Manitoba Gets Unreal Virtual Production Tool

The devastating impact of COVID-19 on the audiovisual production industry in Canada and around the world was one for the books. And even with Canadian Heritage’s January 2023 $100 million infusion to Telefilm Canada over two years, the industry has no choice but to continue innovating to achieve the improved financial resilience and performance it needs. This is where virtual production may play a strategic role. Growing demand for this new tool is actually a direct result of the pandemic. Manitoba has just been added to the list of regions where virtual production studios are available in urban centres. Indeed, New Media Manitoba (NMM) opened a studio and training centre earlier this year and is already providing training to key players in the industry.

So, what is virtual production? It’s a way of creating immersive virtual universes by combining high-end computing power with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. Epic deployed the revenue stream from its monster FortNite video game to develop an engine that provides filmmakers with the same tools the interactive industry uses. As Epic says, “We make the engine. You make it Unreal.”

Jon Le Et Louis Ghiz
Jonathan Lê, StudioLab xR project manager, and Louie Ghiz, NMM executive director - Photo credit: Catherine Dulude

With Unreal Engine you can create virtual universes that interact with a studio camera in real time. An elaborate system of sensors in the studio’s ceiling connects the camera shooting a scene to a virtual Unreal Engine camera that brings the scene to life right before your eyes. The selected virtual universe is projected on a volume wall. “Our volume wall is 24 by 12 feet (7.3m by 3.6m) and features 144 images, each with four panels,” said  NMM StudioLab xR project manager Jonathan Lê.

Unlike a green screen, for example, the volume wall allows crews to see scenes in real time as they’re being created. “Of course, even though the volume wall has many advantages, green screens will still be used,” Lê said. “But there’s no question the new tool makes it easier for actors to look in the right direction during their scene while the technical team can provide better studio and stage lighting. It’s a question of investing time in pre-production instead of post-production.”

StudioLab xR is the first Unreal-accredited training studio in Canada, and only the fourth studio of its kind in the country. The genesis of the project goes back to 2022, but international conflicts and pandemic-related disruptions to the supply chain hampered the process and delayed its launch date. Thanks to some $3.5 million in federal and provincial funding, NMM was at long last able to open StudioLab xR in early 2024. Since then leading industry organizations, including On Screen Manitoba, IATSE 856, ICG 699, ACTRA, and DGC-Manitoba, have partnered with NMM in offering training sessions.

“We invited trainers from Fish Flight Entertainment, a Vancouver-based studio with proven Unreal experience, to support our local training team in their work with Manitoba industry members,” said NMM executive director Louie Ghiz. “We set up five teams of five members each led by an experienced director. We tasked each team with creating a scene using Unreal Engine on a one-day shoot, with trainers on hand to respond to their specific needs and to point out the possibilities,” he said.

Danielle Sturk
Danielle Sturk, Franco-Manitoban filmmaker - Photo credit: Laina Brown

Franco-Manitoban director Danielle Sturk participated in the first training session. She was keen because of the creative potential she saw in Unreal Engine. “I’m very interested in the idea of doing an animation project entirely in Manitoba,” she said. Sturk created a live-action scene during the training session and already intends to book the studio to explore the possibilities for one of her projects in development.

“I wanted to see what we were able to do here without hiring a studio in another province, how long it takes to make changes using Unreal software in real time, and how long actors have to wait between takes,” Sturk said. “With this information, I can compare using Unreal against a conventional animation project, and put a budget together I can present to broadcasters. I’m hoping it will be more cost efficient as well as giving me an additional creative tool to work with.”

Whether the live-action scene lived up to her expectations is another matter. “I don’t think it’s quite there yet in terms of realism. While I think it works well for science fiction, it still isn’t foolproof in real-life situations from my point of view,” said Sturk. Nevertheless, she’s confident that the technology will be developed rapidly to get there.

StudioLab xR is in full growth mode and expects to receive additional funding from donors and the industry. Management is looking to increase the initial budget to $4 million or $5 million. “The training we received from the industry and Fish Flight Entertainment staff really prepared us well for our first production,” said Lê.

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Photo credit: Laina Brown

They’ll also be busy for the rest of the year developing a calendar of training courses, audiovisual productions, and arranging corporate use for engineering and architectural firms. StudioLab xR has already been commissioned to provide training in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and British Columbia, with commitments that will allow for making reinvestments in their local infrastructure.

And what about an AI connection? Jonathan Lê is upbeat. “I think AI will speed up the filmmaking process and make certain things easier to do. But I don’t think it will replace the need for real humans in the directing process. As well as having confidence in the human factor, I also believe that copyright issues with AI-generated images are going to become increasingly more problematic in models like these,” he said.

Catherine Dulude
With more than a decade of experience, Catherine’s career has taken her from broadcast journalism to the audiovisual production industry. In 2018, Catherine launched her own boutique writing business, Ardoise&Co, to cater to the needs of the industry in Western Canada. She has since contributed to a few dozen shows in a myriad of ways: researching, writing, editing, social media marketing and discoverability strategies.
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