How and Where to Learn Virtual Production Techniques
Virtual production has exploded in popularity over the past few years, fueled by LED display technology and real-time game engine breakthroughs. Projects like The Mandalorian, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds have famously demonstrated the incredible potential of in-camera VFX with LED volumes.
There’s certainly no sign of a slowdown in this trend, either. New virtual production and LED volume-enhanced projects include 1899, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ant-Man 3, Bullet Train, and Thor: Love and Thunder. And with rapid growth comes high demand for talented crew.
With more and more LED volumes coming online around the world each week, the pool of available and qualified talent is stretched, making now a great time to think about a virtual production career. So, if you’re looking to step onto the virtual production ladder for the first time, where can you learn what you need to get started?
Fortunately, from traditional film schools and universities, to technical trade colleges and training offered by hardware and software companies, there are plenty of resources available. The following list isn’t exhaustive, by any means, but should provide you with some options.
American universities and colleges
Film schools, colleges, and universities have a long-standing tradition of well-rounded filmmaker training. Their offerings are often more holistic and focus on broader skills such as directing, cinematography, screenwriting, etc.
Schools often have a long cycle of budgeting, planning, and vetting before adopting a new curriculum. They also have a complex set of key performance indicators (KPIs) used to measure the merit and success of teaching specific subjects.
Pedagogy (the science of educational method) is also a key consideration because teaching virtual production to its fullest potential requires a significant investment in new infrastructure, including LED volumes, camera tracking equipment, and other associated hardware.
Virtual production represents a cross-section of disciplines. This diversity dovetails organically with higher education’s offerings in game design, film production, screenwriting, production design, and more. The demand and interest in virtual production, especially with LED volumes, is so strong that several institutions have pursued it creatively by circumventing their standard adoption processes.
NYU, New York City
New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts is a well-known film school founded in 1965. The school offers a diverse series of offerings in filmmaking, writing, directing, acting, dance, and more. Notable alumni include Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Mahershala Ali, Charlie Kaufman, and Chloé Zhao.
I had the honor of working directly with NYU beginning in 2020 during the pandemic. My work included consulting with NYU faculty about virtual production and teaching some educational workshops to help them understand the potential for virtual production across their many disciplines.
We then took this a step further with an introduction to virtual production class, which includes a virtual hands-on element. Students spend most of the semester iterating on their 3D environment within Unreal Engine. Then in a remote collaboration session, they direct actors in our LED volume laboratory in San Francisco. It’s been a lot of fun and a great learning experience.
Virtual production has been so well-received at NYU that the school is taking it to the next level by creating the Martin Scorsese Institute of Global Cinematic Arts. This state-of-the-art facility will include an LED volume created by the experts at Lux Machina, who also built the LED stage used for The Mandalorian.
Chapman University, Orange County
Chapman University near Los Angeles also recently leapt into virtual production by constructing a modest, but highly effective, LED volume. I had the pleasure of helping Chapman design their introductory courses and spec out their LED wall using AOTO LED panels along with my good friends at AbelCine. I worked directly with Daniel Leonard, Associate Dean, and Madeline Warren, associate professor and Media Arts Division Chair.
Chapman started developing new curriculum offerings while their wall was still being constructed. These offerings included an intensive workshop to help potential enrolled students understand the methods and discover their entry points. Chapman also created a course called Unreal Engine for Filmmakers, which included plenty of usage of their LED volume.
The university hopes to ultimately create an interdisciplinary emphasis in virtual production, bringing together students from filmmaking, computer science, animation, engineering, etc.
DeSales University, Pennsylvania
Another school I had the opportunity to work with is DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. This installation also features AOTO panels, Brompton video processing, and Mo-Sys camera tracking. Associate professor Karen Ruggles oversees the virtual production efforts and new LED volume lab. Ruggles’ Special Topics in Virtual Production class was the first to use the volume.
Students come from various backgrounds, including computer science, game design, and theatre. DeSales looks to lead the local charge toward embracing virtual production with a larger facility already in progress.
American Film Institute, Los Angeles
The American Film Institute in Los Angeles has a long tradition of high-level training for directors, editors, cinematographers, and more. I had the chance to teach alongside AFI faculty Valentina Martinico for a unique virtual production workshop for cinematography students. The students got to see a variety of virtual production techniques and go through a remote demo of our virtual production lab stage from San Francisco.
