Interview with Virtual Cinematography Specialist and GCI Instructor Ron Fischer


Virtual Cinematography

Modern technology is making what was one impossible, now possible for today's cinematographers - to shoot with green or blue screen with traditional cameras and see "real-time" compositing results on the monitor. This results in a stronger integration of traditional cinematography elements, such as lighting, when approaching shots in a "virtual" setting. The course is an examination of new cutting-edge technology and how it can be put into use for practical application.

Instructors: Ron Fischer and Kyle Murphey

Guest Instructors Include: Sam Nicholson, ASC, Bobby Nishimura


At Global Cinematography Institute, our instructors are innovators in their respective fields. Few individuals are more qualified to discuss the artistic, technical and industry considerations of virtual production and its role in cinematography, than our "Virtual Cinematography" instructor Ron Fischer.


Ron is a virtual production supervisor, and has on feature films such as Alice in Wonderland, Beowulf, films by Robert Zemekis - including Polar Express, Monster House and more. Ron worked for 8 years at Sony Imageworks, and 3 years at Universal Studios as the technical director of the UVS1, Universal Virtual Stage Facility, and now currently works freelance in addition to being a original faculty member of Global Cinematography Institute.


Global Cinematography Institute: How would you describe "Virtual Cinematography"?


Ron Fischer: Virtual cinematography is this modern, kind of a new version, of an old thing.  It’s where you combine the real and the virtual together in a single frame, but live.  It's a little like in the digital world, the equivalent of doing forced perspective models and those kinds of things back in the old days. Glass mirror shots, like they used to do in the 20’s.  All those sorts of things, but now really it's that idea cast into the modern day and with the new technologies you get new freedoms, like the ability to move the camera around freely, change the lens with a zoom or whatever.


How does your work as a Virtual Production Supervisor mesh with the Cinematographer?


Ron Fischer: Well typically I’ll work with the crew, ideally with the DP, although on a large feature film one tries make oneself as inconspicuous as possible, the idea is to continuously present to the DP a visualization of what’s going on in a situation, or in a shot, or a take where there's a significant amount of elements that are not present physically on-set. You have a lot of virtual, a lot of green, and for instance you may have a real location which is going to be significantly changed or extended later.  The goal really is to provide a seamless non-intrusive visualization of what the shots are going to look like.


How is your Virtual Production team composed?


Ron Fischer: Well its interesting, because the role of the virtual cinematographer or the virtual production support, spans a lot of different areas. I'll usually work with the AC on the camera. I'll usually have one other person working with me on-set ideally, but it's a very small crew.  I'll work with people who are doing survey and with the grip crew very extensively because we're typically invading the space on stage or location quite a bit to install tracking systems and markers, but that technology becomes less intrusive as time goes on.  The key difference between what I do and other people do in major commercial houses is that we really try to provide it all in real time - live - whereas a lot of the companies right now are specialists in post production, so what they do is gather a lot of information on-set with survey cameras and things like that, and then they'll put all that into the post production process and you won't really see the result until a month later or something like that. Our goal is to both provide that on stage, live, and also to make it useful for post production as well.


Do you think the onset of Virtual Production brings new aesthetic possibilities?


Ron Fischer: Oh absolutely, the key thing that it does in the process is that it makes shooting return to being "one moment". The way to explain that is in post production right now, and in particular since the dawn of incredibly widespread use of the greenscreen and vfx, is what defines a single take or a single moment has actually been fractured into many different little processes with some of them taking place during shooting, and some taking place in previs or precapture, if you're doing motion capture, with so much of it actually taking place in post production now. A really good example was George Lucas when he made the second set of Star Wars movies - the second trilogy, he said well into shooting on stage, "Is really data capture and just getting a bunch of layers and pieces and then combining them freely in post to create the moment."  I say bravo for technically being able to do that and save shots that may otherwise have been very difficult, and in particular shooting with children on that series of movies, but I think that it does take a lot of the life out of both what’s going on on-stage, and in the final work. This is just my opinion, but I think that's one of the reasons that these large visuals effect extravaganzas that go up now, aren’t having the same audience response that they used to because the novelty of it is gone, and what were really looking for is how that work can bring an emotional underpinning to the content of shots, but were really still losing it because the emotional content isn’t something you see on-set. It is something that happened a little bit on-set, and then in post, someone picks up the shot and goes "I know how to fix this or make it better", but maybe they’re not! Maybe they’re taking it in a different direction - it's not one vision of the DP and the director anymore, but it's really kind of a spread out collaborative over a number of people, and that collaboration works or doesn't work, but it’s obviously crucial to really getting the "moment" right.


What about the communication workflow between technician (VFX artist) and image author (DP), how is that collaboration currently working?


Ron Fischer: Well what’s interesting is a lot of the modern tools allow us to improve that communication, if you know how to use them.  If you are an AC or a DP on-set, you know what’s going on with the things that you're doing with the digital negative, with the metadata that's being collected about what you're shooting with the lighting.  You know how to communicate that to post more effectively if you know enough about post and how they’re using it, or if there are communication lines, but as people have said to me, very often, not on all films but a lot of times, people are rushed or they have limited time, or the production has only scheduled the DP in for certain days. They show up and they do the best job they can in that time, but they may not really be that aware of what’s going to happen in post, or that aware of how this shot or particular sequence of shots has been planned.  So it's always a bit of a fight especially on modest budget films to make that communication work, and be aware of what the plan is for post.


Can you imagine in the future the position of the DP to be included in the VFX department or vice-versa?


Ron Fischer: Absolutely, I think there's a continuum of ownership affecting the shot that happens between the DP and VFX. The DP should be on the show as early as previs and they really should, in effect, be directing the camera in previs already and then when you come to stage you're getting the next piece of that, or you’re really accomplishing the shot, and then in post the DP should be saying "yes, well the lighting, you’re keeping the idea, etc.". Maintaining the goals of the lighting and the framing, and everything going on in the action in this scene should be the goal.  But again, a lot of producers say "Oh, the DP is expensive, we don't want to bring him on until we're ready to begin shooting" as minimal, absolutely as minimal as possible.  And that's a challenge both for DP's in terms of the way their cost structure goes, and also for productions in terms of the way they allocate their budgets. Everyone in some sense always tries to minimize budgets, but I think that again, like I said with these, that the last 2 years or so, big budget feature film VFX extravaganzas have become more and more difficult to see. Yeah you have this really big effect shot, but did it really connect with the audience in telling the story? Not always so clear. 


How can we further educate young and established cinematographers to create a stronger collaboration between DP and VFX?


Ron Fischer: It's one of the things that we're really trying to do at GCI in teaching Expanded Cinematography®, is this idea of training DPs, cinematographers, to know more about how their photography is used for measurement, in particular, the course that I teach: "Virtual Cinematography" really is designed to present the camera as a tool for measurement, as well as a tool for artistic and aesthetic composition, and by approaching the camera that way we give the DP a method to understand the world of VFX and how they can contribute to it with their camera in multiple dimensions, and what aspects of the camera has to be well understood by post production people. You can literally throw anything at them and they can make something out of it, but this is the DP's chance to give them something that's really both going to make their job easier, and focus it more on what they want to accomplish in the shot.


Interview conducted by recent GCI Alumnus Clara Bianchi, as part of her on-going thesis examination of the changing role of the cinematographer.