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June 06
2024

ISSUE

Summer 2024

STREAMING PLATFORM DEMANDS KEEP RAISING THE BAR FOR VFX

By CHRIS McGOWAN

The Witcher (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The Witcher (Image courtesy of Netflix)

In recent years, the increasing demands of streaming platforms for a higher quality and quantity of visual effects have helped raise the bar for VFX studios and fueled the expectations of viewers.

“The demand for high-quality visual effects in streaming content is indeed on the rise,” comments Charlene Eberle, Raynault VFX Executive Producer and Head of Business Development. “As streaming platforms continue to produce original films, series and other content to attract and retain subscribers, they prioritize delivering visually stunning and immersive experiences. This means investing in advanced VFX to create worlds, creatures and effects that rival or surpass those seen in traditional cinema.”

Much of the increased demand is due to new investments in original content. “The resurgence of mid-budget, genre-specific productions on streaming platforms has been one of the major factors,” comments Mark Hammond, Co-Owner and VFX Supervisor at Herne Hill. “It’s been a positive for the entire industry, as the streamers have shown a strong desire to support the creative vision of their storytellers, resulting in the type of VFX requirements and budgets that were typically reserved for studio feature films in the past.”

“Stories are getting more ambitious, taking place in entirely fictional worlds or reimagined versions of our own,” according to Glenn Matchett, Managing Director at Grammatik Agency, an international tech PR and marketing firm. “If you look at shows like The Witcher, there’s an enormous amount of world-building that leans on visual effects to be believable. While shows like The Crown take place in our own reality, it’s set in the past so there’s a lot of VFX needed to put contemporary settings back to the way they were. High-quality visual effects work is absolutely fundamental to almost every tentpole program across every streaming service.”

One Piece (Image courtesy of Netflix)

One Piece (Image courtesy of Netflix)

GROWING PROMINENCE

“Streaming platforms aren’t just altering how content is consumed, they’re revolutionizing content creation itself,” says Conrad Allan, Co-Founder and CEO at MattePaint. “Giants like Netflix and Amazon are at the forefront of this shift. Their pipelines are built on modern technologies and efficiencies, and their content production is tailored specifically for streaming. This evolution signifies a broader change in the entertainment landscape.”

Matchett adds, “For us in the U.K., most terrestrial TV channels have streaming counterparts, including the BBC. As internet speeds get faster and fiber goes into more homes, there’s been a significant jump in what’s actually possible for people to watch. Shows are getting longer and more complex, and budgets are often increasing to match expectations. In-home entertainment hasn’t just taken off, it’s deeply rooted in the fabric of our society. The big four platforms – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV – are in a constant state of competition to score the next big hit, which can mean investment but also caution. So, it’s an interesting space, and it’s great to see quality visual effects taking their place in long-form content as well as feature films.”

The Crown (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The Crown (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The Crown (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Gen V (Amazon Prime Video)

Gen V (Amazon Prime Video)

Gen V (Amazon Prime Video)

The Last of Us (HBO)

The Last of Us (HBO)

The Last of Us (HBO)

“There has been a profound shift in the way that entertainment is consumed, and, as a result, we are witnessing a change in how shows are being made,” says Paul Silcox, VFX Director at Lux Aeterna. “Streaming services seem to be more flexible, more creative and therefore more disruptive, and this leads to great television. At Lux Aeterna, we work closely with our streaming partners from the earliest stages of a project, and we have seen incredible ideas taken into production in recent years.”

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

“At Amazon MGM Studios, we are always raising the bar – and the bar for visual effects in streaming has become quite high,” says Chris Del Conte, Global Head of Visual Effects at Amazon MGM Studios. “Our customers are accustomed to seeing the finest quality visual effects streamed into their homes and onto their devices. This has had a positive impact for our storytellers, allowing them to think big in terms of what they put on screen. To help our creators achieve the goal of delighting our customers, the Amazon MGM Studios VFX teams enter the creative process near the beginning, during the initial script breakdowns. This allows us to initiate early VFX discussions, map out sequences and evaluate methodologies. At this early stage, we also gauge the potential for utilization of innovative tools such as virtual production. This process allows us to engage in in-depth ‘how do we make this cool?’ evaluations. We are then able to lock in the methodologies, budget requirements, vendors and technical expertise needed to raise the bar.”

