In what feels like the dawn of a new era, filmmakers around the world are fast embracing virtual production technology to create spectacular visuals and get bang for their buck.

Pioneered in the Star Wars series The Mandalorian, the technology consists of a giant LED wall also known as a volume screen or LED volume to display realistic background environments and visual effects. 

In Australia, volume screens are being constructed at major studios to attract high-budget international films and television series.

At Docklands Studios Melbourne for example, one of the largest LED volumes in the world is being constructed by Matchbox Pictures for the epic new TV series, Metropolis by NBCUniversal’s Universal Studio Group. State and federal governments are investing in this permanent infrastructure.

The first, temporary volume screen at Docklands Studios was constructed for NBCUniversal’s La Brea Season 1 in 2021. La Brea is again using the technology in Season 2 (2022), making experienced PDs Carrie Kennedy and Ben Morieson among the first in Australia to work with this technology.

Together, Carrie and Ben answer our questions about this new way of working.

Q: In general, what are the advantages in using volume screens?

A: The most immediate advantage is the amount of scale you can bring to a set and the detail you can add to the assets. There is also a huge advantage in using the interactive lighting that comes with the image on the screen. It allows for a more natural throw on the actors and any foreground set dressing. For an example the background can reflect on objects or reflective surfaces as you see in real life – as opposed to blue or green screen being reflected which then has to be taken out.

Spectacular lighting effects displayed on an LED volume screen for La Brea Season 1 at Docklands Studios, 2021 (Photo: Sarah Enticknap)

Q: How much more creative control does it give you?

A: Volume screens allow us the ability to design beyond our budget scope. A recent example was a cave set we designed for La Brea where we had filled Stage 4 (at Docklands Studios Melbourne) and ran out of space. We wanted to show the audience that the mine network extended into a massive cavern full of fire and brimstone. This is something we could never have built, nor justified the expense as it was only for a few scenes. But with the LED volume, we were able to design the space completely in conjunction with the Dreamscreen team and tweak the colour tones, light sources, and textures of this cavern all the way up to the shoot hour. 

Q: What’s different about work flows for volume screens?

A: The director and the production designer as well as DOP all work together to drive the ultimate goal of the screen assets. This information is shared with the asset builder and the dialogue flows back and forth through the design process. As the screen is used to light the set as well, it is imperative the DOP has input into the design palette.

Q: How do you maintain control over the design process? How do you give feedback to a team of VFX artists? 

A: It is crucial to keep on top of any development of the design and images. So far, we have only had positive experiences, with great collaboration with the Dreamscreen team, adjusting the overall tone and feel and design of the final product. All creative people like to share their ideas and sometimes it can be a matter of having a greater understanding of the story arc and knowing where and what to change within the image for the storytelling.

Q:How is it different to using traditional green-screen technology?

A: The main difference is the interactive component. Green screen is great but limited in that the actors are not sure of the final image they are working with. They also create issues when lighting a set as crew have to contend with green bounce from the screen onto the set and the actors. A lot of this tidying up is done in post which can be expensive. With LED volume screens there is also the parallax movement which allows the background to be moving in conjunction with camera moves and lenses . 

Multiple LED panels are used for construction of a volume screen for La Brea Season 1 (Photo: Sarah Enticknap)

Q: How do productions weigh up the costs vs. benefits?

A: Productions have to ensure the benefit outweighs the cost and that can be challenging. So many factors have to be considered including the cost of the LED screens, schedule implications, the asset cost versus the set build savings, the post production savings, the VFX savings amongst other things. The director also has to be confident the action in front of the screens can work in telling the story. We are still learning how to work with the technology but with this opportunity on La Brea we are seeing great results. We are hoping to continue the process of experimenting with the LED volume screen and hoping the process will become affordable to use for all productions.

To support the investment in cutting edge LED technology, Universal Studio Group and Matchbox Pictures have established a partnership with the Victorian College of the Arts to develop technical skills in virtual production, providing students and industry professionals with training and access to world-leading LED virtual production technologies both on-campus and at Docklands Studios Melbourne.

Article by Belinda Tromp

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