Olympian effort: Disguise highlights how virtual production and XR won gold at Tokyo 2020
By Phil Ventre, vice president of broadcast, disguise
This year the delayed 2020 Olympic Games finally materialised with over 11,000 athletes competing in 339 events in Tokyo during the summer.
A global event like the Olympics is a huge opportunity to test the limits of traditional broadcasting and break boundaries. According to an article in Forbes, The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was broadcast globally to an audience of 150 million with more coverage by broadcast partners than any previous Olympic Games across both linear TV and digital platforms.
In Japan, TV coverage of Tokyo 2020 was around double that of Rio 2016. In the US, NBCUniversal aired more than 7,000 hours of coverage across TV and digital platforms, a US Olympic record. Across Europe, Discovery Eurosport aired up to 4,000 hours of live coverage on its TV and digital platforms, covering 50 territories in total.
This year, urged by the ongoing need for remote collaboration as a result of the pandemic, broadcasters adopted virtual production and extended reality as a way to bring wow factor to their coverage of the Games.
What is virtual production?
Virtual production refers to technology that blends the real and the virtual worlds together. Traditionally, virtual production has been dominated by blue or green screen technology which has been used in the broadcast industry since the 70s, mainly in weather forecast segments.
Rather than travel to Tokyo for the Olympics, the BBC’s Olympics’ hosts presented their programmes from an innovative virtual set in the HQ3 studio at dock10 in Salford, Greater Manchester.
When audiences watched the show, the green screen turned into a studio in a treehouse above the city of Tokyo, totally engaging viewers and becoming a talking point on its own.
This worked in their favour. The BBC reported a record breaking 104 million online viewing requests to watch their Tokyo coverage, far surpassing their coverage of the games in Rio 2016. A traditional set of this scale would not have been financially possible or practical, so real time graphics comes to the rescue while saving travel and set build costs.
Despite the high-tech nature of the studio, the BBC found that it is cheaper to use virtual production technology than building physical sets for each different show.
Going beyond the green screen
Although green or blue screens have their uses, they do present some limits. Lighting can be difficult as you need to brightly light all the green while also preventing spillage on your subject. Complex scenes can require a huge amount of post production work to add in the virtual elements and ensure that the presenters are keyed properly. When filming reflective surfaces like car windows, the post production work takes hours of highly skilled VFX artists’ time to make sure the correct reflections appear in the shot.
Using green screens, presenters and actors also need to be trained to interact with a virtual environment and deliver a natural performance. The crew also have no idea what the end result of the shot will look like while they are shooting.
These days, virtual production has evolved past the green screen with brand new technology emerging known as extended reality (XR). Using XR, studios can project real time graphics that are generated in graphics engines onto LED panels, transforming TV and film sets into an immersive, virtual experience in real time.
In the Olympic Games, innovative broadcasters used XR to great advantage. Discovery used their London-based, three-storey Cube studio to have exciting and broad coverage of the Tokyo Olympics. The studio featured seven different immersive real-time video environment locations that were each used for different shows covering the Games.
The virtual production technology in the Cube changed the scenery from night to day according to the time of day in Japan. They could also change from an informal to formal style, depending on the event Discovery was covering. Using extended reality workflows, the graphics were created from the camera’s point of view which allowed the set to be extended beyond the walls of the studio space and the camera to move freely with graphics updating according to the camera’s tracked movements.
The extended reality technology used in the Cube also allowed for a unique “teleportation” effect.
For key interviews, instead of Discovery setting up their studio and sending a full crew to Japan, athletes were able to be teleported from Tokyo to the Cube studio in London. When combining this extended reality technology with a simple green screen in Tokyo, both the presenters in London and the athletes could be in the same room even though, in reality, they are oceans apart.
The teleportation technique has been used in various broadcasts throughout the pandemic, including notable broadcasts like Eurosport’s coverage of the 2020 Australian Open and the 2020 US Open.
Although the Olympic Games were half a world away from Mexico, TV Azteca still transported their viewers to Tokyo through their broadcast of an entire Tokyo-inspired virtual city designed in Unreal Engine. The production was delivered by Miami-based creative studio Darmah’s turnkey XR stage, which they refer to as dXR Stage. Visual storytelling technology platform disguise powered a 4K workflow with 360-degree views of a virtual world. Using the extended reality technology, they were able to control the virtual world’s sunlight to reflect different times of day in Tokyo.
The studio made television history, delivering 170 hours of virtual reality show segments completely live and in real time.
Coverage of the Tokyo Olympic Games truly reinvented what was possible in sports broadcasting. Now, the technology enabling virtual production is only getting more accessible. The quality of the LED walls needed to create xR studios is going up while the cost is coming down. The speed of GPUs is also improving immensely while graphics engines, that were originally used in gaming, are becoming more widely used and even more powerful than before.
With the rollout of 5G optical cables enabling the delivery of higher-quality, remotely rendered experiences as well as the drive for more and more companies to cut their carbon footprint, studios will have to start to reconsider the necessity of building a hard set for each production. I can’t wait to see more broadcasters taking advantage of this technology and taking their shows to another world entirely.