3D Virtual Studio Production: Revolutionizing Live Video Production

by Taylor

Live video production in the early days was composed of as little as one camera, a set, and some visuals backing the set on a basic chroma key backdrop. Then it evolved into the use of two or more cameras during a studio production, or location production with the added use of outside broadcasting trucks (OB Trucks). During the studio production, it was still a basic set with the use of more advanced visuals during this era. Only during recent times has technology production reached a stage in which it is now possible to broadcast a live game using 3D engine visuals as seen in computer games today. Most professional broadcasters started out in the analogue days of video production, where tape decks were the bread and butter of the video creation process, splicing and dicing video footage to create a final programme. They have all been through the entire process of migration from analogue to digital video production, notably in the 1990s and the years 2000-2002 where there was increased demand expected of high quality television series. The migration was a definite learning curve and may have been a costly process for some. But the benefits of digital video production were immense: the ease of video data transfer, the ability to store a higher quantity of video footage, editing tools, and video effects were of major improvement. As technology progressed even further, high definition video production and its related equipment and tools were dropped to an affordable price. This was a significant improvement to the old digital video production of standard definition. With the technology of video games, 3D engine visuals became more achievable in the realm of live video broadcasting. It has been stated that the demand for video game consoles and personal computers to possess higher RAM, video cards, and CPUs were from the rise of MMORPG and online gaming titles. Now, with the current technology, it is possible and is the modest beginning of using 3D engine visuals to broadcast live games mainly seen in developed countries. High bandwidth and connectivity are required to transfer the 3D image data with little to no data loss during transmission. This mode of video production is still not often done due to the need for high bandwidth, high-end PCs that perform encoding and decoding of video data, and the vast amount of uncertainty as to whether it would be a success or a failure and that there is little room for error in terms of data loss when broadcasting live. (Wong Shung Siong, 2011)

Evolution of Live Video Production

In the mid-1980s, 3/4″ videotape technology emerged that allowed field recording with better quality, portability, and quicker/easier post-production editing than ever before. In the late 80s, this technology became more affordable for not just major television companies, and event videography was born. In the early 90s, digital (DV) technology emerged and quickly became the standard for field recording. The quality, affordability, and record/edit workflow were far superior to the previous 3/4″ format and made it the new standard for event videography and live production. DV rapidly evolved into HDV, and HDV into full HD, which bridged the quality gap between field production and studio production. This resulted in higher audience expectations for the quality of live video productions.

Before the 1980s, live video production companies were strictly limited to multi-camera switching required for broadcast. Live event coverage was simply a mobile version of a studio production, even when the events themselves were not in a studio. Bands at the time primarily relied on post-production music videos due to the poor audio and visual quality of live videos. Award shows and sport events were the only successful live video productions because of the already established successful nature of said events.

The Rise of 3D Virtual Studio Production

The 1990s saw the early incarnations of virtual studio technology, when the industry underwent a period of rapid development, both in terms of technology and styles of content. The traditional chroma-key (blue/green-screen) technique was still the predominant method for virtual or ‘non-real’ set creation. This is because it is both cost-effective and fairly easy to achieve. However, the end results were often undesirable – the ‘cut-out’ presenters and actors did not sit well against the computer-created backgrounds. Frustrations with this method led to continued development in the field. Although some still employ this method, the most recent innovation is the creation of a ‘virtual environment’ that does not use real cameras to film real actors. Instead, computer-generated presenters and actors are placed in real time into computer-generated settings with the use of 3D animation and real-time rendering. This method has been realized over the years in various forms, including full 3D animated movies, but the technology now exists to take advantage of its cost and time effectiveness in a live production environment. This method of virtual production is almost the complete reverse of early virtual set technology in that it is the real people and presenters who are now the ‘cut-outs’. A great deal of this technology is still being developed and has been limited by the availability of skilled 3D animators and the costs in creating such computer-generated settings. However, the benefits it holds in providing a flexible, cost-effective and captivating on-screen environment will see increasing use in future live productions.

