Image courtesy of Duck Factory

Recruiting astronauts with virtual production

For the first time in more than 10 years, the European Space Agency (ESA) is recruiting new astronauts. But finding the right people to face the dangers of space isn’t easy: get it wrong, and lives will be at stake.

Successful applicants need to be smart, brave, and able to keep calm under pressure. They also need to take remote working to the next level—completing missions thousands of miles away from home. With life near friends and family on the line, a LinkedIn job post just isn’t going to cut it.
Image courtesy of Duck Factory
So, how do you attract the rare candidate who’ll fit the bill? For ESA, the solution was to create a highly shareable recruitment video to connect with anyone who’d ever dreamed of going to the stars. That’s where Duck Factory came in. The 10-person Parisian boutique became the very first film production company in Europe to be commissioned by ESA.

“In the past, the space agency worked with internal teams for video content,” says Jérôme Bernard, founder of Duck Factory. “This time though, they needed a fresh set of eyes—and new, cutting-edge technology—to create a recruitment ad that was truly aspirational.”

With the help of virtual production in Unreal Engine, the Duck Factory team had just three months to deliver a film good enough to inspire the next generation of people to take steps on the moon. The pressure was on.

Ten virtual environments, millions of triangles 

The initial brief came in September 2020, and it was immediately evident to the Duck Factory team that it wouldn’t be feasible to bring all their ideas to life using traditional production methods.

“Our actors had to go to the moon. They had to command spaceships. It was impossible to incorporate all these ideas to the quality we’d expect,” says Jérôme. “Soon, it became obvious that combining virtual production technology with the power of Unreal Engine would not only enhance the overall creativity behind the project, but also enable us to deliver on time.” 
Image courtesy of Duck Factory
The team began learning Unreal Engine from scratch, eventually going on to build an impressive 10 photoreal virtual production environments including a Space Operations Center, lush South American landscape, and even the moon. The number of static mesh triangles per scene ranged from 2 million to more than 320 million.

“Though we’d never used it before, Unreal Engine was easy to learn and powerful to use,” says Johan Sarbia, VFX Supervisor and Motion Designer on the project. “Our list of plugins was relatively simple. We used Ultra Dynamic Sky for the sky boxes and space backdrops. We also used Quixel Megascans assets to easily place CG props like vegetation and rocks into natural environments.”
Image courtesy of Duck Factory

Out-of-this-world production

Once the Megascans-driven environments—always free to use in Unreal Engine—environments were complete, it was time to plug them into a virtual production studio. To do this, Duck Factory worked closely with the Paris-based team at Plateau Virtuel, who provided the stage to shoot the film. Each of Duck Factory’s environments was displayed onto Plateau Virtuel’s 22 x 5 meter Absen LED wall. At the time, this was the largest LED wall of its kind in all of France.
Image courtesy of Duck Factory
Actors would work in front of the LED backdrop, which was controlled with a Novastar module and had a 2.5 mm pixel pitch for improved screen resolution. The primary Venice camera on the project was then fitted with an OptiTrack system for motion capture and tracking, so that when the camera moved to follow a character, the backdrop moved too. This resolved parallax issues.

According to Plateau Virtuel’s co-founder Julien Lascar who acted as director of photography on the shoot, virtual production significantly sped up the filmmaking process, which massively reduced overall costs. “On set, everything was done in real time,” he reveals. “We could move our moon from the left to the right of the screen in seconds. It took just two days to complete all 10 different scenes required.”

One giant leap for the future

The speed of the workflow wasn’t the only advantage of using virtual production. The crew was able to light the stage directly from the LED screen. This ensured they always had realistic shadows and reflections—notoriously difficult when it comes to reflective assets like spacesuits—without having to rely on any work removing green spill in post.
Image courtesy of Duck Factory
Using virtual production also enabled the team to experiment with camera glass. Lascar selected Panavision anamorphics for a more vintage feel on the film. He explains that when using green screens, the image is normally far cleaner. With LEDs, he was able to aim for more organic final rushes.

According to Jérôme, however, the greatest advantage to using virtual production was in being able to focus almost exclusively on the artistic direction of the shoot, rather than having to worry about the stage, lighting, and props.
Image courtesy of Duck Factory
“Thanks to the power of the Unreal Engine, we didn’t have to compromise on quality,” he concludes. “Instead, we could simply focus on the creative vision of the project, and work in an incredibly productive, immersive environment, where changes and improvements could often be made with a literal click of a button.”

    Speed up your pipeline

    Get to final pixels faster with Unreal Engine's real-time rendering tools. It's feature-complete and free to use for creating linear content.