Looking at Demonic, the first horror film from District 9 and Elysium author-director Neill Blomkamp, most people will not immediately think, “How could the technology that made this movie be used to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe more interactive?” But Blomkamp predicts a future where companies like Marvel will shoot their projects like he shot Demonic, and it will change the way cinema works.
Some segments of Demonic was filmed via volumetric recording, a technology that records the actors’ performances in three dimensions, through a complicated rig – in this case using 260 cameras at once. Blomkamp processed the footage through the Unity game engine to get real-time results that placed his 3D actors in virtual environments, digitally derived from real buildings and areas that his team had captured and rendered in the system. Volumetric recording, or vol-cap, is billed as a new solution for creating photorealistic 3D models of actors for video games, but as a tool for filmmaking, it creates environments that viewers could either see on a 2D screen or move through and interact with in a VR mode.
“It’s a case where I think the technology is on the way,” Blomkamp told Polygon. “When VFX first started […] playback of a digital effect can take hours per frame and you need 24 frames per second. It can take 24 hours of playback for a second of movies. And then you need more computers to do more rendering. “But new technologies both accelerated the process and allowed for more realistic and more varied effects. Blomkamp says that volumetric recording, which speeds up the process to real-time speeds, reminds him of the changes that hit the VFX industry around the time of the film as Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.
“I think if you go forward a few years from now, there will only be real-time playback,” he says. “Whether it’s a Marvel movie you see or you play Call of Duty, it will all happen in a real-time environment. Even if you watch a really big Marvel movie, if it was done with real-time rendering-you could watch it passively on a giant movie screen, but later real-time footage opens up hundreds of different avenues that audiences can experience more in the movie, regardless whether they want to physically go into the scene and walk around or see it in virtual reality or use augmented reality. ”
The idea of trying that technology in a movie was what drove Blomkamp to make Demonic. He says that while most films start with a script and then a team decides how the film’s ideas should appear on screen, he started the other way around with this film. “This process was completely different. It was, ‘I want to experiment with real-time CG in a movie, so what would it look like?’ […] If you were to look at it from traditional filmmaking and write a normal script and then figure out how to do it, you probably would not come to the conclusion that you need volumetric filmmaking here. But here it drove how the creative side actually emerged. ”
IN Demonic, a young woman named Carly (Carly Pope) learns that her estranged mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) is being held in an asylum performing experimental work with her comatose patients. Hoping for some kind of closure with her mother, Carly reluctantly agrees to go into a digital simulation of her mother’s consciousness where the two women can communicate. She quickly finds out that something supernatural and dangerous divides Angela’s head – something that explains Angela’s violent past and irregular behavior.
Conceptually, the film is similar to Tarsem Singh’s 2000 film Cells, where Jennifer Lopez gets into the mind of a comatose serial killer to try to figure out where he’s keeping his latest victim. But the technology behind the scenes is more reminiscent of Ari Folman’s film with a high concept from 2013 Congress, where a similar camera kingdom is used to scan actress Robin Wright (playing herself) and create a permanent digital avatar of her that can replace her in movies. Behind the scenes footage from Czech power company UPP shows Pope playing his role for the volumetric scenes from inside a dome-shaped camera realm similar to the one in Congress.
Blomkamp says one of the benefits of recording scenes in this way is that UPP will be able to render Demonic’s virtual scenes as interactive environments for later viewers. “We could not make the whole movie, we could only make the simulation scenes, but UPP is in the process of making a demo where you could see these scenes on something like an HTC Vive Pro, which I have done. It’s a pretty cool experience.
“I think what a movie the audience is [watching Demonic] do not really understand that the scenes with Carly, in the simulation with her mother, are completely visible in real, true virtual reality. You can stand there in the room with the two of them and look around and they are there. And it will look exactly as it did in the movie. So it’s an unusual thing for people to get their heads around. ”
One of the more fascinating aspects of Demonic is that Blomkamp used real space to create his virtual world, but he did not shoot any actual footage on the spot for the simulation sequences. “They are in the right places – one is a house, just like you would rent a house for normal recording. But instead of filming in the house, we just took 100,000 pictures. And then at the end of the movie, where we physically recorded, the sanitary was also transformed into a 3D model with hundreds of thousands of photos. And the third simulation was a house not far from the sanitary warehouse on the same piece of land that was dilapidated and destroyed, and we did the same thing with it. But then we took the geometry in there and broke it and crushed it and made it look a little more like the characters. ”
Appearance of the simulation segments in Demonic is glitchy and pixelated throughout, which Blomkamp says is both an artifact of the state of volumetric recording technology at this time – the software is not yet able to integrate feeds from the 260 cameras in perfect, smooth motion – and a conscious choice for the film .
“The resolution hit we took is fine, it’s written into the script that it’s prototype technology that’s wrong with it,” he says. “It was just a victim. We had almost no way to get around it. ”
Knowing the simulation footage would have that the jumping style was part of the reason why Blomkamp chose to make Demonic as an indie horror movie. “I wanted to make a self-funded little horror film at some point in my career,” he says. “And when you operate in that area, you can do whatever you want. There are no restrictions on what you do. So this is the perfect option. To persuade a large studio to let me put 15 minutes of very untested, super-volatile volumetric images into a movie — I do not even know if I could win that match. And you can see in the movie how glitchy it is. Which I think is so amazing as it relates to the narrative. It provides a place where we can experiment. ”
This technological gap leaves Blomkamp’s expectations for the future of interactive and immersive blockbuster theater in the air – technology still has a long way to go before it can lay the sleek, polished look of a real-time MCU film operating on digital scenes for VR or AR audiences. Asked where the technology can go in the meantime, Blomkamp laughs.
“I have a bad answer to that, which is that I don’t really care,” he says. “I only care about the way I use things. People always ask me such major film industry questions and I really don’t care. I only care about what I can use it for, in my own selfish way. ”
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