When one is learning about the film industry, there comes a time when you realize that everything you believed was a lie. For me, it was when I learned that a good amount of scenes in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York weren’t even filmed... in New York. I’m still shaking. Films are supposed to get you to suspend your disbelief and immerse you in a grand new world. We are more adept at creating those immersive experiences today with modern technology than in Hollywood’s golden age but they weren’t without their bag of tricks. Brace yourselves, I’m about to ruin some Hollywood favorites. It turns out, the bulk of North by Northwest was not filmed near Mt. Rushmore, Ben-Hur was not filmed in Ancient Rome, and The Wizard of Oz was not filmed in Oz. Those films were mostly shot on sound stages with painted backdrops.
Painted backdrops are the backbone of cinema and while they are still being used today, they are being used significantly less than they were in the 20th century. Well, a similar technique is regaining traction in the film industry in 2020. Some would say it’s the modern equivalent to painted backdrops. They are called LED Screens.
With Covid running rampant and the world slowly starting back up, the film industry is facing an unusual challenge. Filmmaking is collaborative. It requires many different moving pieces and clear communication is key to a smooth production. Even if the world opens back up, social distancing and strict guidelines on traveling may prevent productions from working at full capacity. Now more than ever, Hollywood needs creative solutions to the challenges they face and Virtual Production may have the answer.
Virtual Production is the process of leveraging VFX to aid each phase of production. In pre-production, VFX can help through previsualization. In post, VFX creates the convincing final look of the film. But what about during the actual production? Can VFX help you on shooting day?
Jon Favreau seems to think so. His answer is a 20 foot tall, 270 degree, 75 foot long LED screen called “The Volume”. First used on The Mandalorian, The Volume is an enormous set of LED screens that display 3D photorealistic images as a backdrop for productions. Epic Games’ Unreal Engine is used to create realistic digital constructions of environments, virtual or real. The LED screen has a variety of different benefits. For example, The Volume can supplement the lighting. If you are shooting an exterior during golden hour, you will only have an hour but if you shoot it inside with The Volume, you can have all the time you want. The LED Screen also doesn’t have to be a static screen. The Volume can link to the film camera to render in real-time based on the camera’s movements. In other words, as the camera moves the LED screen changes parallax to keep the scene more realistic.
Half of the scenes in The Mandalorian were filmed using The Volume and no one is the wiser. The technique is so effective Jonathan Nolan decided to try it out for himself on his most recent season of the show Westworld. Nolan was looking for an alternative to blue screens because of the color it can cast on the set and the demotivation it brings to the cast and crew. With The Volume, the cast and crew could better visualize the scene and how to approach it. It also made post-production much simpler because VFX artists did not have to touch the backdrop.
The restrictions on travel and social interaction gives the film industry many challenges to overcome but the Volume reduces the need to shoot on-location at all. Any environment needed for the film can be digitally constructed or reconstructed based on an actual location. It’s revolutionary techniques like The Volume that will propel the film industry into a new era of productivity. One that balances both physical and virtual production techniques. The next step is finding a way to make it less expensive.