In a world of virtual sets, that movie or TV show, like 'The Mandalorian,' might not be where you think — or anywhere at allAugust 7, 2020 9:46am

Aug. 06-- The pandemic shut down major Hollywood productions in March and five months later it is still unclear when most TV and film projects will start back up again.

In Chicago, right now is typically when the three NBC shows from Dick Wolf ("Chicago Fire," "Chicago Med" and "Chicago P.D.") begin work on the new season. That's obviously been delayed. There's also the fourth season of FX's "Fargo," starring Chris Rock, which was nearing the end of its shoot here in town when the shutdown hit; producers are hoping to find a way to finish work on that quickly.

There have been ongoing conversations about possible starting dates in the next month or two for all of these shows. But nothing is official just yet, according to Bradley Matthys, president of the local IATSE Studio Mechanics union, which represents the majority of crew people who work on TV and film. "The producers and unions continue to negotiate," he said, "and while there have been many things agreed to, there are still many issues undecided." Everyone is hopeful; everything is in flux.

We know concerns about health and safety will shape how TV and film gets made and it's possible we'll see significant changes-changes that were already in the works, but might be more rapidly adopted thanks to the challenges posed by COVID-19.

What might the near future look like?

Think digital and virtual.

The more a production can control its environment-and who enters it-the better. That could mean fewer scenes shot on location, with everything done on sound stages instead using high-resolution, three-dimensional photorealistic video backdrops.

Instead of a green screen, it's creating a virtual reality that the actors can see and inhabit-interiors, landscapes, whatever.

This kind of sophisticated technology already exists for video games an it's how "The Mandalorian" was shot for Disney+.

Richard Janes is an entertainment analyst and the founder of the influencer studio Fanology. He recently wrote about what kind of changes he sees coming.

"The future was definitely moving this way anyway," he said by phone. "The technology coming out of the gaming world has just been improving so much, but with the streaming wars and COVID happening at the same time, everything has been fast-tracked."

Here's why: With so many streaming platforms in need of content, studios have to find faster and cheaper ways to make that happen. And a crew moving from one real-world location to another is more time-consuming and expensive than shooting on a soundstage.

"Also, we're in a situation where insurance is difficult for film production at the moment," Janes said. "A lot of insurance is not covering COVID-related illness for any new productions. If you're a multi-million dollar project and suddenly one of your lead cast members tests positive and has to go into quarantine for two weeks, the economic impact on the project can be absolutely massive. So they have to work out better ways to control those environments."

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What does this mean for a city like Chicago?

Locations and landmarks are a big part of the city's sales pitch to showrunners and filmmakers. "I think going forward that sales pitch is going to be less about the actual location and more about if soundstages and experienced crew are available," Janes said.

"There are two ways to look at it. One is the people a film or TV show employs and the money they spend in your local economy. And the other is the branding and PR and tourism side of things. So if a filmmaker in France is going to shoot a movie and half of it is set in Chicago but they never leave the studio in France but they show all this Chicago stuff virtually, that's actually still a good thing for Chicago. Is it as good as having them come and film in Chicago? No. But by the same token, you'll find that all kinds of weird and wonderful shows and films can shoot in Chicago and look as if they're set someplace else-so the city's opportunity also grows."

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This can only work on a large scale if there are digital libraries sourcing a huge number of different environments.

"That's going to be key," Janes said, "and a big opportunity for people to go and capture these cities as 3D environments. Especially interiors."

Visual effects tend to drive up costs (the budget for Universal's adaptation of "Cats" was reportedly anywhere from $100 million to $297 million) but Janes thinks that's going to come way down, partly because these virtual environments will be captured by the camera and won't require as much labor-intensive frame-by-frame CGI after the fact.

"Also, as with any technology, the more people who use it, the cheaper it becomes," he said. "Seeing the two worlds of gaming and film combine in this particular area, the cost implications will come down in a very quick way. Pre-COVID, I think this would have been five to eight years off, but I think we're going to see that in the next two years."

If this technology does become affordable even to indie filmmakers at lower budgets, Janes see big potential: A small film can create the look of an expansive world in ways that would never be possible otherwise.

Digital libraries for more than just environments

As it stands, films and TV rely on casting companies to provide background extras. And production designers rely on prop houses – warehouses filled with all sorts of ephemera-to build out the visual world of their TV show or film. Janes thinks much of this will go digital as well, and that filmmakers will simply license virtual props and virtual people.

"The prop houses that 3D scan all their props the soonest are going to have the brand positioning in the marketplace" and will be able to make quite a bit money without any of the hassle of physical storage.

"And yes," Janes said, "you're going to see a smaller number of (real life) background actors on set, because you can't really quarantine them for two weeks to ensure it's safe for them to be there for one day and be close to the cast."

Janes also sees this technology extending to hair, makeup and costumes.

What are the downsides?

Whenever we're talking about how humans are presented on screen, it's worth considering if existing biases-about skin tone, body shape, hair texture-might get ported over simply because not enough thought was given to these concerns.

Sydette Harry is a writer and research fellow at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and her first question in regards to digital background actors was: "Which people? And how are you sourcing those?

"One of the things I was going to look at before the pandemic was: Who gets to be presented?" she said. "If you look at things like I Need Diverse Games (a nonprofit based out of Chicago that advocates for diversity in all aspects of gaming), these technologies that are already in place do not feature a full spectrum of humanity. At all. In most video games if you want non-white hairstyles you have to download them after, they're not part of the standard package."

There's good reason to think these same concerns would exist in digital libraries for TV and film, unless people in Hollywood-from executives on down-are pro-active about addressing them.

Harry pointed out yet another drawback if filmmaking becomes even more of a digital experience: The serendipity that happens when actors are on location.

"Film sets are closed, but the energy you get from people who are not trying to be part of Hollywood or who haven't learned to stand and deliver, that would all go away," she said.

If everything is shot on a soundstage, cast and crew will never have to interact in real-world spaces, walling themselves off even more than they are already. Populating a scene with digital extras means everything is less messy. Less human. "And I don't trust (creatives in Hollywood) to interrogate that going forward," Harry said.

There are more downsides. Projects make start asking cast members to have their likeness scanned for possible future use someway, somehow. This has already happened on big titles, including the "Star Wars" franchise (and some actors are choosing to do this on their own, with an eye to licensing their digitized likeness in the future) but Janes wonders if this might become standard practice on projects of any size.

"You can envision it as an insurance requirement," he said. "Personally I don't believe we're at a stage where we have the ability to do that cost-effectively and have it look natural, but I don't think it will be too long until that happens. There's risk associated with it, because what happens to that asset after you're done filming? On the other hand, the actor doesn't have to be on set as much but they're still earning the same money. It's basically the extension of the idea of stunt doubles."

One wonders what the ripple effects might be if this comes to fruition.

Will awards organizations feel compelled to create new requirements about "real actor" screen time in order for that person to be nominated?

Janes thinks we'll find out sooner than later.

We may not be regularly watching digitized versions of actors just yet. But he estimates that "within the next three years 50% of the content we watch will have been shot on stages with virtual backgrounds."

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