Pace Pictures’ Heath Ryan explores virtual production on an indie budget

Heath Ryan. 

When you think of virtual production, you might think of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King and The Mandalorian. However, Heath Ryan is setting out to showcase that such techniques can be used even on projects without a Disney budget.

Ryan, managing director of boutique post house Pace Pictures, is an Aussie who’s been based in LA for the last 20 years. Within his studio, the editor and producer has a virtual green screen stage running on Unreal Engine, and he’s been ramping up his capabilities since the pandemic began.

His interest in such technology goes back “a generation” to virtual reality; he was involved with staging VR and AR concerts for events like Coachella and Lollapalooza, as well as the Macy’s Day Parade.

“At the start of the pandemic and lockdown, we all realised that there were going to be no concerts in North America for at least a year or so. What do we then do with all of this technology that we’ve invested in? How we can move forward?” he tells IF.

“We ported over over all of our technology from the virtual reality and augmented reality concert work into tracking cameras, Unreal Engine and the ability to do live, virtual concerts. Now we’re shooting a feature film on that stage as well.”

Pace Pictures’ virtual green screen stage.

Indeed, the pandemic seems to have ramped up broader industry interest in virtual production as a means to overcome restrictions of social distancing and travel. VP shoots can allow for smaller crews, contained sets and the technology can create photo-realistic environments.

While Ryan is excited by the promise, he cautions it is not a panacea, “just another set of tools”. “It’s something else to add to our repertoire of what we can do.”

Ryan will discuss the opportunity of virtual production this Thursday as part of the Screen Makers Conference, on a panel led by Kojo MD Dale Roberts, and including Rising Sun Pictures’ Meredith Meyer-Nicols, Dancing Road Productions’ Gena Ashwell, Flinders University’s Dan Thorsland and Modelfarm’s Bree Whiteford Smith.

Virtual production for concerts and for film are two different beasts, Ryan says. Concerts tend to lean into what he calls more stylised, ‘computer graphic’ looks; EDM artists in particular are after vibrant, fluorescent and hyperreal environments.

Conversely, feature films are typically after a ‘photo real’ look. To achieve this at present, it’s cheaper for Ryan to acquire real assets – that is, to use photo geometry and RED cameras to capture 360 pans and images for artists to then manipulate – rather than to build everything in Unreal.

“The film world is a lot harder than the concert world, because once you’ve got the luxury of saying ‘Well, it doesn’t need to look real’, then you can go to town, can’t you?’ Everything’s a stylistic choice then. With things where we don’t want to tip our hat that it’s a virtual production, then we’re up against everything that we’re normally up against with a visual effects shot, and that is that people can detect, ‘There’s something wrong with that. It doesn’t look quite right.’ Therefore, everyone’s a critic and it’s a lot higher standard to live up to.”

Currently, Ryan is shooting on his stage an independent feature with some fairly basic sets: apartments, parks and a poker room – disrupting the idea that virtual production has to be tied to projects set in fantastical or science fiction worlds.

“You start to question: if it wasn’t for the pandemic, wouldn’t we just be in someone’s apartment? Always you’ve got to balance up: Am I too excited about these new toys to actually work out whether they’re the right toys for this particular job?”

Yet the one thing Ryan says is “undeniable” is the speed at which you can move. In order to work out a schedule for the film, he recently did a test shoot using two stand-ins for the main actors. They were able to get through a staggering 22 pages in an eight hour day while switching across four locations; his current schedule for the 90 minute feature is five days.

“We’d already pre-programmed all the lights as a DMX lighting-controlled grid on Luminair, so we could just hit a button and go from: Jennifer’s apartment day, Jennifer’s apartment night, Ian’s apartment day, Ian’s apartment night. The lighting would change instantly,” he says.

“Admittedly, we’re dealing with stand-ins, and we’re not diving in for the performances we’re going to get when we are dealing with real actors. But it did give us our map.”

Contrary to the belief this technology is out of reach, the budget for this film is less than US$100,000. However, Ryan admits that making a film this way requires about 20 days of additional pre-production that wouldn’t normally be included on an independent film.

“You’re front-loaded in a way that we’ve never been front loaded before. This was always a case of ‘fix it in post’, and now it’s a case of ‘you’ve got to get it right in pre’, because if you haven’t got it right in pre, you’re to a certain extent baked-in’

“I’m using green screen technology rather than LED technology, so I still always have the ability to key-in later. But if I haven’t worked out what my background is and I haven’t worked out the way the light falls in that background to be able to then replicate what we’re doing in our foreground, with our talent, then we’re opening up a giant can of worms that, in a $100,000 film, we cannot afford to fix.”

However, he predicts that over time, as he develops a library of assets, pre-production time could be shortened for some projects. For instance, he could ‘reuse’ a set from a previous project by reskinning the furniture, floor and walls – while retaining the 3D mesh of the light in the room, and camera tracking data.

While there is plenty of opportunity, there are also challenges. Ryan cautions there is no such thing as ‘turnkey stage’.

“If anyone is saying to you, ‘Our stage is set up and ready to go. Just come in and do a virtual production’, I’d find that very hard to believe. Every production has its own challenges, and every set-up has its own challenges. Therefore, it’s the same as it always has been: it’s a group of really talented filmmakers getting together to work out how to solve these problems or work a way around them.”

Looking to the future, Ryan believes virtual production technology will be accessible in a faster fashion than many might think. He believes it will become a common tool – particularly as COVID-19 lingers.

“It’s going to happen fast. It’s not going to be as expensive as it probably looks. When you see those amazing behind-the-scenes videos of The Mandalorian, you go ‘Whoa!’ But I don’t think it’s going to play out like that. My stage has been put together on a shoestring budget and it’s been able to deliver some pretty exciting things.”

The Screen Makers Conference runs online August 26-27.