Capturing moving stories: the new virtual production technique that’s been around for years.

During the past 12 months, LED virtual production sets have become the hot topic in high-end production circles thanks to their use on hit shows such as Disney+’s The Mandalorian, where large volume LED backdrops are combined with powerful graphics engines to create extended reality environments.

But the truth is that LED sets are not new and, in one way or another, have been utilised to replicate real and imagined environments for TV and film production for decades.

It’s something to which Scott Russell can attest as he was one of the pioneers of this technique on the acclaimed 2013 sci-fi movie Gravity. Eight years on he is now helping to spread the word about LED sets and virtual environments in his role as director of accounts for film and drama at advanced audio-visual technology company, Anna Valley.

 

As Russell confirms, the technology has “evolved significantly” during that time period –to the extent that shooting in an LED virtual production studio is now frequently more cost-effective and convenient than shooting on location. But while LED virtual studios are becoming more commonplace, there are still many film and TV professionals who have not yet had the opportunity to get hands-on experience of this technology.

But companies like Anna Valley and Driving Plates.com – the world’s leading source of HD and 4K 360-degree driving stock footage from around the globe – are helping to change this situation by supporting productions shooting ‘moving car’ sequences using LED virtual production techniques.

Scott Russell on virtual LED set

Shooting in an LED virtual production studio is now frequently more cost-effective and convenient than shooting on location.

Ian Sharples production consultant for DrivingPlates.co.uk

It’s not difficult to understand why LED studios are proving so popular for moving car scenes. Playing back street plates on LED screens around a car gives production teams the opportunity to easily capture shots that would be much more challenging to shoot on location, and the results can be as good if not better than what can be achieved on location – although that does depend on having both good footage and an effective studio set-up!

Recognising that now is an ideal moment to reflect on the rise of LED backdrops, Russell and Ian Sharples, production consultant for DrivingPlates.co.uk, recently sat down for a socially distanced conversation to consider the past, present and future of this exciting area of technology.

Driving Plates in the fast lane

DrivingPlates was originally founded in LA to cater to a specific niche – driving stock footage for car sequences, such as those routinely encountered in pretty much any contemporary TV show or movie.  The company has developed its own patented technology with 9 high-resolution stabilised cameras used to film 360 degrees around a travelling car. Driving Plates’ library and client base has grown steadily in the 10 years since it was founded, with the company building up a stock library of more than 10,000 plates from around the world and opening an office in the UK in 2018.

Driving Plates capturing 360 video for virtual production

The founders and principals of the company, David C Smith and M Shawn Lawler, wanted not just to shoot those backgrounds but to standardise how they could be presented and delivered to productions on a library platform in the most efficient way.  “Productions can search through our stock footage library or we can shoot something more specific for them,” explains Sharples. “But ultimately, it’s about providing backgrounds as a service so that productions don’t need to use up resources figuring out how to do it themselves. With our technology, in most scenarios and jurisdictions we can drive around quite happily and shoot without having to close roads, which reduces the workload of several departments.”

Completing the picture in camera

Explaining Anna Valley’s contribution to these innovative collaborations, Russell outlines a standard workflow and production configuration that is now highly optimised. “We take DrivingPlates’ footage, load it onto our media servers, then pixel-map that onto the LED screens in the studio environment,” he says. “A normal set-up would be a side screen and a back screen, two screens – normally on an angle – reflecting down the side of the car, and a roof of LED. Collectively, it gives you the illusion that you are driving along the street, and the combination of footage and LED screens means you can capture it all ‘in camera’ on the day.”

virtual LED studio with roof panel

LED virtual sets to capture effects in camera

The combination of footage and LED screens means you can capture it all ‘in camera’ on the day.

The roof is super-important, but it is often overlooked,” remarks Sharples. “You need a nice big screen over the top of the car, and you have to be able to move it so that you can adjust where the light and reflections land. It’s all about those extra little ways to sell the shot. For example, if you include a wing mirror or interior mirror in the frame, you can angle it to pick up realistic reflections from the LED.”

“It’s quite a straightforward set up actually,” adds Russell. “But some of the things it allows you to capture in camera – such as video reflections on the car or what we call ‘the knuckles effect’ where the light plays over someone’s knuckles on the steering wheel – would take a long time and a lot of expense for a visual effects team to create.  And it’s the simple things that make a big difference – like using vehicle positioning hydraulic jacks (like roller skates for cars that they use in showrooms) to make it easy to move the car into the right position in relation to the screens.”

The ability to capture elements that aren’t in vision or seen directly on a monitor can also help to make the shot more believable. “In addition,” says Russell, “you generally find that you are able to get to a really good place in terms of time on the floor for DOPs and gaffers to light the scene.”

