Los Angeles (AFP) - 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 on a recent visit to the studio. "And that would be the arduous task of going to different locations, shooting in the middle of the night. You're able to bring the world to the stage, have a lot more flexibility and get more work done."
- Empowering directors -
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.
According to Weiss, a crew of a handful of technicians working with the system recently captured two blocks in New York -- every nook and cranny, from every angle, in under 14 hours. "After an initial investment... the cost of using a virtual set can, in some cases, literally save 100 percent of the costs of on-location shooting," said CBS Digital executive producer George Bloom.
Bloom, who was vice president of creative content at Walt Disney Pictures and has 14 years' experience as a director, says "Parallax" hands control back to the filmmaker. "When you're a director, sometimes you feel like you don't have control because you're throwing all this vision that you have into a visual effects company's hands," he tells AFP.
"You have no idea what it's going to look like until five or ten days later."
- Storytelling skills -
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. Luckey, now 24 and worth $700 million, raised pledges through Kickstarter to manufacture the Oculus VR, bringing it to the attention of Facebook which paid $2 billion for the company in 2014.
Since then, gamers have reveled in the emergence of HTC Vive -- a partnership between Taiwanese tech firm HTC and the games company Valve -- and Samsung's Gear VR. 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," says Bloom. "A soundstage is just a nice, comfortable place to work, but it can be Paris, New York, the future," said Bloom.