Shaping new worlds with virtual production
As the studio technology grows in popularity, Michael Burns looks at how some recent film and TV projects have used it to dramatic effect
For their commercial for Tata Motors, Quite Brilliant and director Martin Bennett wanted to create a range of environments and dynamic changeable ‘looks’ that were only possible by shooting on an LED volume.
“I wanted to create a near-future but realistic world with a twist, where we travelled through four environments showing the car both parked and driving,” says Bennett. “Additionally, because the car was heavily embargoed, we couldn’t risk it being seen in public. So being able to create and control our environments in a studio was very appealing.
“Once the concept was agreed with the creatives at [brand agency] XYZ, I created a brief for the team at Quite Brilliant. Their 3D designers created the environments using just mood references.”
Russell Shaw, head of virtual production at Quite Brilliant, explains: “We made four bespoke scenes – a salt flat, a suspension bridge, a forest road and a desert environment – which took roughly four weeks. There are different stages of the process, starting with modelling, then adding textures, lighting and finally optimising for the studio. Around 90% of the film was shot on the LED volume. An additional four shots were rendered out separately from Unreal Engine – these were very wide or unusual angles that were not achievable on set.”
Bennett continues: “Pre-production was around four weeks. In this time, we refined the storyboard, designed and created the four environments and planned the shooting order. It is critical for this type of project to get the pre-production phase right, where you have enough lead time and the right people involved at the right stage. We were fortunate to be working with the best in XYZ and Quite Brilliant.”
The virtual production took place at Mars Volume in London. As the Avinya was a secret car, Tata Motors couldn’t risk it being seen in public so having the ability to move to different locations within the secure location of the LED volume was critical.
The shoot, with DoP Konstantin Freyer, took place over two days, and followed another two days of pre-lighting and testing. The latter was crucial, according to Bennett: “The set-up is where you craft the shot and scene. The actual shooting is the easy part. Having time to craft the lighting within the 3D environment can’t be underestimated.”
Shaw agrees: “It’s vital to have these pre-light days to not only create your looks but to understand how you can control them to get exactly what you want. Once you understand how to control the lighting, skies, clouds, fog and so on within Unreal to create the look, you can respond to what you are seeing in camera and create the exact look you are after. Preparation, planning and understanding the controls at your disposal are vital. You really can craft the look of the scene and tweak on a per-shot basis.”
How LED volumes work with different reflective surfaces throws up some technical challenges. “The great thing about placing a highly reflective object in the stage is that you see all of those beautiful reflections on the surface of the car,” says Bennett. “This is what makes virtual production perfect for automotive shoots. The reflections fuel the illusion that you really are in the location that is displayed on the wall. The challenges were mostly around how to control the LED volume, in particular the ceiling, in order to balance out the light being emitted with the atmosphere that you want to create. As we were in a studio environment, we were able to use Sandstorm’s TechnoDolly to create precise camera moves that added to the elegance of the piece. Using this equipment on location would have been challenging.
“With this motion-control set-up, we were also able to shoot multiple passes, which enabled us to perfect the lighting and reflections on the car, as well as giving us the ability to create shots showing the full car in frame and get the sense of movement,” he adds. “Using the TechnoDolly made that possible, along with camera tracking data to add in elements in post to complete the shot.”
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