By now, most of us are familiar with the use of LED volumes and virtual production to create in-camera visual effects. Shows like the Disney+ streaming Star Wars series The Mandalorian have been using this technology extensively to generate detailed visual effects live on set since 2019. So it’s only natural that virtual production workflows would proliferate into other types of projects.
A galaxy far, far away
That said, it’d be hard to conceive of a more different project from Star Wars than the Oscar-nominated 2022 feature, The Fabelmans, directed by Steven Spielberg.
The semi-autobiographical movie chronicles the coming-of-age of Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) as he discovers his passion for filmmaking. In the following interview with Pablo Helman—a visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)—we’ll learn how and why the filmmaking maestro shot inside a volume for the first time.
Entering the volume
Although most of The Fabelmans was shot on locations and practical sets, one sequence called for a more visual effects-intensive approach. The scene begins when Sammy’s mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), learns a tornado is about to touch down near the edge of town. She excitedly tosses Sammy and his sisters into the family car and speeds off in search of the dynamic phenomenon.
“We knew it would be a challenging sequence because it’s all dialogue,” recalls Helman. “There are many ways we could have accomplished it. You could have a process truck and the crew following along with the hero car, but nobody wanted to worry about all that.”
“Or we could have done it on a blue screen, but that’s not really the best way because the lighting is everything. We can alter lighting with VFX in post quite a bit to match, but something about that just doesn’t ‘taste’ right.”
Fortunately, as a veteran visual effects supervisor, Helman worked on several projects simultaneously and saw the possibility of a workflow crossover. “I’d been working in the volume on the Obi-Wan Kenobi series for Disney+, as well as some other StageCraft [ILM’s virtual production solution] projects,” he recalls. “So I thought it could be a great way to shoot this sequence.”
“But it wasn’t going to be the typical way we do StageCraft with building 3D environments from scratch via the virtual art department (VAD),” Helman adds. “Instead, the approach was to shoot background plates with an array of cameras driving through the scene and then stitching those into a 360-degree plate we could move around wherever we wanted.”
“We presented the idea to [director of photography] Janusz Kamiński and then to Steven. He loved the idea and trusted us, which was great.”
With the overall plan to use virtual production in place, the team first set out to capture the background plates that would form the virtual environment. The crew built a custom array of six Red Monstro 8K digital cameras with Nikon Nikkor zoom lenses. They then drove the rig through the various locations, surrounded by 1950s-period cars, extras, and atmospheric effects.
“We wanted a cloudy day [for the plate shoot], but we didn’t get one,” says Helman. “We got a sunny day, which looks pretty good because there are a lot of days in which you have a tornado in front of you, and you have the sun on the side. And the more modeling you can get from the lighting, the better things look.”
“We spent three weeks stitching together the plates and another three adding in the tornado in the skies,” Helman continues. “Next, we did two days of camera tests in the StageCraft volume.”
The team used the same LED stage at Manhattan Beach Studios (MBS) used by The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The MBS volume is 20 feet tall, 270 degrees around, and 75 feet across.
What a ride
“I wish you could have seen the faces of the actors once they got into the car in the volume,” says Helman. “If you weren’t careful, you could get nauseous because, from the inside, it looked like the car was really going through this wild journey. Steven saw all the reflections we were getting for free in the windshields, on the car, the mirror, etc. It was great to see Steven and Janusz discover what was possible in the volume.”
The crew added atmospheric debris within the volume to heighten the tension and realism. “We sprayed water, which is normally not advised on LED volumes because the screens are not waterproof,” says Helman. “So, we put the car on a moveable tray, and the special effects team carefully applied the water.”
“We also added debris and sparks to match specific parts of the sequence. It was a real treat to shoot something so different in the volume compared to what I was used to.”
The crew captured the entire sequence in a single production day with 19 different setups. Although Kamiński shot most of The Fabelmans on Spielberg’s preferred 35mm film, the tornado sequence, and virtual production demanded a digital camera. With its battle-tested record, the filmmakers chose an ARRI Alexa Mini LF camera and Panavision PVintage lenses.
Taking stock of the experience
Spielberg enjoyed the virtual production experience so much that he inquired about potentially capturing additional scenes in the volume. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t accommodate it because we didn’t have enough time left in the production schedule,” says Helman. “We’d have also had to go out and shoot the backgrounds and create the assets.”
“StageCraft is a different way of working, and of course, some directors are shy of working far in advance and making commitments,” observes Helman. “Steven has never been that way. After you finish a movie with him, two or three weeks later, you have your cut. He knows exactly what he needs for the edit and has a very specific shooting economy.”
Although virtual production requires complex, state-of-the-art technology, it harkens back to the dawn of cinema, where everything is captured live and in camera. “Steven is great at embracing technology, especially if it doesn’t interfere with the actors’ performances,” notes Helman.
“For many creative people, including myself, you don’t have a shot if you don’t have the right lighting,” Helman continues. “When you shoot on a blue screen, the foreground and background are separated and not part of the story together. Virtual production with an LED volume enhances the visuals and the performances—because everything is visible in the frame while you’re shooting.”