David Lebensfeld, President of Ingenuity Studios and Ghost VFX, comments, “Streaming allows the storyteller to go into great detail over many episodes rather than the length of a typical feature film. It is helpful that streaming schedules tend to allow for longer timelines, which makes room for higher quality,”“It is no secret that visual effects artistry elevates visual storytelling as far as the imagination can go. That’s one of the best things about this industry.”

Del Conte notes, “The Boys and its spinoff, Gen V, rely on fantastic VFX to demonstrate all varieties of superpowers that push the limits of the grotesque and hilarious. Thanks to the visual effects and stories surrounding them, our customers now come to each season of The Boys expecting it to outdo the previous one. Advancing technology has allowed the showrunners limitless creativity with the expectation that any idea is possible with VFX.”

“As time goes on, viewers’ taste and ability to judge the quality of any content just gets higher and higher,” comments Lebensfeld. “You’re working hand-in-glove with the viewer on refining their taste, and great content elevates everything. People learn from watching great content and expectations grow. When you think back about movies that you thought were scary or incredibly realistic when you were younger and you rewatch them years later, you can see how far this artistry has evolved.”

Life on Our Planet (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The success of high-quality drama shows on streaming demonstrates the audience’s desire for premium production values, according to Silcox. “This comes in the form of brilliant writing, great filmmaking and, quite often, great VFX. Great VFX can be subtle, of course. It’s not all about colliding planets or disintegrating superheroes; it can be the cinematic renditions of the V-E. Day celebrations at Piccadilly Circus or any number of historical recreations in The Crown. Personally, I have been blown away by the quality of [recent] episodic series. I loved The Last of Us. While a lot of the success of the show comes down to the superb writing, the post-apocalyptic universe that Ellie and Joel struggle to survive in would not be as rich without the work of the talented VFX teams.”

NEW STANDARDS

Some specific projects have been praised for setting new standards for visual effects in streaming content. Lebensfeld comments, One that really comes to mind is Stranger Things, which helped define the spectacle standard. Adding to that, The Last of Us, House of the Dragon, One Piece and these types of projects keep pushing the standard. Audiences can’t get enough. Another example is The Night Agent, which is less of a spectacle-style show yet has incorporated high-quality VFX on a more standard-style show for maximum visual impact.” Allan adds, “While The Mandalorian is a household name and somewhat of a benchmark for virtual productions in the streaming arena, The Last Of Us recently emerged as a groundbreaking project, earning an Emmy for its VFX achievements. These productions highlighted and elevated the bar of what’s expected of streaming content.” “Some projects whose VFX I have really enjoyed are Monarch: Legacy of Monsters on AppleTV+, The Mandalorian on Disney+ and Lost in Space on Netflix,” says Gaurav Gupta, Co-Founder and CEO of FutureWorks. Some of Silcox’s favorite series for VFX include The Crown, Foundation and the Netflix documentary Life on Our Planet. He points out, “The Last of Us [is] showing again how far episodic television has progressed since the arrival of the streaming platforms.”

Life on Our Planet (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Life on Our Planet (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Life on Our Planet (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Foundation (Image courtesy of AppleTV+)

Foundation (Image courtesy of AppleTV+)

Avatar: The Last Airbender(Image courtesy of Netflix)

Avatar: The Last Airbender(Image courtesy of Netflix)

Avatar: The Last Airbender(Image courtesy of Netflix)

Avatar: The Last Airbender
(Image courtesy of Netflix)

VIRTUAL PRODUCTION AND REAL-TIME RENDERING

Virtual production techniques and real-time rendering are becoming increasingly essential in meeting the demands of streaming platforms. Virtual production can produce high-quality content with smaller crews, lighter sets, more creative flexibility and more iteration in the early parts of the creative process where changes are cheap, according to Steve Sullivan, Chief Product Officer for Arcturus. He notes, “This is important to any producer, but especially to streaming platforms where cost and flow of content are critical to growing their subscriber base.” Silcox notes, “Virtual production continues to offer new ways to create and collaborate, and there is constant innovation and refinement of techniques in both VP and real-time. With hardware manufacturers like Nvidia and software platforms like Epic making seismic improvements to the technological landscape, we will continue to see improvements to the quality and efficiency of rendering three-dimensional environments and FX.”

