How LED walls are transforming film and TV production
Blockbusters and high-end TV series are often the harbingers of future production approaches. Their big budgets and long timelines allow for the extensive testing and creative experimentation needed to devise new production techniques that can ultimately change the way we create everything from commercials to comedy shows. One example of this is the introduction of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam on the movie “Bound for Glory,” its rise to prominence in “Rocky” and “The Shining,” and how this prompted the subsequent explosion of camera stabilisation mounts for everything from iPhones to camcorders that exists today.
Up until recently LED walls fell into the category of “production tools reserved for use on extravagant productions,” but the decrease in cost and increase in availability of a wide range of LED displays may mean that they’re set to become a part of mainstream production. And their potential extends way beyond being a simple substitute for green screen filming. Here are some of the most interesting and effective ways that LED walls have been used on film and TV productions so far.
Creating hyper-realistic illusions
Simulating the complex colours and zero gravity of space was one of the biggest challenges facing the creators of the film set almost entirely outside Earth’s atmosphere. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the movie also relied on the actors’ ability to see and respond to scenes playing out around them and on creating the illusion that they were spinning through space.
The solution to these challenges, conceived and created by the film’s cinematographer, Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, and visual effects supervisor, Tim Webber (along with his team at Framestore,) was The Light Box, a 20-foot tall, 10-foot wide enclosure built from 196 LED video panels provided by VER. With the actors inside the Light Box, visual effects technicians could programme the LEDs to display moving images of Earth and cue rapid video and lighting changes to make it appear as though the enclosure was spinning through space. The results speak for themselves with “Gravity” winning multiple Academy Awards including Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography and Sandra Bullock being nominated for Best Actress for her role in the film.
Another effect used on the “Gravity” set was using the light from video on LED screens to achieve dynamic lighting effects needed for off-camera fires, an approach that has since been emulated in films like “Deepwater Horizon” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”.
The colour of oil fires featured in these films couldn’t be recreated using special effects products, so instead they chose to play real footage of oil fires on LED video walls and use the light emitted from the visuals on these screens to provide an accurate effect. In these cases, the LED video walls weren’t featured on-camera at all and were purely used for their ability to provide dynamic lighting.
The team on Netflix’s “House of Cards” also used off-screen LED video walls to provide dynamic lighting for the hit series. One of the biggest challenges when shooting with a green screen is matching the physical lighting with the background that’s being keyed into the frame. This is especially difficult when you’re dealing with moving media, like scenery passing by through a car window.
To solve this, production designer, Steve Arnold and the “House of Cards” team combined LED and green screen approaches for the driving shots in the show. First, they sent a crew to Washington, D.C. to shoot what you would see when driving through the city. Then they played this footage back on LED screens that were hung above the car (and out of shot) in their green-screen studio, so that the light from this footage reflected onto the actors’ faces, the window frames and the door jambs. When they replaced the green screen backgrounds with the scenery in post, these shots synced up with the light reflections from the LED screens, creating a very realistic effect.
Virtual LED production sets
LED video walls can also be used to create “enhanced environments” when back-projection or green screen techniques won’t work, as demonstrated by the team behind the fourth film adaption of Agatha Christie’s “Murder On The Orient Express.”
Because filming on the real Orient Express was too logistically complicated, the film was shot at Longcross studios in London instead, on a 30-tonne locomotive and a number of replicas that provided more flexibility for filming. With an abundance of bevelled glass and reflective surfaces on the train sets, keying in backgrounds would have been a post-production nightmare, so cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, VFX supervisor George Murphy, VER’s Paul Kobelja and enhanced environment technical consultant Bobby Finley III collaborated on an LED solution instead. The team created the impression that the train was moving through the Alps by playing back footage of a journey through New Zealand’s mountain ranges on 2000 LED panels built to surround the static train set. The special effects department then created an adjustable hydraulic system to emulate the motion of the train and synced this up with the background footage, which meant that the light from the LED reflecting off the surfaces of the train matched the motion of the LED footage seen through the windows, creating a very realistic effect for actors and viewers alike. Apparently, the end result was so convincing that some of the actors suffered with motion sickness during filming!
Real time, in-camera vfx
Visual-effects production house, Industrial Light & Magic, has taken the use of LED backdrops to the next level by blending live action with virtual environments on the set of “Star Wars: The Mandalorian”. The Disney+ series featured virtual worlds that were created in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and displayed on a 21-foot-high x 75-foot-long, curved, panoramic LED wall which actors then performed in front of using practical effects props like blasters and speeder bikes. The curved screen, provided by Fuse, created an immersive space and, because these virtual backdrops could be manipulated and updated in real time, the team had complete freedom on set to create in-camera vfx.
There’s no doubt that the film and TV market is only just beginning to capitalise on the creative opportunities that LED video walls can provide, inspired by the pioneers like those featured above.
At Anna Valley, we’re always looking for new and exciting ways to use technology to deliver creative freedom for film and TV productions and we’ve already proved our capability on a Hollywood production and programmes for Netflix and Amazon.
Get in touch to chat about your next film or TV project today.