This story was created in paid partnership with DePaul University
Over the past two years, virtual technology has come to dominate the world around us: from ordering food to live events on Web3, most of our lives have existed in the virtual world, and cinema is no exception.
At DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago, IL, students are embracing the latest technology that makes it easier than ever to merge the real and the imagined. Using gaming technology (such as Epic Games’ Unreal Engine) and LED screens, the virtual production creates a live VFX environment where actors and crew can interact with an environment they previously had to imagine on screens. And while virtual production — an umbrella term for any production that contains a CGI element — is already widely used in Hollywood, it’s extremely rare for students to gain experience in this space, especially in the Midwest.
“It was a unique opportunity for the students, not only for the directors who got to see their visions on screen, but also for all levels of the team. “To be able to work with motion tracking technology, create a set in Unreal and have it on screen, with a real set and real actors from our acting school, that’s a unique part of DePaul,” says Professor Brian Andrews, Associate Professor. visual effects, animation, film production. “Because of our relationship with the DePaul School of Theater, as well as the Computer Science and Game departments in the Jarvis College of Computing and Digital Media, it allows us to collaborate in a way that films from other schools cannot.”
Andrews taught and led DePaul’s virtual manufacturing pilot course last spring as part of their Project Bluelight program, where students can work alongside industry professionals to gain hands-on, hands-on experience. “We put a scene from tracking the camera through Unreal Engine and up to the screen. In 10 weeks, our student group was able to shoot three full scenes with completely different set-ups and a lot more risk than you would normally see, as well as a professional shoot for a college film,” he describes.
The installations Andrews described included a haunted graveyard, a sci-fi sequence showing a post-flight space debris field, a giant baby chasing a living car and even a woman hanging from a skyscraper window. Some sequences, such as a live car chase or an actor hanging from a skyscraper, are usually too dangerous for students. But virtual production allowed DePaul Experiences to capture all those shots behind closed doors, without post-production or VFX, within 10 weeks of a quarter.
Much of this work is made possible through the collaboration of DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts with Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. The two founded DePaul Cinespace Studios in 2013, with the goal of creating an environment where students can learn in real-world settings, using professional workflows and equipment, to prepare them for a career in film early on, getting their degree. Since then, the collaboration has been an important factor in establishing DePaul as one of the top 15 film schools in the United States today.
“Showtime, HBO, major productions are literally next door, and it’s amazing that our students pass these productions on their way to class in our facilities,” Andrews describes. “Over time, as our program grew, our students basically left the gate to work on these shows. It started out more traditionally with the group crew roles you’d expect in a facility like this. But as our skills and capabilities have grown, this is also moving into the areas of post-production and other technologies such as virtual production.
Fostering an environment where students can develop a wide range of technical skills has long-term effects on subsequent graduates. Andrews recounts how one alum, Declan Mclnerney, took visual effects and virtual reality classes at DePaul while learning the basics of image manipulation and ended up pursuing a career in virtual production at Background Images—“He was able to turn to this technology in development just because he had those chops and those foundations,” Andrews says.
Now, after a successful pilot, DePaul plans to expand its physical facilities through partnerships with other local studios to continue expanding its virtual production offerings. Andrews is also working on building a more formal “scaffolding” for their virtual production program: “We’re adding more introductory courses for production designers and cinematographers. Then, on the Unreal side, we’re teaching people 3D with how they work on set because they are different types of creative filmmakers with very different languages. For an animator, production designer, cinematographer to come together, students grow as artists and as directors as they are pushed to deepen their knowledge of how technology and content creation can work together.
Ultimately, Andrews hopes the university will become a gathering place for people from all disciplines of virtual manufacturing – “not just to support the technology, but really to become the place where people can understand and develop the story and actually support the creative medium itself. “, he explains. “Our goal is for DePaul to be a center and continually updated facility for virtual manufacturing training, both here in the Midwest and around the country.”