Take a look back at the evolution of virtual production and CGI…

Virtual production involves displaying computer generated imagery on a screen behind the talent whilst filming or during post production. In broadcasting this can be seen in virtual studios like in sports commentary studios at the Olympic games or in filming for adding VFX. This can take the form of greenscreens which were used in blockbuster films like ‘300’, as well as on LED plate screens as seen in Disney’s ‘The Mandalorian’.

This technique first came about in 1930 with Fox’s ‘Liliom’ in the form of front and rear projections where pre-recorded footage was put on a screen directly behind or in front of the subject.  It has been used in a variety of classic films as a staple technique in filming, particularly when filming driving scenes. The issue however with this technique is that the illusion is broken when the camera is moved from a particular angle.

One way of solving this was by utilising camera tracking. This process involves following the camera’s position in a physical space and coordinating its movements with animated elements added in post-production. Initially this form of motion capture was done via rotoscoping: a technique created in 1919 and more famously seen in early Disney animated films like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which involved tracing over each frame of recorded footage. Over the decades, this has developed into motion capture that we see today. The actor wears a body suit with dots or strips of material on specific points for CGI animators to track their movements and add the VFX in post. Since the 1980s, this technology has evolved exponentially, from using LED lights on the body suits for camera trackers to pick up, to simply marking dots on the actors’ faces like for Bill Nighy during his portrayal of Davey Jones in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.


For some of the bigger and more fantastical blockbusters, mass CGI is regularly used for the set as well as the actors.  Chroma key screens, or ‘greenscreens’ as they’re more commonly known as, have been used regularly since the 1930s but were first used in ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903. 120 years on and it’s still being used today! But why is it green? Whilst any colour can be used, the issue occurs when that colour features on the subjects or the scenery, causing it to blend in with the background. For example, warm colours like red, browns and yellows are found in people’s skins tones, as would neutral colours like black, white and grey which would also appear on people’s clothing. Whilst there are still issues with greenscreens having the same effect, it is a lot less frequent. You may have also seen blue screens being used for certain productions and the main reason is that green screens have a better luminosity so keep shots bright and well lit. Blue screens are occasionally used for low light shots. However, the issue with having an almost fully virtual background can make it hard for the actors to contextualise the scene without any solid environment around them. It does however give testament to the skills of actors who can perform with more or less nothing around them.

In recent years, technology has evolved to move beyond greenscreens to LED panels to provide more interactive lighting and background for the cameras and actors respectively. Whilst the LED screen has been used commercially on billboards for many years, its use in blockbuster films was pioneered in ‘Gravity’ in 2013 and has seen great success in ‘The Mandalorian’. By having these fully immersive screens set up in a semi-circle it allows for more seamless shots across multiple angles compared to rear projection rigs. As they are becoming more affordable for lower budget productions and independent studios, it is becoming an increasingly common piece of technology in a Producer’s wheelhouse and we can’t wait to see how the technology is used next.

Untitled design (4) Written by Josh Upton, Consultant