First Look at ‘Gravity’ VFX Supervisor’s Virtual Production ‘Flite’

Tim Webber, the Oscar-winning VFX supervisor of Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 space-set thriller Gravity, has unwrapped the trailer for his directional debut — an experimental sci-fi short titled Flite that the inventive filmmaker created while putting a new VFX and virtual production pipeline through its paces.

London-headquartered VFX facility Framestore (for which Webber serves as CCO) was the lead VFX vendor on Gravity, which made early use of techniques now considered a part of what is known as virtual production, which the VFX community is now quickly working to develop and adopt for all types of production. For Flite, Webber made use of Framestore’s latest iteration of its system, custom built around Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. “A lot of the things we did in [Flite] are taking what we did in Gravity and moving them on with modern technology and making them easier to do and more sophisticated,” Webber tells The Hollywood Reporter.

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Dubbed FUSE, an acronym for Framestore Unreal Shot Engine, the company’s take on the process was designed to allow large numbers of artists to work simultaneously within the real-time engine, incorporating sophisticated previsualization, virtual production, asset management and review and approvals, in addition to VFX shot production and including the ability to work remotely.

Written by Webber, Flite is set in a semi-submerged London of 2053 and explores the nascent and underground practice of “memory visualization.” In the story, reigning world hoverboard champion Stevie is imprisoned in a luxury high-rise apartment by her controlling manager, and attempts an escape with the help of a courageous stranger, with much of the film told through the memory recall of the stranger with a “hyperreal quality for the look.”

Webber relates that for Flite, he wanted to create “CG humans that give genuine, emotional performances with all the nuance, layers and expression that an actor evokes. This is a serious challenge for visual effects so we created hybrid animated humans to give us real performances in an unreal world but also action, adventure and complexity that wouldn’t otherwise be practical for anything but the biggest blockbuster.”

To do this they filmed the small cast — Alba Baptista, Gethin Anthony and Daniel Lawrence Taylor — using motion capture, over five days at ARRI’s UK virtual production stage. The LED wall was used to capture proper lighting on these characters.

“We developed tools so that we could see a live preview of the final shot while we were filming,” he says. Webber explains that he had access to two monitor feeds on set, one with the live camera feed and one with the live action portion of the shot composited into the virtual world. “Because of the speed of the rendering and the interactivity, you can see a reasonable quality version of it in real time if you want.”

He adds that this also helped him to create long, complex shots that would tell the story from the perspective of Jones, the stranger whose memory drives the story. Certain disciplines were handled entirely in Unreal, he says, citing look development, lighting and rendering as examples.

Oscar-nominated Theo Jones of Framestore, who served as VFX supervisor on Flite, says of the pipeline, “We really wanted to see if we could grab the best of what visual effects pipelines have to offer — which is big scale, multidisciplinary teams all working together — with that kind of rapid iteration collaboration and interactivity of Unreal, and see if we could create a tool set and a pipeline that kind of gave us the best of those two worlds.”

“We learned a huge amount that we could apply next time around,” Webber adds of these evolving virtual workflows. “We are very keen to move it on to something of a larger scale. I’m very keen to develop longer length material. I’ve got some ideas of my own.”

A co-production of Framestore and Inflammable Films, Flite is slated to screen at several upcoming events including Carmarthen Bay Film Festival an Sci Fi London.

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