China eyes 'virtual production' technique used in The Mandalorian to help local film industry catch up to Hollywood in visual effects

A handout photo. A virtual set during the shooting of The Mandalorian.
PHOTO: Disney

A new visual effects approach for film production, which proved its worth in the new Star Wars franchise The Mandalorian , is inspiring production companies in mainland China and Hong Kong to experiment with the technology in hopes of making it mainstream for future local productions.

The Mandalorian , the titular bounty hunter in the Disney+ live action TV series, moves between desert landscapes and futuristic interior environments, but the scenes were not shot on location, on a movie set, or using a green screen.

They were filmed in front of a giant LED wall display that could project an imaginary world as one that appears real to the audience.

Known as “virtual production”, the digital background are generated in real time by a powerful computing game engine, allowing filmmakers to combine live-action footage with visual effects in real time.

The technology could revolutionise filmmaking because real world settings can be replaced. China, with more than 20 billion yuan (S$4.1 billion) of box office revenue in 2020, is known for its theme parks across the country that double as locations for film shoots.

In the town of Hengdian in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang, for instance, the so-called “movie city” built a replica of the Forbidden City for filmmaking.

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Virtual production technology also offers Chinese filmmakers a chance to catch up with their Hollywood counterparts, by lowering the technology and production thresholds for sci-fi spectaculars such as Avatar, the 2009 James Cameron production that dominated the Chinese box office at the time and amazed Chinese filmmakers with its pioneering use of motion capture special effects.

Virtual production opens the door to future moviemaking because it allows film crews to see what is in a shot in real time so they can adjust or change the digital background as needed, according to industry experts. It replaces the traditional method of shooting the action in front of green or blue screens and adding the visual effects in post production, which is a more costly process.

“LED-based virtual production is definitely the future [of filmmaking],” said Guo Fu, co-founder of Beijing-based visual effects company Revo Times.

Interest in virtual productions surged around the world since 2020, propelled by the success of The Mandalorian as well as Covid-19 travel restrictions that curtailed the ability to shoot on location.

Some Chinese studios have even started experimenting with their own virtual production sets. Hangzhou-based Versatile Media set up a studio for virtual productions while Shanghai-based start-up Surreal has tested its LED wall display.

The operator of Xiangshan Film and Television Town, a giant outdoor set for filming period films that doubles as a tourist attraction, said in a WeChat article in November that it was building an LED wall-enabled virtual production studio.

Hong Kong is also getting into the act. The Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), a subsidiary of the Vocational Training Council (VTC), is now producing an experimental short fiction film using a 12x5 metre LED backdrop and a software solution provided by Disguise, a London-based company.

It will be the first film production in Hong Kong that uses virtual production, VTC said.

Kim Wong, a lecturer at HKDI’s Department of Digital Media, told the South China Morning Post that the institute is working with Disguise’s local partner In Technical Productions (ITP), a Hong Kong-based visual display solution provider.

ITP has been using the Disguise system for visual effects displays for concerts, but after concerts were cancelled because of the pandemic, they decided to work together to see if the virtual production system could be used for filmmaking.

“We’re still not sure how it will turn out,” Wong said. “We’re learning many of the technical details for the first time.”

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While Chinese component makers are able to produce the advanced semiconductor diodes required for the LED displays, the country is relatively weak when it comes to virtual production software development, with local teams relying on engines and technologies developed in the West.

About 90 per cent of virtual production solutions rely on the Unreal Engine developed by Epic Games, a US video game and software developer partly owned by Tencent Holdings, according to Guo at Revo Times.

Gao Feng, a visual effects producer who is also secretary general of the China Film Art Direction Academy’s computer graphics art committee, said China has no problem in hardware but lacks “software and talent”.

Gao, who has been doing visual effects for over a decade for productions such as Game of Thrones and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, said Chinese filmmakers are still accustomed to traditional visual effects techniques, not the virtual backgrounds used in The Mandalorian .

Revo Times, for instance, provided post-production visual effects for the 2019 Chinese sci-fi comedy Crazy Alien, which grossed 2.2 billion yuan at the box office, and it also worked on Assassin in Red , a fantasy thriller that hit Chinese cinemas during the Lunar New Year holiday.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.