The buzz in the production world around the breakthrough in technique and budget employed by Disney’s The Mandalorian is worth contemplating for those concerned with the future of cinema. The new technique of using a wrap-around LED cyclorama combined with a game engine 3D CG set is a quantum leap into another era of movie production.
I remember when I was in film school in the Cretaceous era, and I experimented with the idea of using two TV cameras connected by a motion rig to allow spontaneous camera movement within a green screen set that would exactly match a move on a miniature background. My father the engineer took it upon himself to design and build this rig, but it arrived too late and slightly too imprecise to be used in the production, which was my Columbia puppet thesis project, Banfus and the Search. Instead, I had live sets and theatrical effects which served the purpose well enough for my student thesis needs. But I always had it in the back of my mind that there could be some way of coupling the moves of an active camera with movement in a virtual set.
Fast forward to now where everyone’s phone is capable of perfectly tracking dog ears and flopping tongues to your head movements in real time, trailing hearts and stars, without the need of an army of rotoscopers. Exponential increases in computational power have now made it possible to do this essential feat of movie magic on the cheap.
Add to this the phenomenon of COVID forcing Zoom interactions on everyone from first-graders to international celebrities in a universal convention of Zoom filters and home green-screen set-ups, and suddenly we are all participating in a massive virtual production experience. A politician appears in a televised Zoom meeting as a lip-synced cat- and he can’t turn it off! Virtual effects not only made cheap, but not even requested!
So as remarkable as the technique of the Mandalorian is, it is somehow less spectacular as it merges with the virtual lives we are already living. When Star Wars appeared in 1977, the shock was to see things that could only have been created with laborious feats of miniature sculpture and precision clockwork; the awareness that every frame was labored over infused those frames with meaning and purpose. Now having the ability to simply turn on the “Unreal Engine” (actually the software brand name), we are now allowed the spontaneous rambling around in a virtual world, whether or not it has meaning.
The end result is that fantasy can be had on the cheap. Where this takes us, I’m not sure, but I have a hunch that as world creation is becoming ubiquitous, it’s value diminishes, and the public sensitivity for true novelty evaporates as well.
The pandora’s box of these techniques is currently knocking about in search of uses. Museums create virtual experience like the Van Gogh exhibit in which spectators walk around in a multi-projected world of what some designers think life would be like inside of an impressionist painting, and makeup counters feature try on makeup on a virtual screen rather than on a customer’s real cheek. I don’t know if we’re really so tired of the IRL world that the accumulation of these endeavors is really an improvement. A better illusion is no more real than a worse one, ultimately it all relies on the suspension of disbelief.