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Volumetric Filmmaking: An Industry Standard

Innovations in real-time editing

Since the early 1990s, we have witnessed the evolution of CGI and motion capture technology in filmmaking. These advancements also propelled extensive critique among fans and critics regarding the balance between digital and practical effects. As this has largely been litigated in the public arena, another emergent technology has evolved into a viable film technique. A format that combines elements of game design and cinema, allowing real people to exist in a virtual world – Volumetric Filmmaking.

Credit: Niel Osman, The Mandalorian, Directed by Jon Favreau, 2018

Volumetric Filmmaking is a narrative form that is completely interactive. Placing real people in 360-degree virtual environments that react with/to the participant. The history of this emerging tech and its various levels of experimentation is quite extensive. From 3D captured point clouds in a Radiohead video, the Microsoft Kinect, to the Oculus Rift. There have been continuous iterations and variations culminating in Depthkit’s volumetric Film Software. This package offers an in-house method for volumetric filmmaking. It utilizes a combination of depth sensors, cameras, and a green screen, with a robust post-editing suite.

Credit: House of Cards, Radiohead, Directed by James Frost, 2007

Perhaps there is no greater example of this form of filmmaking in the industry than Disney studios and Lucasfilm division ILM (Industrial Light & Magic)’s “The Volume”. The Volume is an immersive LED soundstage. It is 360 degrees of LED panel screens. Backgrounds are built beforehand utilizing a combination of CGI, layered images, and real footage. Sensors are placed on the cameras so the virtual world is oriented with directional integrity. It allows filmmakers to make editing choices in real time and it allows actors to engage with an environment rather than a green screen. The soundstage itself is a combination of the LED screen and physical sets and props.

Credit: Mandalorian, Directed by Jon Favreau, 2019

The success of this type of filmmaking is still in question. As production on shows like “The Mandalorian” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi” varies in its quality, critics are quick to deconstruct, dismiss, or embrace the innovative technique. However, with HBO’s “House of Dragon” also using their own version of this technology, it seems that film and TV are ushering in volumetric filmmaking. It’s cost-effective and efficient, and while there are certainly hiccups, it’s establishing its place as a standard form of filmmaking.