June 2022

Talking ‘Virtual Production’ with Andy Waters

Talking ‘Virtual Production’ with Andy Waters

As Virtual Production becomes increasingly popular, it's changing the way television is made. We catch up with Andy Waters, Head of Studios at dock10, to find out how we are using this exciting new technology.

Q: What virtual production services does dock10 provide?

At dock10 we have a wide range of customers using our virtual studios capability. The real-time solution we provide is used by broadcasters and agencies for flagship shows ranging from Match of the Day to Bitesize to the global esports tournament Gran Turismo, as well as for commercials and corporate communications. Our inhouse design team provides the complete set-design from creating a full virtual world to producing mixed reality sets that incorporate Augmented Reality (AR) characters. We really can deliver anything for any project.

Q: What technologies do your virtual studios use?

Compared to most studios, at dock10 we've taken a deliberately different approach: rather than build a single virtual studio we have installed virtual capabilities in every one of our ten television studios. These use the latest real-time games-engine technology from Epic and Unreal Engine with Zero Density, together with the Mo-Sys star tracking system. By centralising the systems in our CTA we give our customers the flexibility to choose the right size studio for their production – anything from 1,000sq ft to 12,500sq ft. But it's about more than space and technology. Over the five years we've been using virtual studios, we have built up a brilliant team of highly experienced designers who are dedicated to creating fantastic virtual worlds, as well as a team of engineers and craft talent who really understand how to help productions get the most out of this amazing technology and deliver extraordinary on-screen results.

Q: What advice would you give to anyone looking to make the switch?

Switching from a fixed set to a virtual world can seem daunting, so I'd advise taking the time to understand the capabilities and possibilities that a virtual studio can offer. Talking to experts not only makes the transition easier it can blow your mind with exciting opportunities, the new technology we're using is a million times better than previous generations, making it easier than ever to create a photorealistic world with live real-time output. The best investment is simply spending time understanding how to make the most of this exciting tool.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest advantage of moving a show to virtual production?

Probably the most advantageous use of virtual studios is the ability to refresh a set or change elements that would otherwise be extremely difficult or costly with a physical build. Working in the virtual world lets you make brand updates or special editions with ease and allows you to explore creative ideas and try different elements without committing to a major build cost. This is an advantage that just wasn't possible before!

Q: How easy is it to switch to virtual production?

Entering the virtual world can be a steep learning curve but working with real experts makes it a whole lot easier. Again, spending time with people who know their stuff is invaluable. We are in the very privileged position to have five years' experience of bringing major virtual studio productions to air, and our customers love the fact that there isn't much our team hasn't encountered, explored and overcome - right across the production process. It is new, it is different, and you do need to learn some new tricks but it's definitely worth it.

Q: Have sports productions encountered any restrictions in the move to virtual productions?

None at all! Live sport has been the pioneering champion of virtual studios, flagship shows like Match of the Day were the first to use this next generation of technology. With sport, you want to capture live reactions from pundits and fans, and using a virtual studio lets you have as many locations and screens as you want. It easily handles the countless combinations of graphics needed to cover so many different games, teams, and players. And as anything can happen in live sport, the virtual studio is perfectly equipped to react to shifting situations enabling you to change anything and everything quickly and easily.

Q: How does switching to virtual production affect a show's costs?

Using virtual studios can save on budgets. Reducing the size of the physical set can reduce the build cost and might allow you to use a smaller (and less expensive) studio without it ever looking smaller. And when you refresh the set or have a special edition of a show, you only need to change the graphics rather than physically building new elements, saving time and money. Of course, the virtual set still needs to be built and as with any creative process the more time you give the virtual build team the better the virtual world they can produce. But I think the really big difference is not about saving money but how much more you can do with the money you have. I love that we can take a show with a daytime budget and make it look like a Saturday night big-budget production by building a virtual world around the set and adding amazing graphics to really make it stand out.

Q: What's essential for a good virtual production?

As with any production, preparation time is essential and the better prepared you are the better the production will be. The best feedback we get is when the audience can't tell which elements are virtual and which are real, so plan ahead and explore all the creative possibilities with the experts – then build something amazing!

Q: What's next for virtual productions?

For the last five years sport has led the way in virtual studios as they quickly understood how to make the technology work for them, the next five years will be about entertainment formats. There is a continued pressure to reduce budgets, but channels still demand new and exciting content - and this is where virtual studio elements can make a difference. You don't need to throw away your set and shoot in a green box, simply adding some virtual elements can give your show that ‘something special’. We are working with a number of productions on some very exciting projects that will show people how incredible virtual studios are. If, like me, your view of virtual studios was tainted by its unimpressive output back in the 90's, it's definitely time to take another look as the next generation technology we're using is worlds apart from that. We have written two free guides to help production teams understand the technology and if you've never experienced the latest virtual studios, come along to dock10 and we will be more than happy to show you how it works and inspire you to use it on your next production.

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