapidly growing industry out here across the board. But when you look at, especially Korea, getting huge international hits, like ‘Squid Game,’ it is really starting to draw more attention. There’s a lot of very big agencies in Korea that have been investing heavily into the in-camera visual effects field.

“And there’s plenty more examples where the tech is mixing across industries. We saw a lot of companies that were previously in the live events field. Suddenly, about 18 months ago, there wasn’t so many events around. But they did have lots of LED panels, so they started putting together LED volumes and started filming inside those.

“The pandemic has really started to push people to make local content more as well. That’ll be great for the industry in the long run to see more studios making more local kind of content.

“At Epic, we’ve been helping to push people and getting more training going. The Epic Mega Grants scheme we have, we set up a $100 million fund to essentially give away money to people that are creating cool stuff with Unreal. There’s been some really great ones across Southeast Asia, especially in animation, plenty in the gaming field and lots in visual effects. We’ll start to see a lot more coming out of the region.”

Many Asian filmmakers think of VP as expensive. Many are not used to working in studio, meaning that this is quite a sea change for them. How are they going to overcome those two perceptions?

“I don’t think that VP does increase costs in the long run. But there are different areas to look at.

“Some people are using it for animation, where the VP component is including motion capture or doing things in real time, even using iPads as handheld cameras so that a director can get into the scene and understand it. The top level of it, is in-camera visual effects within the large LED studios.

“But there’s a lot in between. You can still do really cool stuff on a green screen, you can still do budget setups. For example, I’ve got a remote controlled jib camera arm sitting next to me, which is a few $1,000 with a $1,000 camera. And I can do lots of really cool stuff in Unreal Engine in my own house as a single person.

“If you do want to go down the route of building an LED studio, that’s going to require a lot of upfront capital expenditure for sure. But [the saving is] the fact that you’re not then doing six months of post-production work.

“Doing away with that mindset of, ‘we’ll just fix it in post’ is a big change. And there was always lots of cost and time overruns in that [old way).

“I don’t think everybody is going to need to build LED volumes. [At first] it’s going to be the same as hiring out a green screen studio, you just go and hire out a LED volume when you need it.

How many and where are the big LED studios in Asia at the moment?

“Supreme Studios in Bangkok have been doing a very large scale volume there. There are several in Korea as well. There’s multiple in China as well and others are starting to build out in Japan. Obviously, when you look at Korea, China and Japan, a lot of the manufacturers are also there. So, they’re currently doing lots of testing, getting new equipment out, building stages, trying to really understand the technology.

“In Singapore, we’ve got quite a few as well. But they’ve been a little bit more focused on the broadcast and live events sort of space. There are others being put together in Malaysia and Indonesia and India.”

How much has COVID, Delta variant and now Omicron been a disruptor or a boon for VP rollout?

“It’s been both a help and a hinderance. It’s forced us to try and solve a lot of problems that potentially were going to take a fair bit longer to solve.

“People who were very used to working collaboratively in a room together with much greater control and [the ability to make] very quick changes, had to try and adapt to these different systems.

“Now they are bringing in VR headsets so they can do virtual scouting in the 3D environment before a shoot, whether that’s for a fully-animated virtual production or whether it’s a live shoot that’s happening later on.

“Previz, stunt viz and tech vix are all happening in that real time environment. You can get a room full of people, they can be on their computer, or they can be in a VR headset, working in this collaborative 3D environment.”

VP would seem to facilitate people working together while in multiple geographies, which might be necessary over the next few months.

“Yeah, you can have somebody in a motion capture suit in their living room controlling a live character, which you’re then recording on another machine on the other side of the world, and a director that can sit there and move a camera around with their iPad. And the fact that they can get that process in real time, is stuff that they just couldn’t even do before.”

You have said that actors really like VP, and many of them won’t want to go back. Won’t go back to traditional studios or won’t go back to green screen?

“The green screen. It’s such a big shift for them. There’s a really great behind-the-scenes clip of the new ‘Star Trek Discovery’ series that Pixomondo put up on YouTube. You see these actors that have been used to just staring at a green screen to trying and imagine all this space out in front of them. This technology means they can be standing literally inside something that looks like the holodeck in ‘Star Trek.’ That’s huge. They know what’s where. They see it they understand what’s going on. It just gives them much more to work with. It’s giving them real insight into what the final image is going to be like.

“And you get obviously all the other benefits, the lighting is better, you don’t need to do the same post-production work. And then if they don’t like something, you can quickly change it. If the director comes up with a better camera angle. Great. It’s done. And it’s tough to do that even if you are out in the real world. You can’t just say let’s move the sun over here. Let’s come back in 24 hours and hope that it’s not raining.”