It’s been over a decade since Avatar (2009) offered the world its first glimpse into the future of virtual production. Whilst there were various important precursors, James Cameron’s landmark feature was the first to make exceptional revenue. It not only proved that work built almost entirely out of virtual tools could make big buck, but that audiences would respond to it in meaningful ways. It represented a new era of technological innovation that wasn’t merely a vainglorious showcase of its own technical prowess, but a means of creating evocative and emotionally engaging story worlds. Its success suggested that the gap between art and high tech was somehow narrowing.
One thing this vision of the future failed to account for was the extortionate cost of virtual production tools. Avatar had the luxury of a $237 million production budget, setting a new precedent for virtual productions that has since been surpassed many times (Avengers: Endgame eclipsed Avatar’s budget by well-over $100 million). Hence, virtual production has seemed for the longest time a highly inaccessible means of being creative. Even recent productions like The Lion King and The Mandalorian continue to reinforce this image, with budgets soaring into the hundred-to-two-hundred million dollar realm.
Elsewhere, the gap between low and high tech is undoubtedly closing. VR is projected to be worth $20 billion by 2025 (up from $6.1 billion in 2020), suggesting it has finally shed its decade-long gimmick status, and with over half of all 11-year olds already owning a smartphone, the 2020s looks to continue making what was once thought of as the highest of high tech more accessible than ever. Of course, the startups emerging across the globe are working diligently toward this ambition, not least of all virtual production toolmaker Glassbox Technologies.
The Los Angeles-based startup has made great strides in democratizing virtual production since launching in 2016. It currently offers three flagship products – DragonFly, Beehive, and Live Client. All three are software plugins built for game engines (the most prominent of which is Unreal).
Dragonfly is a real-time virtual camera system, Live Client is a real-time facial animation plug-in, and Beehive is a real-time virtual collaboration tool. All three products emphasize the company’s singular goal – to improve workflow, increase efficiency, and make virtual production more accessible and productive.
Glassbox takes the tried-and-true work processes found on real-world film sets and injects these practices into the virtual world via these plugins, optimizing and streamlining the creative process. This approach pedestals virtual cinematography, performance capture, and real-time visualization as the foundations of the virtual production ‘set’. In so doing, virtual production looks to become more collaborative (and humanistic) than ever before.
“We believe that game engines and real-time technology have the power to revolutionize filmmaking and visualization across industries, and we’ve been hard at work developing tools that will help creative teams achieve their goals with simple, off-the-shelf packages that integrate with whichever game engine and digital content creation applications they prefer,” says co-founder and chief product officer, Mariana Acuña-Acosta.
As part of the company’s decisive shift from custom to product-based sales, plugins are sold on an annual renewal. This approach is common when it comes to software sales, representing an active attempt to break-through the low-end of the market whilst still catering to professional studio settings. For example, Beehive’s ‘Boutique For A While’ purchase option comes with five product licence keys, whilst the ‘Studio For A While’ license comes with ten. Both options include a year of tech support from the team, so regardless of whether the customers are a large studio or a bedroom of indie devs, they can quickly get to grips with the tech.
In ten years, the technology powering all this has advanced drastically, so that the high quality pre-rendered animations of movies and games a decade-or-so ago are now surpassed in quality by real-time animation. If pre-rendered animation is a dead art, it’s important that accessible new tools are leveraged in order to accommodate the new era of virtual production, where in-camera visual effects that marry virtual and live-action footage can be rendered, viewed and edited in real-time.
That being said, the birthplace of this kind of technology (and the ethos behind it) is undoubtedly computer games. Open-source collaborative work has been a mainstay since the mid-2000s machinima movement, wherein gamers utilized real-time engines to create videos. As CEO Norman Wang reflects, Garry’s Mod, made with Valve’s Source engine, was one of the more popular ‘production sets’, perhaps because the Source engine greatly encouraged creative freedom with its transparent and democratic approach.
And that’s where the current gap exists between film and games. Whilst real-time virtual production in film remains in the tightly-clasped hands of Hollywood, there is a vast and well-documented legacy of open and collaborative creative work in gaming, achieved without breaking the bank.
As with most tech startups, it’s been a remarkably tough year for Glassbox, what with most of the major scheduled tech conferences - including, most importantly, SXSW - cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Glassbox was a finalist for the SXSW Innovation Award, and was scheduled to pitch to big-time potential investors.
‘This is definitely something that we’re not expecting,’ Acuña-Acosta lamented in an interview with the Statesman. ‘Not being able to be part of all these conferences is a huge blow for our business’. Of course, since the chaos in March, many conferences have opted to instead host their events virtually, and Acuña-Acosta has certainly been doing the rounds. Given the major setbacks, Glassbox’s ability to successfully break through the low-end market with off-the-shelf products as we enter 2021 will, no doubt, determine what comes next - not just for the company, but for virtual production at large.