The Age of “Virtual Production”

Entertaining people during our period of isolation, without leaving the safety of your home.

And just like that…. it happened. I went from being on a film set to fielding calls from friends and colleagues about how they could make something virtual in the new unfolding, stay-at-home landscape. People usually call me in situations like this because I’ve done a decent amount of never-been-dones. And unfortunately, it doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon. So, I'm here to help.

Today I was emailed by someone who was looking for a “virtual director”. I possess a unique skill set that seems incredibly important to the current climate. It’s a mix of storytelling, technology, and social strategy. Currently, there are dozens of productions rushing to do live-streaming, but without a great story, a superior knowledge of how to integrate technology, and the strategy of how and where to tell it — it’s just part of the noise.

First off, a question I have been asked frequently —

Is it possible to do a production, virtually? Absolutely.

From live-streaming on Instagram to large scale virtual events, from digital experiences to personalized entertainment — it’s all possible, but you’ll have to get going right now. With the technology we have available for free, we can create virtual control rooms, attend virtual writers' rooms, work with technology partners from around the world and send high end streaming packages to talent. All aspects of production can be done virtually. As chance would have it… I have purposely placed myself in the middle of a redwood forest in Northern California, way away from Hollywood — so working remotely is like second-nature.

As every brand pivots away from the experiential events, (sorry but there won’t be mass gatherings for a while, I assume) or retail commercials, I am hoping we will see a resurgence of entertainment from brands. I’ve been fortunate to work on some amazing projects that were at the forefront of live-streaming and digital storytelling, so I am excited to continue to explore what is possible with our new limitation. While physical production isn’t going to resume anytime soon, there are dozens of ways to continue to tell brand-led stories — you just have to rethink some of the mechanics.

Live Events.

There is nothing like the rush of pulling off a live event. In our current quarantined state of affairs, it’s a bit more difficult to pull off a large scale event, but certainly not impossible. I did a really fun live streaming experience for Target a few years back.

It was all done on a sound stage with a live truck, a huge social team, and a TV production-level control room. I’ve been working with various companies to replicate the same experience from the comfort of our own home offices. It’s all possible. While all the tools are readily accessible and almost anyone has access to them, it’s the end experience that matters. I’ve been trying to talk most people out of just winging it on Instagram live.

It doesn’t matter what the idea or budget is — you should treat a live broadcast just like a regular production. A “run of show” mixed with the technical expertise that is combined with a bullet-proof social strategy. When we did the Xfinity “Project Dead Zone” (case study here), we had an extremely solid social strategy that allowed us to rack up 5.1 MILLION views on the live-streaming experience — with the help of a social “watch party” hosted by social media influencers on YouTube. Both Target and Xfinity were fully scripted, rehearsed and technically challenging productions. You could easily do both of these in isolation, just the mechanics would be slightly different.

Narrative Storytelling.

Xfinity was a great example of combining live-streaming with narrative storytelling, but what else could you do with narrative entertainment via digital delivery? A few years back, we did the first-ever branded short film on Snapchat, shot in 10-second increments, for Taco Bell (case study here). The narrative was pre-written, actors were hired and we shot the entire film on an iPhone.

I did another social entertainment project for Paramount for the launch of Paranormal Activity 4 (case study here). We pre-shot everything, then uploaded all the various social storytelling content via a fictitious character named Jacob Degloshi. He had every social channel — Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, with the hub of the entertainment collected on a public Facebook account.

Before we were all self-isolated, a film called Unfriended really paved the way for new storytelling format, screenlife — everything that the viewer sees happens on the computer, tablet or smartphone screen. Seems like we will see a fair bit of this type of storytelling in the coming weeks/months.

Virtual Exploring.

Exploring a new place, virtually, was all the rage when we launched Remote Control Tourist. One person, armed with a camera and a microphone, set out to explore all of Melbourne — letting the world guide them and tell them where to go and what to see. Check out the case study here.

We did the same thing in Cannes with David on Demand (case study here). A recruiter was sent out into the booze-filled world of Cannes, and the audience told him what to say, do and experience. The best part of either project is that they both involved a great deal of audience participation — the audience was not only watching, but they helped drive the narrative of the story. Recently, I read that the Winchester Mystery House was doing virtual tours, while they were shut down.

Additionally, VR is extremely good for letting someone explore a place without ever physically going there. I worked with Verizon to allow people to experience San Francisco in VR for the launch of a new store (case study here). VR doesn’t have to be live-action, as well. I worked with MediaMonks to do a VR experience all within the Unity engine for Toyota (case study here). The Oculus Quest, the untethered version of the VR headset, had been sold out following mandatory isolation. Maybe VR could have another go?

Digital Experiences.

Since in the late 90s, I have been crafting fun entertainment experiences that only take place on your computer (or mobile) screen. One of the most successful is Elf Yourself (case study here). Upload your head onto a virtual dancing elf and, hundreds of millions of elves later, you have a viral phenomenon.

I was thinking the other day about how to do this in the age of self-isolation. It was one actress on a makeshift greenscreen that we set up in our office. Totally possible. Hell, you could easily pull off a Subservient Chicken in our current situation. A guy in a chicken costume, in a non-descript living room and thousands of commands.

It’s really up to your imagination, but another production I did also featured one guy, on a computer in a remote location — Take This Lollipop (case study here).

Sure, it was shot by an incredible director of photography, Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Jojo Rabbit, The Master), but it could easily be done with virtual production. The idea, actor and technical execution were really the star. My tech partner created an entire company around the personalized video engine that we used on Lollipop, called Imposium. I’d love to see someone win an Emmy for a project that originated out of a worldwide mandatory lockdown.

There are millions of ways to entertain an audience that is sitting in front of their computers, TVs and mobile devices — right at this moment.

Right now, the key is to move quickly, be decisive and to work with incredible partners that can pull off the impossible. I have been fortunate to work with all of the best companies doing this type of work for years. We are in a unique time, with unique opportunities to innovate and tell new types of stories. The world is waiting.

Thanks for reading, now let’s get to work.

Jason

Jason is an Emmy Award-winning storyteller and director. Best known for Take This Lollipop, The Forest and countless bad karaoke songs. http://www.jasonzada.com

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