How COVID-19 Affects CGI
Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has come a long way since its first extensive use in 1982’s “Tron.” Productions now turn to computers for everything from background painting to crowd generation. There is little we can’t do with CGI these days.
While there are significant advantages to using CGI—especially during this pandemic—there are also drawbacks. This article is designed to help you understand how best to use CGI during COVID-19. To do this, we will focus on the following:
- The Benefits of CGI
- The Drawbacks of CGI
- Tips for Maximizing CGI
Let’s take a closer look at how CGI can help us during this pandemic.
The Benefits of CGI
There are many benefits to using CGI during COVID-19. The most important one is that CGI can increase on-set safety. Three main ways CGI can increase set safety during a pandemic are:
- Decreasing on-set personnel
- Increasing options
- Shortening principal photography
Decreasing On-Set Personnel
As we have emphasized many times—most notably in our article on Set Organization—reducing the number of people inside our sets’ bubble is the most critical step to minimize the chances of an outbreak.
CGI can be a big help here. As this video from FutureLearn and Norwich University of the Arts illustrates, CGI can create giant crowds from the comfort of an office. This can allow you to replace a crowded set with a single person at a computer.
When a scene calls for a large group of extras, consult with a VFX team to see if you can use CGI to eliminate the need for physical bodies on the set. A talented Crowd Technical Director can seamlessly simulate the necessary people, thereby keeping your main cast members safe from potential contamination.
COVID-19 has transformed productions into mini-bubbles with quarantine zones, testing areas, and mobile labs. This has put a lot of extra stress, responsibility, and cost on each of us. It has also made finding the right locations exceedingly tricky because of all the additional requirements that pandemic safety mandates.
When we are scouting locations and looking for ones with enough space to accommodate the massive size of pandemic-safe sets, we will inevitably make concessions when it comes to how those locations look. CGI can turn a sub-standard-looking location into something much closer to a perfect-looking one.
With a talented VFX team consulting with our creative team on set, we can turn a warehouse into a castle, an open field into a war zone, an empty street into a river. One look at what the VFX team on Game of Thrones did is enough to illustrate CGI’s spectacular capacity to transform any location into something beautiful.
This ability to change the look of locations in post-production allows us to focus on our sets’ safety, secure in the knowledge that we can make a location look amazing with the help of CGI.
Shortening Principal Photography
The most dangerous period for any pandemic production is principal photography. During both pre- and post-production, we can easily comply with all the COVID-19 safety procedures that prevent the spread of the virus. But the act of filming is a minefield of potential contamination points.
Because of the dangers inherent to the actual production, we should do everything we can to wrap principal photography quickly. This is easier said than done; COVID-19 has dramatically increased production lengths. (See our article on Shooting Scheduling to understand this effect in detail.)
It is precisely because of this lengthening of the overall schedule that we should find ways to shorten active filming time when possible. CGI can do just that.
Instead of spending time building and dressing massive sets, hiring and testing extras, or any number of time-consuming aspects of an average production, we can off-load that time to our VFX team. This will increase post-production time, but post-production is a far safer environment than principal photography.
By using CGI to shorten our shooting schedule where possible, we can increase on-set safety by minimizing the window for contamination, spread, and outbreaks.
The Drawbacks of CGI
For most of us, the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks of CGI. But we must be aware of them to ensure that we are making the best decision for our productions. We want to highlight three downsides of CGI:
- Cost: CGI is not cheap. As demand has increased during this pandemic, so has the price. COVID-19 has already forced our budgets to balloon to accommodate the extra time and resources required to keep our cast and crew safe. The increased cost of CGI might not be something every production can afford.
- Longer Post-Production: CGI increases the length of our post-production process. We are all already dealing with tight deadlines, hard delivery dates, and swelling schedules and budgets. Some productions might not have the time to properly implement CGI.
- High Variance in Quality: Improperly implemented CGI looks terrible. We won’t link out to any examples here; we all know what bad CGI looks like. If you don’t have the budget and time to achieve high-quality CGI, then it may be best to avoid it altogether.
There are ways to avoid some of the drawbacks of CGI and maximize the benefits. Let’s look how a few ways to do that.
Tips for Maximizing CGI
When it comes to getting the most out of CGI, the first thing we can recommend is to start early. On-board your VFX team during pre-production. They will help your creative team design shots that work best for CGI and streamline the post-production process.
Most importantly, bringing a VFX team on-board during pre-production will drastically increase safety. As we highlighted in our article on Script Breakdowns, a talented VFX team can preemptively reduce personnel and locations by providing options that can be manipulated in post. The key to all of this is finding a good VFX team.
The proliferation of green screen technology and VFX software has had the positive effect of making CGI far more available than ten years ago. It has also, however, made talented VFX artists more challenging to find in the ocean of competition.
The best way to identify a talented VFX team is to watch many television shows and movies. Then write down the names of the VFX studios whose work impressed you. There is no better way to judge the abilities of a VFX house than to see their work with your own eyes.
When it comes to maximizing safety while getting the most out of your CGI, we recommend that you take a look at green screen studios. While they are not as impressive as the LED walls of virtual sets, green screen studios offer the same safety level. We can quarantine and sanitize one location, then use the CGI capabilities of green screens to turn one location into many.
Relying on green screen studios can save us time and money by reducing the number of locations we must transform into bubbles. While many productions are flocking to LED virtual sets, there are simply not enough to go around yet. Green screen studios are available in all major production hubs and offer the safety we all seek at this moment.
When we turn to CGI to assist us in our next production, we must make sure that we understand what it can and cannot do for us. CGI can increase on-set safety by decreasing production personnel, increasing our options, and shortening our shooting schedules.
Keep in mind: using CGI also means increasing our budgets, lengthening our post-production schedule, and a greater variance in the quality of our final product. To get the most out of CGI, on-board a talented VFX team during pre-production and use green screen studios where applicable.
These are uncertain times, filled with far higher stakes than many of us are used to. We need to use every tool at our disposal to minimize the chances of infection, transmission, and outbreak.
CGI is just one of those vital tools. This website is another. Be sure to check out our other articles for more help understanding our new reality and for advice on how to safely produce film and television in the COVID-19 era.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
*DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.