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Today at the BEYOND 2023 conference, it was formally announced that an Ulster University-led consortium will host one of five new labs specialising in the future of virtual production - a new range of real-time content production techniques using computer-generated imagery (CGI), augmented reality and motion capture to create virtual sets, virtual worlds, and other experiences.

CoSTAR is the UK Research and Development network for creative technology. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, the CoSTAR network will help to shape the future of the UK’s creative industries by catalysing world-class R&D in screen and performance.

CoSTAR Screen Lab capability

The new research and development facility will be based in Studio Ulster, a £75 million, state-of-the-art virtual production facility that is set to become a global hub for the creative industries.It will help drive the next generation of visual effects technologies that will revolutionise the UK’s film, TV and performing arts industries, giving Northern Ireland a competitive edge.

Studio Ulster, set to open next year, is a large-scale virtual production campus at Belfast Harbour Studios. The facility will bring together expertise from BBC Northern Ireland, Belfast Harbour, Northern Ireland Screen and specialist animation studio Humain.

The Belfast lab is part of UKRI’s CoSTAR programme, supported by £75.6 million of AHRC funding and £63 million of new industry investment, which will form the largest virtual production research and development network in Europe, with four other facilities across the country.

Instead of adding visual effects and CGI in post-production, virtual production can enable filmmakers and theatre directors to create large-scale digitally-generated environments that performers can interact with in real-time using LED panels, as a faster and less expensive alternative to green screens.

It is already being used to great effect in productions like the ABBA Voyage live concert at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London and on Disney’s hit show The Mandalorian. The research facilities will study how the latest developments can be used to ensure the UK has the skills and infrastructure to stay on the cutting edge of this type of technology.

The state-of-the-art lab is part of the Creative Industries Sector Vision, which sets out the government’s ambitions to maximise the potential of the UK’s creative industries so they generate an extra £50 billion for the economy and support a million more jobs by 2030.

At the launch, Professor Declan Keeney, Ulster University, said: “We are thrilled to be joining the CoSTAR Network, for what will be a prestigious group of world-leading research labs in the exciting and transformative field of virtual and real-time production. This is a wonderful endorsement of our research leadership in the sector and our investment in the infrastructure needed to level up the screen industries here in Northern Ireland.

Studio Ulster will support the growth of this fast-growing sector in Northern Ireland and will now be underpinned by a world-class research facility. We are confident that our collaboration with the CoSTAR Network will accelerate the development of new technologies and techniques that will revolutionise the way films, TV, games and animations are made. We are excited to see what the future holds for virtual production, and we are proud to be playing a leading role in its development.”

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair, Arts and Humanities Research Council said at the conference: “The research and innovation led by CoSTAR will maintain the UK’s position at the forefront of screen technology, driving transformational change across film, television and video games.

“It will democratise access to cutting-edge post-production technology for small and medium enterprises, ensuring they can harness these advances for the benefit of consumers and the UK economy.”

Richard Williams, Chief Executive Officer of Northern Ireland Screen commented: “The funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to allow the establishment of the CoSTAR Screen Lab complex is another significant milestone for Studio Ulster. This collaboration between academia and key industry partners is poised to propel Northern Ireland to the forefront of future visual effects technologies. Together, we are creating a hub for cutting-edge research and skills development in Virtual Production that will undoubtedly contribute to the evolution of the screen industry in Northern Ireland.”

Screen productions in Northern Ireland have directly contributed more than £330 million to the local economy since 2018 and boosted the tourism industry by attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region. The project announced today will help prepare Northern Ireland’s film and TV industry to thrive in the future.

Ulster University is one of five CoSTAR network labs bringing together world leaders across academia and industry:

  • CoSTAR National Lab (led by Royal Holloway, University of London)
  • CoSTAR Screen Lab (led by Ulster University)
  • CoSTAR Live Lab (led by York)
  • CoSTAR Realtime Lab (led by Abertay)
  • CoSTAR Foresight Lab (led by Goldsmiths)

The regional hubs are expected to contribute a combined £33 million to the economy and support 423 jobs. Partners involved across the programme include the National Film and Television School, BT, Vodafone, Screen Yorkshire and Disguise as well as Royal Holloway, York and Abertay universities.

Watch: Levelling up screen industries in Northern Ireland: the CoStar Screen Lab - YouTube