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by Rose Finlay

One of the most exciting new developments in the field of visual effects has been the development of virtual production. First developed by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) for the Disney+ series THE MANDALORIAN, virtual production is the process of providing real-time computer-generated backgrounds to a set using LED screens. This allows for actors to interact with virtual backgrounds in real time.

To give a better understanding, in the past, film sets with large amounts of visual effects largely used green screens. In this setting, actors were required to use their imaginations, acting to large green walls with relevant markers for sightlines. This was not only difficult for the actors to give convincing performances, but it also made extra work for the crew who had to ensure various factors such as lighting properly emulated the setting. With the virtual productions, the sets are surrounded by massive LED screens projecting the virtual backgrounds which change in real-time.

A major benefit is that actors are able to have a better sense of place in the scene allowing for more natural performances. In addition, it also provides better ambient lighting, allowing for a more realistic feel to the finished product. Not only are special effects-heavy productions to benefit, but it can also save a lot of money as real-life locations can be filmed and later projected onto the screens. This means that lower-budget productions don’t always have to do on-location shooting. Also, as content can be adjusted during filming (rather than in post-production), it can help avoid the need for costly reshoots and provide perfect replication of outdoor scenes so that events such as seasons and the weather won’t have an impact on filming. All these benefits can be a great help on any film set, but particularly those with lower budgets, which means that a greater variety of filmmakers from all backgrounds may be able to make films with a greater scope at a fraction of the cost.

THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT is the first German production to use this cutting-edge technology, thanks to the local German company Holobay. The screenwriters Raffaela Kraus and Pascal Schröder plotted the film from the beginning with the virtual production technology in mind. In the film, the characters are taken from one virtual environment to another as they try to work through various escape rooms, meaning that a diverse number of backgrounds were designed such as the moon, a cowboy-Western town, a rocky cliff-edge, and a snowy mountaintop.

While the virtual production technology is certainly exciting and it is wonderful to see it available to German productions going forward, it must be said that THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT was perhaps not the best vehicle for its debut. While some backgrounds were more effectively designed than others, perhaps more importantly, it was obvious that debut director Pascal Schröder was not experienced enough to utilize the technology to its potential. The backgrounds were largely passive objects, and the actors were not often asked to interact with their surroundings in any meaningful way. This is one of the major benefits of the technology and it is unfortunate that it was not given a true chance to shine in its first German production. Undoubtedly a director with more vision and experience will be able to do it justice and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what is to come in the future from this fascinating new technology.