According to Kim Libreri of Lucasfilm, the answer to that question is “yes.” As reported by The Inquirer, Libreri recently delivered a presentation to BAFTA’s Technology Strategy Board in which he outlined a possible future in which visual effects are added during a film’s production shoot. Motion capture technology, combined with high-speed game-engine rendering, will permit a director to generate, on set and in real-time, exactly what will appear on the screen in the movie theatre.
Will it happen? Almost certainly. In fact, it’s happening already. Take Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, which made innovative use of the new Ncam system. Mounted under the main camera, Ncam’s scanner first builds a 3D model of its surroundings. Backgrounds and assets created in previs can then be added on the fly, delivering a precomposed image straight to the director’s monitor. Speaking in Cinefex 134, Emmerich said, “This kind of system is the future. Ncam is now my favourite tool.”
In the case of White House Down, the previs elements were ultimately replaced in post-production. As systems like Ncam become more sophisticated, the quality of the material captured on set will only improve. Sooner or later, it will be indistinguishable from anything that could be achieved in post-production.
So will we soon be conducting a post-mortem for post?
I don’t think so. I think directors are going to love the new process – why wouldn’t they? What they see is what they’ll get. But post-production is where films are built. That doesn’t just mean visual effects – what about the fundamental craft of editing? What about sound design and scoring? Like any creative work, films evolve in the making. If you ask me, post isn’t going away any time soon.
But I do think things are going to change. When this trend really does take hold, it’s going to shift the workload for visual effects facilities from post to pre-production. That means they’ll need longer lead times – easy to say, not so easy to implement. It may also mean visual effects become more closely integrated into the production process, and that has to be a good thing. Wouldn’t every VFX supervisor prefer to be a creative collaborator than a bolt-on extra?
Here’s a final thought for all those die-hards grumbling that this is just another nail in the coffin of old-school effects. Back in the earliest days of cinema, a matte artist would set up a big sheet of glass in front of the camera and paint the background right before the director’s eyes. Hanging miniatures – the original set extensions – were modelled in the workshop and mounted on rigs just inches from the lens. In both cases, when the director looked through his viewfinder, he saw the finished shot.
Once upon a time, everything was done in camera.
In the future, it looks like it will be again.