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Virtual cinematography is the set of cinematographic techniques performed in a computer graphics environment. This includes a wide variety of subjects like photographing real objects, often with stereo or multi-camera setup, for the purpose of recreating them as three-dimensional objects and algorithms for automated creation of real and simulated camera angles.
Virtual cinematography allows among other things physically impossible camera movements, in example the so-called bullet time scenes in The Matrix films, the flow-motion camera movements in David Fincher films, the camera runs and the crowd simulations as can be seen in The Lord of the Rings and the airport terminal that doesn't exist looking very real and existing in the Pan Am that aired in 2011–2012.
Virtual Cinematography came into prominence following the release of The Matrix trilogy especially the last two, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The directors, Lily and Lana Wachowski, tasked visual effects supervisor John Gaeta (who coined the phrase) with developing techniques to allow for virtual "filming" of realistic computer-generated imagery. Gaeta, along with George Borshukov, Kim Libreri and his crew at ESC Entertainment succeeded in creating photo-realistic CGI versions of performers, sets, and action. Their work was based on the findings of Paul Debevec et al. of the acquisition and subsequent simulation of the reflectance field over the human face which was acquired using the simplest of light stages in 2000. Famous scenes that would have been impossible or exceedingly time consuming to do within traditional cinematography include the burly brawl in The Matrix Reloaded where Neo fights up-to-100 Agent Smiths and at the start of the end showdown in The Matrix Revolutions where Agent Smith's cheekbone gets punched in by Neo  leaving the digital look-alike unhurt.
The Wachowsky Sisters films
In the Matrix trilogy, filmmakers used virtual cinematography to heavily attract the audience, Bill Pope the DP uses this tool in a much more subtle manner. However these scenes are also attractive, and most of them reach a quite high level of realism, thus the audience usually don't notice that they are actually watching a shot which was created entirely by visual effects artists using 3D computer graphics tools.
Another series of films of the same era that utilizes virtual cinematography heavily with trademark typical virtual camera runs that could not be achieved with conventional cinematography is The Lord of the Rings filmatization. Other studios and graphics houses with ability or near the ability to do digital look-alikes are in the early 2000s include: Sony Pictures Imageworks (Spider-Man 2 and 3 2004, 2007), Square Pictures (Animatrix - Final Flight of the Osiris prequel to Matrix Reloaded 2003), Image Metrics (Digital Emily 2009) and then later on in 2010s Disney (the antagonist CLU in movie Tron: Legacy 2010) and Activision (Digital Ira 2013)
Virtual Cinematography has evolved greatly since this time and can be found in use prolifically across a spectrum of digital media formats. Subsets technology components of Virtual Cinematography include "computational photography, machine vision, sensor based volumetric video and image based rendering.
Once the 3D geometry, textures, reflectance field and motion capture are done and an adequate capture and simulation of the BSDF over all needed surfaces and the virtual content has been assembled into a scene within a 3D engine, it can then be creatively composed, relighted and re-photographed from other angles by a virtual camera as if the action was happening for the first time.
Geometry can be acquired from a 3D scanner or from multiple photographs using machine vision technology called photogrammetry. The people at ESC entertainment used Arius3D scanner in the making of the Matrix sequels to acquire details of size of 100 µm such as fine wrinkles and skin pores. Textures can be captured easily from photographs. Reflectance field is captured into BSDF's over the surface of the XYZRGB object using a light stage. Dense aka. markerless motion capture and multi-camera setup (similar to the bullet time rig) photogrammetric capture technique called optical flow was used in making digital look-alikes for the Matrix movies.
Modification, re-direction and enhancements to the scene are possible as well. The rendered result can appear highly realistic, or rather, "photo-realistic". Virtual cinematography is the creation process. Virtual effects are stylistic modifications being applied within this format. Virtual cinema is the result. Its main applications are in movie, video game, leisure and disinformation industries.
The art of "photographing" any computer-generated imagery content with a virtual camera is still virtual cinematography by means of taking a 2D photo of a three-dimensional model, where as virtual cinematography is a capturing process of four-dimensional (XYZT) events into higher dimension functions such as a bidirectional texture function (7D) or a collection of BSDF over the target.
The advent of virtual worlds has given a new push to this concept since they allow the creation of real-time animation by using camera moves and avatar control techniques that are not possible by using traditional film-making methods.
- Autodesk Maya is a 3D computer graphics software that runs on Windows, OS X and Linux.
- Autodesk 3ds Max is a professional 3D computer graphics program for making 3D animations, models, games and images for Windows only.
- Blender (software) is a free and open-source 3D computer graphics software product used for creating animated films, visual effects, art, 3D printed models, interactive 3D applications and video games, intended for DIY virtual cinematographers.
- Pointstream Software by Arius3D is a professional dense motion capture and optical flow system using a pixel and its movement as the unit of tracking usually over a multi-camera setup.
- History of computer animation
- Timeline of computer animation in film and television
- Timeline of CGI in movies
- Virtual camera system
- Debevec, Paul; Tim Hawkins; Chris Tchou; Haarm-Pieter Duiker; Westley Sarokin; Mark Sagar (2000). "Acquiring the reflectance field of a human face". Proceedings of the 27th annual conference on Computer graphics and interactive techniques - SIGGRAPH '00. ACM. pp. 145–156. doi:10.1145/344779.344855. ISBN 978-1581132083.
- George Borshukov, Presented at Imagina’04. "Making of The Superpunch" (PDF).
- kaptainkristian. "The Wachowsky sisters films - Invisible Details".
- Debevec, Paul; J. P. Lewis (2005). "Realistic human face rendering for "The Matrix Reloaded"". ACM SIGGRAPH 2005 Courses on - SIGGRAPH '05. ACM. p. 13. doi:10.1145/1198555.1198593. Retrieved 2013-08-10.
- Debevec, Paul (2006). "Virtual Cinematography: Relighting through Computation" (PDF). Computer. IEEE. 39 (8): 57–65. doi:10.1109/MC.2006.285. ISSN 0018-9162. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-02-09. Retrieved 2006-11-06.
- Jhala, Arnav (2005). "Introduction to Virtual Cinematography" (PDF). North Carolina State University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-01-02. Retrieved 2006-11-06. Cite journal requires
- Newman, Bruce (2003). "'Matrix' sequel: Virtual Cinematography". San Jose Mercury News. Archived from the original on April 27, 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-07.