The recently-concluded 2020 Olympics weren’t different just for athletes and spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic, but also for news outlets that covered the games. For example, the BBC shows how its Tokyo studio was entirely faked, recreated within Epic’s Unreal gaming engine.
Because of the extreme restrictions on travel and attendance at the Olympics in Tokyo, news organizations had limited staff who were able to actually be on the ground at the games. Anchors who were responsible for reporting the news were not allowed to travel to Japan, and some made the best of this situation by building elaborate studios that mimicked what it might be like if they were actually there.
“A lot of people assumed we were actually live from Tokyo but because of the pandemic, the obvious travel restrictions and the uncertainty that came with all that, we’ve done things slightly differently,” said Dan Walker, a BBC Sport anchor.
BBC Sport’s Tokyo Olympics studio never actually left Salford, England, and was instead housed inside a massive green screen room that projected what, to many, looked like a real Tokyo backdrop.
While a close inspection does reveal the studio isn’t the real deal, most casual observers would not necessarily notice. The technology is one that is still growing and expanding, which may mean that photographers may very soon not need to actually travel to some of the most sought-after locations on Earth in order to capture photos there.
Walker and co-anchor Sam Quek explain that the studio was created in real-time using the same engine that powers games like Fortnite. While true, pointing to Fortnite as an example of graphical performance does a bit of a disservice to the Unreal Engine. Fortnite uses a more stylized cartoon design while the Unreal Engine is capable of rendering a lot more realistic scenes.
Early last year, Epic — the studio that develops Fortnite and the Unreal Engine — showed the power of its gaming engine to render light and environments in a way that blurs the line between computer graphics and reality. In February, Epic showed how its computer-generated digital humans can look nearly indistinguishable from real people.
The capabilities of masking and green screening a studio are shown off by the BBC above, but the actual technology that is at the bleeding edge of gaming development is capable of creating an even more realistic scene than the one the British sports network used. The only real limitation to that are computers and budget: it would take a massive amount of computing power to render scenes as realistic as the Unreal Engine is capable of, but it is certainly not impossible. As computers become cheaper and more powerful, the ability to further blur the lines between the digital world and the real one will only rise.
When it comes to photography and content creation and the technology is there to create completely real-looking environments, will photographers use it? It is entirely possible for “outdoor” portrait sessions to take place in a studio where the photographer and subject can journey to any number of places on Earth with a few clicks of the mouse. Whether this is desirable or a good thing is entirely up for debate, however.