Importance of 3D Virtual Studio Production in Singapore

Television shows have long been recognized as an important cultural export for Hollywood and the UK. It would seem illogical to learn that a large proportion of one of the most watched content on Singapore’s prime time TV is a topic a large proportion of daily life, English Premier League football. Given the lack of local football-related content, it is likely that the attraction of local football fans towards these shows is due to the higher production of the foreign shows. This can be attested by the fact that one of Singapore’s most watched football shows is simply a recording of the UK’s Match of the Day with a secondary narration over the top by local presenters. In essence, the globalization of culture and the increased pace of life worldwide has led to a demand for higher quality visual entertainment. Given this change in society, the importance of visual entertainment has increased and the migration from traditional to virtual studios in countries such as Singapore carries greater significance. A significant contributing factor is the declining costs of producing virtual studio content. Traditionally, the costs of producing high-quality visual content were steep and the standard was poor in comparison to today’s broadcasted shows. Producing broadcast-ready video content required very expensive high-end camera and recording equipment. This was followed by long editing hours to enhance the quality of the production. In comparison, the cost of producing content in a virtual studio is relatively cheap with costs of creating 3D models and animation becoming more competitive to that of video production. The virtual studio environment also provides a cost-effective means to create high-quality visual content. The show can be recorded in real-time with key compositing of the 3D content and live-action video, requiring minimal post-production in comparison to the traditional method. As previously mentioned, the globalization of culture has led to a higher demand for higher quality visual entertainment worldwide. The migration from traditional to virtual studios in countries such as Singapore is an important step in revolutionizing local visual entertainment with globalization in mind. Countries which have established a firm foundation on traditional studios have poor accessibility to the most recent developments of virtual studio production. These developments are important as they have made creating virtual studio content more attractive, affordable, and of high quality. It is the wealth in developments and the ease with which these can be obtained that enable countries like Singapore to break the traditional studio mold so to speak and compete in creating high-quality visual entertainment with global accessibility on a budget. Specifically, these developments include improved cost and quality of 3D modeling and animation, as well as the increased availability of real-time rendering game engines which can be used to create a virtual studio environment.

Benefits of 3D Virtual Studio Production

In a traditional studio production, the VFX lives and breathes in the hands of the post-production team. However, in virtual studio production, it can be conceived at the same time as the video and become an integral part of the whole process. The 3D environment is a virtual VFX playground in which creators can conjure up and visualize ideas and concepts instantaneously. This is in contrast to the time-consuming and costly process of having to physically impose VFX on real footage, often getting it wrong and having to start over. An example of this was Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which the character Gollum was not conceived until late in the filming process, resulting in reshoots of scenes (Donoughue, 2010). In a virtual environment, Gollum could have been conceptualized off the bat and become an integral part of the scene production. Often the VFX ends up being an imitation of the creator’s original vision. The 3D environment can be molded and manipulated to create anything that the creator desires, providing the potential of the VFX to match or even surpass its preconceived idea. This method of VFX creation can potentially solve the problem pointed out by Rodriguez in that there will be substantial pre-planning and full utilization of resources to get the desired result. With 3D virtual production, the VFX is able to be tightly integrated into all stages of production, such as pre-visualization, various shot roughs, and storyboards, thus ensuring that it will be best realized and serve the video as best as they can.

Enhanced visual effects and realism Visual effects have become an integral part of modern video production. However, while they are commonly considered and preconceived, they are not always comprehensively planned and executed. Research suggests that VFX are often an afterthought in many post-production processes and thus, not maximized due to poor planning and implementation (Rodriguez, 2014). This is usually because the creators have lacked adequate time, money, and resources to fully plan their VFX and bring them to life. Another reason is that they are not aware of the potential of what can be created virtually, to its full extent.

