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Sony’s virtual production tech thinks outside the green screen

At Sony’s Kiyosumi Shirakawa Base in Tokyo, trees fly by the windshield of a car as filming begins for a commercial. But the vehicle is stationary, and the trees are digital.

Kiyosumi Shirakawa is a studio for virtual productions, an increasingly popular technology with the potential to reshape production of everything from ads to dramas. It can remove the hassle of costly overseas shoots, time-consuming green screen composites and weather delays.

The studio, the first permanent location of its kind in Japan, is packed with Sony technology, most prominently a curved high-definition Crystal LED screen 5 meters tall and 15 meters long, paired with a Venice cinema camera.

The desired background is displayed on the screen behind the subject being filmed — whether that be an actor or a car — and when the camera moves, the image moves with it, as if traveling through a virtual space.

“We want to make this our domestic flagship studio,” said Daisuke Kobayashi at content production company Sony PCL.

A similar setup is under construction at a Sony Pictures Entertainment studio in California. The company also will install a virtual production studio this summer at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, a renowned film school.

Virtual production technology took off during the coronavirus pandemic as lockdowns made traditional filming difficult or impossible.

“There are more than 100 specialized studios worldwide, both big and small, and 70% are in Europe and the U.S.,” said Takuro Imaichi, a director at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting.

Light-emitting diode (LED) screens for virtual production are also made by manufacturers such as Samsung Electronics, while Nikon has announced plans to enter the field as well.

Sony’s advantage lies in its involvement with both hardware and content. The company is a big name in the film industry, and its cinema cameras have been used widely since the 2000s. Using a Sony screen along with a Sony camera makes it easier for filmmakers to get the results they want.

Internal synergy exists as well. The group used input from Sony Pictures when developing its Crystal LED screen, making it less reflective.

Sony plans to use the studios for its own productions and also rent them out to other companies, generating additional income.

The virtual production market is projected to nearly quadruple between this year and 2030 to $6.79 billion, Irish firm Research and Markets said.

Virtual production can streamline filmmaking. While green screens require the background to be added later in the compositing process, virtual production allows filming with the desired backdrop already in place. Results can be viewed in real time with no post-production processing required.

And because everything can be done indoors, production is not at the mercy of the weather or limited by the time of day as outdoor shoots are.

Japanese automaker Mazda used Sony’s studio in creating a commercial for its CX-5 sport utility vehicle last year. Such ads often are filmed overseas, which requires shipping the car to the destination, along with possible further hurdles like weather delays.

This process can take weeks, but the ad at Sony’s studio was finished in two days — a real advantage in an area where speed is increasingly of the essence.

“Ads like TV commercials get stale quickly,” a Mazda marketing representative said. “If you don’t put out more video with fast-paced filming, you won’t stay in consumers’ minds.”

And with no need to pay for staff to travel abroad, costs were much lower, the representative said. NIKKEI Asia

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