Doug Bonderud

Aug 7th 2017

Behind the Scenes: Multipurpose Movie Magic


Movies remain massively popular. As noted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the U.S./Canada box office reached $11 billion in 2015 with 69 percent of the population heading to the theater at least once a year. It makes sense, since films offer the chance to escape mundane life for a few hours, showcase the triumph of human spirit and have the power to change our perception of the world. And while writers, actors, directors and editors deserve much of the credit for this magic, what’s behind the scenes — state-of-the-art technologies used to create new worlds or enhance the moviegoing experience — also plays a critical role. And many of these technologies offer more than just moving picture improvement; here’s a look at their potential beyond the theater.

Breaking the CGI Barrier

When it comes to movie magic, James Cameron is always a reliable source of inspiration. As noted by Screen Rant, Cameron created a new CGI/live-action capture system for “Avatar” which saw actors wearing specialized body suits and head rigs with standard cameras that take continual images of their face. Cameron also designed a new camera called the “Simulcam” that lets him superimpose CGI images over live actors thanks to their body suits, in effect allowing him to “see” fantasy and sci-fi environments in real time. And for long-in-the-making “Avatar” 2 and 3, Cameron wants to shoot in higher-than-24 frames per second using a virtual camera that can capture scenes with high enough quality that no other visual effects are required.

Outside the theater, there’s big potential for a pairing with virtual reality. From a commercial perspective, imagine travel agents offering “teaser” looks of potential destinations — or eventually selling entirely virtual vacations — while government and military organizations could use this tech to simulate battlefield training or improve response times when dealing with one-in-a-million scenarios that aren’t easy to replicate using traditional methods.

Toss the Glasses

Take a look at first-run movies and you’ll see most of them offered in 3-D. The caveat for images that pop out of the screen? Those awful 3-D glasses. Now, a team at MIT has developed a multiparallax display which makes it possible to enjoy the 3-D experience from any seat in a theater without the need for glasses. While it’s still in development, there’s huge potential here for next-gen moviegoing and also more practical applications. A good example here are drones and robots now used by law enforcement and military agencies to conduct reconnaissance or detect explosive devices. Combining advanced camera technology and multiparallax screens (the team has already designed one the size of an iPad), teams could quickly get a handle on the totality of their environment rather than simply a 2-D “slice.”

Choose Your Own Adventure

What if movies offered viewers a choice? That’s the downstream goal of new behind-the-scenes technology using the “Unreal” video game engine. According to Fast Company, Epic Games recently partnered with Chevy to create a car commercial that lets viewers select the vehicle they want to see on screen and then watch as it appears in real time. Using a combination of 4K cameras mounted to a “Blackbird” — a placeholder vehicle for a CGI car — and the advanced rendering power of the “Unreal” engine, it’s now possible to mimic the look and “feel” of the viewer’s preferred vehicle on screen.

Beyond the thrill of choosing characters in movies, the obvious application here is in marketing; pair this tech with mobile devices and let viewers design the commercial that convinces them to spend. But it also provides the impetus for better in situ job training and evaluation of problem-solving skills — give staff or applicants a virtual scenario to solve and let them choose the characters and methods they prefer to get the job done. It’s a way to visualize individual creativity within the confines of virtual space.

Movie magic helps the silver screen come to life. New technology behind the scenes, however, offers practical applications for training, exploration and evaluation.