“Virtual production techniques and real-time rendering are becoming indispensable in the streaming content production ecosystem,” Allan says. “These methods significantly shorten feedback between digital environment creation and directorial shot composition, which in turn improves efficiency and flexibility while helping actors to immerse themselves in the worlds in which they’re performing.”

Of course, at any point in time the streamers are working on many different types of projects, all with different needs. “For shows like The Mandalorian, which relied heavily on virtual production, it’s absolutely vital to their success. Others simply don’t need the level of complexity that this kind of shoot entails,” Matchette explains. There’s a fine balance to strike between practical shooting, traditional visual effects and emerging technologies like virtual production and AI. Genuine real-time rendering is the golden goose of visual effects, but it still needs a huge amount of computing power to make it work. That being said, platforms like Unreal Engine are lowering the barrier to entry for high-end visual effects and CG work. It’s likely we’ll see more projects adopting this approach in the future.”

STREAMLINING

In terms of implementing these technologies to streamline production processes, “previs and virtual sets have the most visible impact today, with interactive changes and real-time viewing at their core,” comments Sullivan. “As speed and quality improve, these approaches will spread further into asset creation, animation, simulation and lighting. The whole production process will feel more like previs, with quicker iteration in a richer context to support better creative decisions.” “Streamlining asset prep is where most of the streamlining needs to happen,” says Addy Ghani, Vice President of Virtual Production for disguise. “With real-time rendered content, getting assets from a previs quality to production quality is the biggest hurdle.”

SKILL SETS

Eberle notes that the streaming platforms have had a notable impact on the skill sets required in the VFX workforce. “The demand for high-quality VFX in streaming content has pushed studios and VFX companies like Raynault to continually innovate and refine their techniques. As streaming platforms compete for viewership and subscribers, they invest heavily in original content with top-tier production values, including visual effects. This has led to an increasing need for VFX artists.”

TOOLS

The latest technological advancements in VFX tools and software are aiding studios in meeting the demands of streaming platforms. Matchett notes, Artificial intelligence is a big one – we’re seeing AI-powered tools being integrated into key software like Nuke and the Adobe suite.”

Technological progress that will help create streamer content better and faster includes “advances in capturing the real world and bringing it into the LED volume through more efficient forms of volumetric capture, photogrammetry and Gaussian splatting,” Ghani says. Explains Silcox, “There are a few technologies which are changing the way we work at Lux Aeterna. USD, a universal language for all of our digital content creation packages, is very exciting and heralds the way for real-time rendering in our studio. Artificial intelligence and machine learning offers the prospect of both refining workflows and bringing new creative possibilities to our artists, and while this technology remains contentious, there are a lot of very promising technologies that could change the way artists work. The introduction of these technologies mean that we can work better, smarter and more creatively and therefore offer an even higher standard of work to our clients in the streaming industry.”

FUTURE TRENDS

“FutureWorks has experienced a notable surge in the demand for VFX services from streaming partners. This includes both global and local platforms in India,” Gupta says. “Since the inception of streaming platforms, the demand for VFX services has naturally increased, [and] VFX continues to play a pivotal role in storytelling. Even when there has been a drawback in the number of scripted shows being produced, we don’t see the platforms scaling down their ambitions. This can be seen with latest hits like Percy Jackson on Disney+ and Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix.”

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (Image courtesy of AppleTV+)

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (Image courtesy of AppleTV+)

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (Image courtesy of AppleTV+)

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (Image courtesy of AppleTV+)

Life on Our Planet (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Life on Our Planet (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“As the industry evolves, we are embracing and working with newer innovative technologies and focusing on how they are introduced into the traditional filmmaker workflow,” Del Conte observes. “Filmmakers and their studio partners are faced with greater and greater visual challenges. Creative opportunities have increased, with more new and diverse stories being told than ever before. In this VFX environment, we need to work together to focus on the exciting creative opportunities and embrace technical advancements. Viewers want compelling stories and characters with cool VFX, so we must continue to raise the bar, innovate and exceed expectations.”



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