This is part of an ongoing series of virtual production case studies.
All images courtesy of 3rd Films.
Screen Hardware Provider: Jargon Entertainment
Location: Santa Clarita, CA
Project: Escape Velicity Pitch Trailer
The production company 3rd Films, headed by Don Bitters III, recently shot their inaugural virtual production project in Los Angeles. Don describes the project as a sci-fi action-adventure series with a much bigger scope than a production of this size would usually tackle. As a partnership between all three companies, this project was their first steps into LED stage technology.
3rd Films began in 2008 doing VFX and motion graphics for television, and has since worked on projects for Netflix, ABC, Amazon, and Universal, as well as a global release feature film. They also have experience in game development, giving the company a unique set of skills that lend themselves perfectly to this new VP frontier.
3rd Films used a hybrid Level 2 virtual production setup for this shoot, a great place to start for proof-of-concept shoots. The futuristic grunge of decaying city alleyways that would normally be far out of the budget for many productions is executed on a much smaller scale than most would think possible.
As a hybrid Level 2 setup, 3rd Films used a Vive system for tracking, with the variation of using an LED wall to render backgrounds in-camera as well as for a quick greenscreen when necessary. Don was the first to say there were challenges to overcome, but they were able to settle into a smooth workflow the second shoot day and finish the production.
We used the the virtual backdrops for pretty much everything, whether we were using it a a virtual set, quick greenscreen, or lighting reference for the Gaffer and DoP… Roughly 70% was virtual environments, with a few needing to be switched to green for quality or logistical reasons. The rest was either intentional green from the outset, or practical on our limited physical set builds.
This project was shot on an Arri Alexa Mini and a set of Super Speed Primes in a resolution of 2.7k. The Arri camera family is known for its consistent color science, capturing accurate skin tones and beautiful, organic colors across a broad dynamic range. You can see a few stills shot on the Arri Alexa Mini throughout this article.
For motion tracking, the Vive system was the weapon of choice, but Don may choose a different solution next time around.
I would make some changes, likely not using Vive trackers due to the limitations they have regarding positioning and caps on base stations, but otherwise it went shockingly smooth and worked really effectively to let us show a gigantic universe of locations on a moderately small budget.
3rd Films chose Unreal Engine to drive their virtual set, the choice of many virtual production pros. While Unity has been and continues to be used for Virtual Production at the highest levels, Epic Games has continued to push forward Unreal’s capabilities by supporting it on a software level.
In constructing their virtual sets, 3rd Films used both custom created spaces and assets from Kitbash 3D. Kitbash assets and packs have been in use by the film industry for years, and after their recent improvement to support Unreal directly, it makes sense to utilize them in virtual production.
For the virtual backdrop, 3rd films partnered with Jargon Entertainment to secure a wall of Unilumin Upad III 2 panels. These panels have a pixel pitch of 2.6mm and are rated for 1000nt brightness. The panels were used for frustrum tracking most often, but were also used as digital windows when that made more sense.
To process the Ndisplay signal on less nodes, the virtual background was run through VCam. While this did introduce some signal delay, it cut down on the hardware necessary to run the virtual background. This did introduce some screen lag with quick camera moves, but Don felt these issues were fairly negligible.
The production did not experience any issues with moire or flickering in the panels, and any delay in background responsiveness can be attributed to the intermediary VCam system. Don was able to get the results he wanted as close as 10ft from the screen with the correct depth of field.
In speaking with Don, his enthusiasm for the future of virtual production could not be overstated. As a professional, he sees the massive potential for small productions to do big-budget visuals, and is currently prepping his company to handle virtual production workflows. As a member of the virtual production community, he sees his role as a trailblazer, experimenting with the technology and sharing his experience.
[Virtual Production] still can’t do every single thing you can achieve with traditional visual effects, but the amazing capabilities and enormous impact of it mean that we are investing heavily in expanding our understanding and technology to better utilize it. We are even looking at taking traditional pre-rendered environments and creatures, and bringing them into [Unreal Engine]…
Our goal is to help expand the capabilities of this technology, to give our clients shots and experiences unlike anything they’ve ever experienced, while also opening up how we achieved this to the broader VFX and VP community. As the technology is so nascent, there is very little information on how to achieve what we have, especially on a lower budget and cost.
We’re hoping to share more of our behind the scenes with the community, and talk about the pre-production and on-set workflow, as we had to discover the speedbumps and issues that come with that ourselves.
So I hope we can allow others to gain that knowledge as well, and help to start building better standard practices.
When I asked him about what he thinks the potential and future for the space will be, Don explained it like this.
[Virtual Production is] a major gamechanger. It provides benefits unseen before for production; changing locations, time of day, etc. are simple and very fast.
Set builds are far less extensive than in the past… you can turn around shots that no longer require extensive post build and work, because everything happening is in camera.
For example, for one of our scenes, we have a large space station, a black market made from the wrecks of large spaceships. We can populate that space with as many extras as we want, with some being aliens, others being human, or anything in between, without needing to hire, makeup, clothe, feed, and coordinate extras… It’s an exciting time to be working in this industry!
Personally, I am a big fan of anyone looking to further the space for the good of all of us working in virtual production, and Don is one of those people.
Special thanks to Don Bitters III, it is always a pleasure to speak with someone who shares their process so openly. If you want to see more of 3rd Films’ work or get in contact with them, you can do that at 3rdFilms.com.