LED virtual set lighting source reflections

LED virtual production studio in camera effects

LED video reflections for virtual production

moving images reflected from LED studio

Educating an industry

Although the technology has been on the rise for a while, there is no doubt that it has received a considerable boost during Covid-19, when the need to minimise location filming has never been more acute. Not only does it help to limit possible crew exposure to the virus, but it also reduces the call for often complex and time-consuming permit processes and road closures.

 Shooting moving car scenes is also a good entry point to the entire world of LED sets. “It’s an easy and cost-effective way to get into using this technology,” confirms Sharples. “We are finding that, where productions still need to shoot parts of a scene on location, they are able to break them up so that the majority of the dialogue and the main substance of the scenes can be done on a more controllable LED stage.”

LED virtual studios minimise the need for location filming

It’s an easy and cost-effective way to get into using this technology.

Of course, it also helps if you are collaborating with a team which has a track record of getting great results quickly. “Working with a team like Anna Valley, you can be sure that everything will have been set-up and optimised in advance, in most cases allowing you to achieve a better page count than would be possible on low-loader work,” says Sharples, “And of course on the LED stage we can move around the world – start in Edinburgh, tick off New York and Tokyo and finish the day with a scene in Sydney!”

Meanwhile, the mission to educate crew will continue into the future as there are still many production companies who are unfamiliar with LED set technology. “I’m talking to a company at the moment that has never used LED but is aware it’s something they need to get into,” says Russell. “Everyone thinks of The Mandalorian, Star Wars and these big hundred-million-dollar productions, but there are plenty of smaller shoots going on out there as well. Those crews need an education in LED technology and the footage, so it’s a real hand-holding process.”

Many production companies are unfamiliar with LED set technology

Making 'braver' shot choices

The tendency at present is to be fairly conservative about shot choices and lens sizes. “There is an inclination to stay tight, use big close-ups, and have the LED images very much in the background, and that really does work well,” says Sharples. “But I’m trying to encourage people to become a bit braver and bring the camera outside the car, doing over-the bonnet shots and framing a little wider so you see some car bodywork and make use of the LED screens for reflections.  That might not always be the right creative choice, but it will happen more and more as directors and DOP’s get used to working with the technology and become more comfortable with LED backgrounds.”

Educating the industry in LED production techniques

LED production in camera effects

Both Sharples and Russell also feel that there is an organisational issue in play that will likely resolve itself over time. “This is a very structured industry where everybody knows everyone else’s role by their job title,” says Sharples. “I don’t think we’ve quite figured out where the virtual production team sits in that structure, which can affect whether the right people are involved in the right conversations at the right time.”

‘The workflow isn’t so difficult if you manage it well’

Despite the present industry preoccupation with 4K and 8K production for both TV and film, this is one area where ultra-high-resolution workflows aren’t required.  DrivingPlates captures and delivers footage in 4K because it’s the expected industry standard, and it exceeds the requirements for the studio setup without leading to massive data management costs and workflow implications.

 

As Russell remarks, it would not be feasible to display footage in true 4K on an LED screen at this point. “It would have to be 50 feet wide by 40 feet high to achieve full resolution,” he points out. “So, the reality is that although people are shooting in 4K, you’re not displaying it in 4K. In fact, sometimes we’ll even include a Rosco back-projection surface to diffuse the screens and take the sharpness down a little bit for the cameras.”

Russell believes that a similar focus on the resolution of the screens as opposed to the full technical solution can also be problematic. “A lot of LED suppliers are chasing the highest resolution screens, but then they fall down on the workflow coming behind it.”

The technology behind virtual production sets

“The workflow isn’t so difficult to manage,” adds Sharples. “It just takes a little good old fashioned inter departmental communication to avoid any surprises on shoot day.”

But as much as the correct use of the technology is critical, it’s also vital to have good working partnerships at the core of every project. Sharples confirms: “One of the things that’s been-super important for us as a company, both in our LA and London offices has been assessing the knowledge and approach of the potential partners within a production and who is going to receive and work with our material.

If I’m working with Anna Valley, I know they’ve got a good tech team and they’ve got good equipment, so the workflow and technical side will be quickly sorted and we can concentrate on discussing creative requirements with productions.”

shooting on an LED virtual production set with Anna Valley

“It’s in all of our interests to work closely together,” agrees Russell. “There have been occasions with some big effects houses where I have received footage then found it very difficult to get hold of the right person when I discover that something has glitched a week later. But with DrivingPlates you know it’s going to be great footage and there is a whole team in place to support the production. So, it’s a winning combination for productions.”

Interested in finding out more about shooting car scenes in an LED studio?  Click here to check out our factsheet.