What It's Actually Like to Use WETA Digital's Virtual Camera

Meet the incredible camera that brought me back to Instagram. 

I hadn’t sent an Instagram story (or IG story) in over a year (an unforgivable lapse for a filmmaker in the content business). As I planned my triumphant return, I sat mesmerized, watching the loop over-and-over before posting as I summoned the perfect scribbled, red caption.

The post eventually went through despite the spotty service due to my being in New Zealand (a point I made sure to drive home by tagging the photogenic island nation in my IG story). I was there on vacation, but I also found time to dork around with WETA Digital and their new ‘virtual camera.’ I’ll let the man who’s “responsible for all the work that goes through WETA,” Senior VFX Supervisor Joe Letteri, explain what a virtual camera is and does:

“The idea behind the virtual camera is that part of what we’re doing exists only in the computer and if you want to see that you have two options. One is to generate everything after the fact and composite the images together and see it in a two-dimensional film in sense. But one other option is to put a virtual camera in that virtual world and look around and compose your shots that way.”

In the simplest of terms, this is supposed to mean that a director can focus on performance and not worry about coverage (i.e., what’s in the shot). It also gives the filmmakers much more time to experiment and try different shots and angels and see how it would actually look in the pre visualization around them.

WETA Digital's Virtual Camera

Weston Green

In WETA’s demo, I was able to watch the beginning of a fight scene from the upcoming Alita: Battle Angle, where the titular character squares off against a villain in a sewer. The performance Robert Rodriguez wanted had already been shot. When they handed me this handheld device that felt like a decked out Nintendo Switch, I could walk around the environment and the camera would be live in real time.

Different joysticks changed camera lenses, and i’d be able to control the camera much like a drone while still remaining in whatever environment is onscreen. The effect is exciting and surreal: Watching the camera movement on the 32inch LCD monitor, I forgot I had another monitor in hand and could basically control everything by looking at that screen.

To master the virtual camera would take at least a day, but in the short time I had with it, I was able to do sweeping drone panning shots of the action, start the scene behind Alita, and then pan toward the bad guy while having the camera fly into his face as Alita threw a punch. It was awesome, the amount of freedom, and the entire experience was like something out of a toy box.

Watch the accompanying video below, where Mike Cozens explains a virtual camera even better though, as you might imagine, it’s a concept that’s easier to wrap your head around when you can see it in action. It’s an awesome video to watch that also gets at the complexities a filmmaker faces and how they can be alleviated through virtual production.

Not only that, but we can also do it live. I can fly that camera through that virtual environment wherever I want, and shoot whatever coverage I want. Directors are going to love working with this technology, but, more importantly audiences are going to love what they make with it.

The IG story ended up getting a solid 188 views. Follow me at @westoning.

Watch more in our exclusive look at Alita: Battle Angel as we go behind the scenes of Weta Digital to explore how they brought Alita to life.

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