AFI hopes to increase the collaboration on virtual production with the American Society of Cinematographers and provide additional hands-on opportunities to its students.
USC Cinematic Arts, Los Angeles
The University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts also has a long tradition of embracing the latest filmmaking technologies. Famous alumni such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis have generously gifted the school to ensure this practice continues. The Entertainment Technology Center (ETC@USC) is USC’s think tank and research center in charge of exploring the latest innovations.
Erik Weaver, ETC’s Head of Virtual & Adaptive Production, has led the group’s recent forays into virtual production. ETC’s first major LED project, The Ripple Effect, tested various in-camera VFX techniques against a backdrop of Covid-19 safety protocols. It used a volume with ROE panels and Brompton processors. ETC also collaborated with Halon Entertainment and ICVR for the project.
Fathead was ETC’s second major LED volume work and attempted to develop other best practices and workflows created in the previous project. Fathead also utilized cutting-edge virtual production technologies such as volumetric scanning and Unreal Engine’s Metahuman Creator. Virtual art department studio Happy Mushroom also contributed to the project.
DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts, Chicago
In Chicago, DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts has partnered with Cinespace Film Studios since 2013. This past year the partnership pivoted to virtual production as DePaul’s students got to use Cinespace’s new LED wall to realize an action sequence. The scene would have been difficult or impossible for the students to capture via conventional means.
Rochester Institute of Technology, NY
In upstate New York, the Rochester Institute of Technology, in collaboration with MAGIC Spell Studios, has also stepped into virtual production. MAGIC partnered with Epic Games, The Third Floor, and PRG to build a full hardware deployment for virtual production. The effort includes a 30-foot LED wall for student use, and RIT alumni have already left their mark in the industry, including work on Disney’s The Mandalorian.
To get a flavor for the range of systems and training available on RIT’s course, there’s a series of ten introductory videos with topics ranging from LED and Projection to Servers and Data.
Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia
The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Interactive Design and Game Development department has been using Unreal Engine for over fifteen years. As part of a massive, multi-year expansion into virtual production, SCAD is increasing its campus by 10.9 acres with new studios and an LED volume. With plans to open later in 2022, the stage features a 1.5mm pixel pitch and measures approximately 40’ x 20’ x17’.
Institutions outside the US
So far, the universities and colleges we’ve looked at are within the United States. But virtual production has broad international appeal, with major productions in Canada, South America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and elsewhere. Naturally, higher learning institutions near these global production centers have also begun to embrace virtual production education.
In the UK, the National Film and Television School (NFTS) was the first major school to install its own LED volume. NFTS students are undertaking extensive training in the field of virtual production. Students also enjoy exploring the V-Stage at WB Studios Leavesden, a 7,100-sq.-ft. LED volume with more than 2,600 LED panels.
NFTS’ Virtual Production Certificate is a six-month hybrid course led by Alan Thorn, who heads the institution’s Games Design and Development program. Much of NFTS’ work is in coordination with StoryFutures Academy, which recently commissioned this report on skills development for virtual production.
University of Sunderland, UK
Elsewhere in the UK, the University of Sunderland partnered with CJP Broadcast Service Solutions Ltd for a virtual production technology refresh for its facilities. These upgrades included the Mo-Sys VP Pro XR solution, and a Bendac Group LED volume with Infineled panels at 10 x 3 meters.
According to Nick Glean, a University of Sunderland senior lecturer, all of this work is essential so students grasp the connection between the physical world of traditional production and the virtual world.
Story Futures Academy, Beaconsfield
Run by the National Film and Television School in London, Story Futures Academy includes a Virtual Production focusing on in-camera VFX course at their Beaconsfield campus. The academy also has a range of supplemental courses designed to address the increasing demand for augmented- and virtual reality content creators.
Emily Carr University, Canada
Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada, partnered with ShowMax Event Services to make its own LED volume for student use. To inaugurate the new facility, the crew made a trailer for a film called Synthesis. ECUAD students participated in the four-day shoot. They helped create 14 different virtual environments for the project.
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
In Christchurch, New Zealand, the University of Canterbury is reconfiguring its Dovedale campus into a Digital Screen Campus. It’s named after the content created for the many screens that form different types of entertainment content. The Bachelor of Digital Screen degree includes all stages of digital media conception, production, and publication.