Enhanced Visual Effects and Realism

In a 3D studio environment, the hospital room and exterior can be built, mapped, and filmed without any compositing, while maintaining realism (Wilson, 2003). This approach can be called a “what you shoot is what you get” mentality and is shifting the mentality of directors and cinematographers away from shooting on location or in a studio to shooting on a virtual stage.

Contrary to blue/green screen, the virtual compositing environment enables the director to use camera moves and angles that would be impossible in the real world, resulting in more dynamic visuals. An example of this would be a shot in a real-world drama set in a hospital, where the camera flies through a closed window into a room from outside. A conventional studio or location shoot would involve building a replica room and hospital exterior, costing a lot of money and time. Additionally, the window move would be impossible without compositing in post-production.

Enhanced visual effects and realism are the key to understanding the visual capabilities of 3D Studio Production. Essentially, techniques used in 3D virtual studio production make it possible for any background, real or simulated, to be projected onto the LED wall and composited with live or CG actors and objects. This is known within the industry as chroma key or more commonly, blue/green screen.

Cost and Time Efficiency

The traditional method for any type of live video production company always takes a lot of time to prepare and set up, and is often very costly. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the fact that the various elements of the set (those that make up the studio environment) must all be created from scratch. This requires a team of designers and builders, as well as a designer to come up with a concept that will both look good and be achievable within the given time frame and budget. Creating a real studio set is a costly business. Everything has to be made from scratch and while it might gain authenticity, these productions result in higher risk processes. Because real studios are not modular and assets cannot be re-used, if time or budget constraints bite then corners must be cut or additional funds requested. In both cases, the result is a compromise in the quality of the production. Studio time is also costly and any delays result in extra expense. 3D virtual studio production offers a solution to all these problems. By its nature, it is a pre-fabricated set, only the elements only have to be constructed once and can be used again and again. Because 3D graphics are purely a digital medium, there is no cost for materials and the only limits are those of the imagination. This means that not only is it cheaper to produce but even a relatively small budget can go a long way. High-quality results can be achieved at a fraction of the cost of a real set. Studio time and the production process are quicker and more efficient due to the greater level of planning and the ability to pre-visualize.

Flexibility and Versatility

One of the significant aspects that attract producers to utilize virtual studios is the flexibility and versatility that it offers compared to real studios. As stated by St-Louis and his team (2005), virtual studio offers the ability to adapt to rapidly changing production needs as well as to efficiently reconfigure studio sets and environments, while maintaining a high level of realism. This is made possible with the extensive graphical and animation design tools provided in 3D software that enables the creation of virtual studio sets and environments. Digital props and complex set designs no longer pose problems in terms of storage and preservation. With virtual studio, they only exist in the form of data and can be reproduced anytime it is needed. Also, with the usage of compositing to combine real and virtual scenes, virtual sets can be changed instantly and much more cost effective compared with the use of real sets making it suitable for all types of production from live broadcast and post-production shows to news production. Another advantage is the reuse of the content created. In the case of 3D computer models of sets and environments, they can be reused in whole or part for later production, thus saving time and cost in their recreation. This is particularly useful for long-running series or frequent productions with defined themes or concepts. With the reusable nature of the virtual studio elements, changes in programming, such as the retargeting of a show to a different audience, can be accomplished with minimal additional cost. All these are phenomena not possible with the use of real studios.

Applications of 3D Virtual Studio Production

Corporate events and conferences Any traditional form of business, motivational, or training video which used to take place in a real location such as a boardroom, warehouse, office, or outdoor field, etc. can now be recreated in a much less expensive and controlled environment with 3D virtual studio production. This will not only save the travel and set-up costs of a location shoot but will produce a much more professional and immersive-looking end product. A corporate event, meeting, or seminar video can also be enhanced with post-production effects such as video composting of traditional PowerPoint or other slides into a virtual studio environment complete with a presenter and other graphic overlays.

Webcasting and IPTV also stand to gain benefits from the virtual studio environment. Production budgets for web-based programming are typically less than that for TV broadcast. But today the majority of internet video content is still based in the real world or shot in a real location, mostly due to the added expense of setting up a studio.

