On a soundstage no bigger than a large bedroom a cameraman takes up various angles to film a helicopter that isn’t there, landing in a field that isn’t there either. Until recently, virtual reality was the preserve of the gaming crowd but producers say the technology is on the cusp of a boom which could change forever the way television is made.
Leading the charge is visual effects studio CBS Digital, which has developed Parallax, a VR system which could potentially do away with on-location filming altogether. The company has laser scanned endless parts of the United States, overlaying the geometry with hi-res images to produce fully explorable, 3D virtual sets into which real actors can be embedded.
Back at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, two actors can exchange dialogue in a room covered with green screens and optical tracking cameras dotting the ceiling but what the showrunner sees on his camera screen is his two stars walking hand in hand around a photo realistic Eiffel Tower or leaning over a perfectly rendered Niagara Falls.
“The biggest advantage is to take away traditional restrictions that filmmakers come up against,” Craig Weiss, executive creative director of CBS Digital, told AFP.
The problems Parallax solves for film and television makers are numerous. But the most important perhaps is cash or not having enough of it to bring ideas to life on the screen. A big proportion of any production budget goes on securing locations and filming in them. The costs spiral when you have to wait until it stops raining or until the light exactly matches yesterday’s shoot.
The virtual sets being made available by Parallax allow directors to get through something like three weeks’ worth of traditional location work in a day, says the studio. The size of film crews too can be cut in half.
Fox’s ‘The Last Man on Earth’ and ABC’s ‘American Housewife’ have both started using Parallax.
CBS Digital already provides a variety of cutting edge visual effects for Amazon’s ‘Transparent’ as well as Netflix originals ‘Daredevil’, ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Jessica Jones’.
The only restrictions on what VR can achieve for television is the limits of the human imagination, it says.The newest generation of VR was ushered in by an American teenager called Palmer Luckey, who in 2010 built a prototype of a headset that would eventually become the Oculus Rift.
The technology is in its infancy although developing fast, and for CBS Digital, the implications for television could hardly be more profound.
“The eventual goal is that anyone with a good idea and the requisite storytelling skills, regardless of their access to big budgets, will have ‘Hollywood in a box’,” said George Bloom the CBS Digital executive producer.