Ulster Screen Academy, Northern Ireland
The Ulster Screen Academy at Ulster University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has been working in virtual production for some time. The Academy offers degrees in Games Design, Animation, and Screen Production and is endorsed by Epic as an Unreal Academic Partner. The Academy is also developing Studio Ulster, a $90M virtual production studio complex that will open next year as a commercial and R&D hub. The efforts are in partnership with the Belfast Harbour Studios (Game of Thrones) and Northern Ireland Screen.
Breda University, Netherlands
In the Netherlands, the Breda University of Applied Sciences is also investigating education and virtual production. Breda’s XR stage features ROE LED panels. I had the chance to present an overview of everything I’ve been learning about virtual production to Breda’s students earlier this year at the Virtual Production Gathering the University hosted.
Flinders University, Australia
Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, has a virtual production studio and learning center called The Void. The Void includes a 8 x 3 meter LED wall with 1.9mm panels and NovaStar processors. It also has motion capture capabilities via 20 Vicon Vantage V8 mocap cameras.
According to senior lecturer Jason Bevan, Flinders plans to offer a Master’s degree in virtual production. With no formal requirements beyond a Bachelor’s degree, the program looks to attract applicants from a wide range of backgrounds. The program also offers postgraduate employment opportunities via its association with industry partners, including Technicolor, Faceware Technologies, Epic Games, and Fika Entertainment.
Virtual production offers an incredible array of opportunities for higher education to give their students a leg up, as entering the job market with even a modest amount of first-hand experience in an LED volume can give graduates a substantial competitive advantage.
Adding virtual production is also a great differentiator for schools looking to attract prospective students and demonstrate relevance and responsiveness around evolving industry standards to donors and alumni.
Technical Trade Schools
With different parameters from traditional higher education, technical trade schools and colleges can often pivot faster to new technologies and spin up courses as demand rises. Technical trade schools also often rely on computer-based training (CBT), which is well-suited to virtual production because much of the work involves digital content creation tools like Unreal Engine.
Their courses can be shorter, and trade schools can also attract experienced professionals to teach their up-to-date knowledge on a part-time basis. (Unlike the tenured faculty of universities whose direct experience may not be as timely.) Here are some technical trade schools and colleges offering courses in virtual production.
Gnomon School, Hollywood
Gnomon School of Visual Effects was founded in Hollywood in 1997. Gnomon offers degree and certificate programs in over a hundred visual effects- and post-production-related courses. No stranger to virtual production, the school has long offered training in Unreal Engine and other real-time technologies.
Gnomon’s latest introduction to virtual production filmmaking course is taught by Dane Smith, vice president at the venerable visualization studio The Third Floor. The course covers previsualization, virtual cameras, real-time lighting, and integration. Gnomon also offers courses on Unreal Engine and its use for creating assets in the virtual art department (VAD).
Final Pixel, US & UK
Final Pixel is a creative studio with offices in London, New York, and Los Angeles. Realizing the need for workshops and deep-dive courses for various institutions and corporations, the Final Pixel team created Final Pixel Academy. Classes are offered in both remote formats and in-person.
Final Pixel has implemented training across two cohorts in the UK in cooperation with the University of Greenwich and Barking & Dagenham College. Courses include a variety of learning outcomes, assessments, theory/practice ratios, levels of experience, faculty presence, and institutional timetabling among various departments.
Other universities and organizations they’ve worked with virtual production training include Middlesex University, Proto (Digital Catapult) in Gateshead, and Buckinghamshire New University. In the US, Final Pixel launched an LED virtual production stage in New York at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in partnership with NYU Tandon.
CG Pro, Los Angeles
CG Pro is an authorized Unreal Engine training center headquartered in Los Angeles. It’s also one of the first providers to achieve the designation of Unreal Connector from Epic Games. This new skills-based training course is official and grows out of Epic’s Fellowship offering, which we’ll look at in more detail later on. CG Pro’s offerings include courses like Unreal for Filmmakers and Cinematography and Lighting for Virtual Production and Unreal Engine.
With a focus on live and in-person interaction between students and instructors, CG Pro looks to not only train newcomers but upskill veteran VFX artists looking to pivot to virtual production. The company also prides itself in being a talent agency to connect shows requiring skilled crew with new graduates from their program.