Broadcasting and television 3D virtual studio production has many applications in broadcasting and television. Virtual studios can immerse the viewer in a three-dimensional environment or simulation of a real or fantasy location. This is really a paradox of the much older, traditional method of presenting a 3D studio environment using 2D background footage. Virtual sets are created using computer-generated 3D imagery, which is a far more believable environment than the fixed perspective 2D backdrop. The camera or viewer position has additional benefits as the virtual studio is fully scalable or can be perspective or parallax corrected automatically. A virtual camera can also be animated along a path around the studio.

Broadcasting and Television

For seventy years, TV studio production methodologies have stood still while our living rooms have been revolutionized. With the rise of virtual 3D environments, it is very possible that the next generation of those methodologies will skip the contemporary and directly emulate the real world to a far greater extent than we see today. The impetus for this progress seems apparent when considering the goals of traditional TV studio production. That is to create high-quality audio-visual content in a time and cost-effective manner. Broadcasters, program makers, and production staff will have to consider the implications, both short and long term, of these new techniques. For live production, 3D graphics and 3D environments have huge potential to streamline the production process. In the short term, the use of virtual sets is likely to make set construction faster and more cost-effective. Measures such as developing set pieces as 3D models or simply using bluescreen and package will drastically reduce production time compared to traditional construction. In addition to this, being able to reuse 3D assets for set construction provides a means of archived content that can be used throughout the life cycle of a production and possibly across many different projects in the future. As automation techniques for motion capture and AI-driven animation continue to advance, it is very possible that virtual presenters and NPCs will be created to facilitate live shows, providing the interactivity and flexibility of pre-recorded shows with the spontaneity of live.

Corporate Events and Conferences

3D Virtual Studio Production provides a unique alternative to videotape, slides, or PowerPoint presentations. It allows for the speaker to elaborate on a concept with the use of graphical examples and/or data visualization. By integrating pre-existing data or visual references, a speaker can interactively bring their audience through a scenario, effectively communicating complex concepts. 3D graphics and animation can also add an element of entertainment to an otherwise dry presentation. It provides an effective way to communicate with an international audience by the use of 3D characters as avatars. With language translation of text, an avatar can play the role of a narrator in recreating a presentation in a different language. Audio translation to a WAV file and translation of the character’s lip-sync data can also provide authentic foreign language presentations. A collection of recorded presentations can be compiled and distributed as a cost-effective form of distance learning.

In recent years, the demand for real-time production has increased at corporate events and conferences. Corporate gatherings differ from their consumer-oriented counterparts in that the messaging on both a verbal and non-verbal level is usually very clear. The information needing to be conveyed is usually mission-critical, and companies are leveraging any technology necessary to make sure that all attendees receive the message.

Advertising and Marketing

Marketing and advertising firms have long deemed live video as an implausible way for building their brands. They are unsure about what exactly it can do for them and their product. With this in mind, the 3D virtual studio has several new and innovative ways to reach customers with the use of 3D technology. One of those ways is with interactive TV. This is a method a consumer is able to interact with a television ad, rotating, zooming, and panning a product in 3D via their remote control. This is successful because whenever a customer interacts with a product, there is a better chance that they will make a purchase. With traditional 2D video, the viewer can quickly forget the product or brand, but with 3D, most of the product immersion and the viewer’s interaction translates to a higher chance of a sale. Another similar method is with the use of in-game ad placement. This is when a company contracts with a game development studio to create their product in 3D for placement within an actual game. This can be anything from a can of soda to a car; the possibilities are endless. This has been proven to work as an effective medium for advertising to a younger audience. A study by Nielsen Entertainment has found that 82% of American youth ages 8-17 play video games on a computer or console, with 68% of those owning a game console. With so many young potential consumers, it is an effective way of marketing to this demographic and the product rendition can potentially be reused for future projects.

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