ASC, NYC & Hollywood
I’m a longtime writer for American Cinematographer magazine, and I’m also the virtual production editor. As the official magazine of the American Society of Cinematographers, the publication is one of its many efforts to advance the craft of cinematography. Another initiative is the popular ASC MasterClasses, in which working cinematographers show their techniques off in hands-on sessions. Naturally, this has come to include virtual production as well.
Some cinematographers from the ASC pioneered LED volume techniques in shows like The Mandalorian, The Batman, and more. ASC Master Classes are an excellent opportunity to learn from some of the most respected directors of photography in the business.
Technical training colleges and trade schools are a solid option if you are sure you want to focus on a particular technical area, such as being an Unreal Engine operator or an LED volume brain bar team member. While they don’t give you the well-rounded general knowledge you’d receive in a traditional university or film school, they’re often the shortest path from interest to career. And along the way, you’re likely to be introduced to and network with a spectrum of industry professionals and like-minded newcomers.
Manufacturers and Facilities Training
The third source for virtual production education is software/hardware makers and studios—who are heavily invested in ensuring the success of their products or business. They also regularly source highly experienced professionals for short-term training engagements. As with technical training schools, they can focus their educational efforts toward specific goals and certificates rather than maintain more general education requirements.
Epic Games, the makers of Unreal Engine, has long offered extensive software documentation. Epic also provides free online courses and tutorials for anyone looking to dive into Unreal. During the pandemic, Epic took things a step further through the creation of the Fellowship and the LA Lab facility. Together, these two resources provide remote and hands-on training in virtual production.
Intriguingly, the Fellowship is an application-based, free course that offers stipends to students. The goal is to attract veterans looking to pivot and provide living support to newcomers who wish to entirely focus on learning. Finally, Epic’s Unreal Connectors program certifies external providers of training with official courseware.
Visual effects studio Pixomondo, whose LED volume work currently powers several Star Trek series on the air, is soon to offer the Virtual Production Academy. This initiative will disseminate the state-of-the-art knowledge learned by Pixomondo’s artists during their production work.
Mo-Sys makes one of the most popular camera tracking solutions for virtual production, Star Tracker. They’ve also recently started offering hands-on training via the Mo-Sys Academy. With three- and five-day hands-on courses, Mo-Sys is set up to handle various time commitments and skill levels. Mo-Sys Academy was created in consultation with partners including Warner Bros. Discovery, WarnerMedia Access, and StoryFutures Academy. The offering is designed to give students a grounding in the core skills required for technical setups and key on-set roles and activities.
Vū Studios is a series of networked, enterprise-class virtual production stages headquartered in Tampa Bay, Florida. Vū Workshop is a one-day course designed to expose attendees to a working LED volume and understand its core principles. The workshop is offered in various cities such as Las Vegas and Nashville and is a great way to jumpstart a journey into virtual production.
Halostage in Berlin, Germany, is working in the education space. The team regularly collaborates with local universities and allows their students to use the company’s LED volume. Halostage’s staff has taught lectures and helped develop new courses and curricula at universities in Austria and Budapest.
The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) has launched a new virtual production educational initiative, the Rapid Industry Solution. The goal of RIS is to speed up innovation and disseminate proven workflows. RIS is also designed to develop new standards and interoperability between the many disparate systems deployed across virtual production.
While their objectives might be different from educational establishments, manufacturers and facilities have the same motivation towards virtual production training. Although they may be biased a bit toward their own solutions, they’re usually staffed by highly experienced industry veterans eager to share their knowledge.
Virtual production with in-camera VFX is undeniably the most significant filmmaking advance in decades. It’s comparable to other major technological revolutions, such as the advent of computer-generated animation and the move from film to digital motion picture cameras. Industry shifts of this size are infrequent, and provide many opportunities due to the runaway demand for qualified crew.
Education will help you get there, and hopefully I’ve shown just how many sources have stepped up to fill the knowledge gap. There’s never been a better time to embrace new workflows and pivot into the virtual world with skills retraining. So get out there and good luck!
(And if your school or company is doing something around education with virtual production and we missed you, please tell us about your work in the comments.)
Featured image taken from Obi Wan Kenobi, © Disney+