Scalable Virtual Production—Taking a “Just Right” Approach

As we’re probably all aware by now, virtual production with in-camera visual effects (aka on-set virtual production) has revolutionized filmmaking. But investing in an LED volume is typically a serious financial undertaking—though the outlay can vary considerably based on the size of the project, as this article will explore.

It’s not just the LED volumes that make things so expensive. Operating them requires a team with some specialist skills, from technicians who manage the LED panels to visual effects artists and production designers who create the digital environments. Not only that, but large LED volumes also require massive amounts of power, both for the panels and the computers that render their scenery.

But if you think that virtual production is too rich for you, I’d ask you to give it another look. As I’m about to explain, you don’t need a Hollywood budget to bring virtual production into your next project. You just need to take a different approach.

The “Just Right” approach

There’s a solid case to be made for a “just right” approach. In other words, stage construction that carefully considers the minimum scale necessary to achieve the kinds of setups a volume is designed for.

Take the Micro Stage, for example. This scale of stage is best suited to compact scenes involving a single actor or small groups. A small car process or insert stage for commercials is also along the scale that makes sense for a Micro Stage.

Initial designs for LED volumes focused on making them as large as possible to provide maximum flexibility to filmmakers for different setups. For example, The Mandalorian, being a Star Wars show, was to hold large-scale battles and vehicles. The thinking was always to have the volume fill the frame at a given focal length to capture everything in the camera and minimize post-production work. 

However, the crew discovered that many shots would still require a degree of post-production enhancement to fix or enhance visual effects or imperfections captured during filming. Also, even with a 75’ diameter screen, the filmmakers often shot off the edges, requiring set extensions in post. With Micro Stages, virtual set extensions are a feature, not a bug.

With Micro Stages, virtual set extensions are a feature, not a bug.

Remember, if you’re shooting with virtual production on an LED wall, you’re already working with a complete 3D environment and camera tracking. So why not lean into those existing strengths and be prepared to virtually extend shots beyond a smaller screen instead of trying not to exceed the bounds of a much larger screen?

Via proven and cost-effective technologies like Ultimatte and disguise, virtual set extensions can even be captured live on-set. Micro Stages offer many strengths of much larger LED volumes but on a much less expensive and more sustainable scale.

Living proof

I know the Micro Stage concept works because I’ve been living on one for the past few years. Thanks to my work with Miles Perkins at Epic Games on the virtual production field guide series, I was familiar with virtual production even before The Mandolorian aired. And I’m lucky to be married to a lovely lady who owns a large production company in Mexico City. 

When she learned about the potential for virtual production, she wanted to build a small stage at her company. But then the pandemic hit, and she decided, instead of sending the screens to Mexico, they should go to our living room in San Francisco, and we could learn from them during the pandemic.

In the process, we also produced many productions, ranging from remote student films with NYU film school to corporate videos, music videos, training courses, and more. And we rarely longed for a larger facility. On the contrary, the room’s spatial limitations constantly forced us to get more creative. 

To give you an idea of the current build, our stage fits in a room that’s 10’ x 20’ with 10’ ceilings. The screen is just 40 panels of AOTO branded LEDs but at 1.5 mm pixel density. That means with cinema optics, we can focus on subjects that are five feet away from the screen and not have any detectable moiré. 

We have both OptiTrack and MoSys camera tracking, which are the kinds of mocap solutions you find in much larger facilities but which scale perfectly. We can light most scenes with two 4’x2’ LED LitePanels from LiteGear and a Nanlight 60C for edge light. This keeps the power requirements incredibly modest, makes scenes easy to set up, and keeps the room from getting too warm.

We also took things further and set the entire room up for multicam streaming. By adding some Blackmagic Design Pocket 6K and Ursa 12K cameras and a BirdDog PTZ camera connected via HDMI to an ATEM switcher, we can do a professional-level broadcast easily. And this can be recorded in high quality for later editing or live streamed for presentations and remote collaborations with crews and clients.  

The entire system runs on residential power with 110-volt outlets. All we had to do was hire an electrician to add four extra 20-amp circuits so we wouldn’t overload our circuit breakers. We’re so sustainable that, when we run the system during the day, depending on the usage in the rest of the house and weather conditions, we can often power the screen and its components entirely via the solar panels on our roof.

So let’s examine the virtues of Micro Stages, and whether they’re right for you.

Micro stage technologies

Unsurprisingly, LED panels are the most important component. You’ll want the densest possible pixel pitch you can afford. At the size of a typical Micro Stage, every ounce of quality helps because you’re much closer to the screen. I recommend 1.5mm as a minimum. The 2.8mm pixel panels as on the MBS stage, will cause you many more challenges due to moiré at that closer camera distance. That said, you’re very much in luck because denser panels have come down in price as manufacturers ramp up production.

LED panels typically measure .5 x .5 meters, or about a foot and a half. So, if you wanted a 9-foot by 13-foot screen, you’d need 48 panels. At about $1K to $2K each, the screen would cost between USD 50-75K. Here’s a calculator.

Yes, that’s still quite a lot of money. But consider how much a high-end cinema camera such as a Sony Venice might set you back—without optics. And if you’re prepared to rent it out when you’re not using it yourself, it’s not unrealistic to ask for $5K/day depending on local demand.

Hardware requirements

The panels and their video processors (go for Brompton or MegaPixel for the best experience) are your primary expense. You’ll also need camera tracking, which can cost $5K at the entry level for Vive Mars CamTrack, up to $30K for an enterprise inside-out tracker like Mo-Sys or more for an outside-in tracker like OptiTrack or Vicon.

However, those systems can also track objects, humans, and multiple cameras. And you don’t necessarily even need tracking if your work tends to be talking head presentations with minimal camera movement. 

You’ll need a powerful computer to render the real-time animation from Unreal Engine onto your screen. You could start with a pre-built high-end gaming desktop PC or get into a higher-end custom build from someone like Puget Systems. With Windows boxes, you get what you pay for in terms of price/performance, and the graphics processor unit GPU is the most critical component for real-time.

Camera gear

For camera and optics, you’ll want the best cinema-quality camera you can get. The most important thing to consider is optics with a shallow and controllable depth of field. PL-mount lenses typically offer the greatest level of control in this area. On our stage, we use a Blackmagic Ursa G4 with Zeiss Compact Primes. I would consider this entry-level pro equipment, as the camera costs around $5K, and the optics cost $3 to $5K per lens.

We have a variety of wide and long lenses, although 90% of the shots are taken on a 28mm lens, which gives a nice compromise between field of view and shallow depth of field. Remember, on a Micro Stage, you’ll be pretty close to the screen, so you need every ounce of depth of field you can manage. 

One tip that might seem counterintuitive at first is where precisely to set focus on a Micro Stage. You might be inclined to put your subject in the center of your focus so you give them room to move back and forth slightly without going out of focus. Instead, I recommend putting the subject at the back of the focus area, i.e., focus a little closer to the camera than you would normally. That will help to guarantee the screen stays out of focus and avoid any potential for moiré.

Lighting

Finally, you’ll need only a few critical pieces of lighting equipment to make the most of a Micro Stage. There’s a commonly-held belief that LED walls provide the lighting. While this is partially true on a cave-shaped volume with an LED ceiling, even these are supplemented with cinema lighting. On a Micro Stage where you might have only a single flat rear wall, you’ll definitely need interactive subject lighting. The screens will not be enough.

My tip is to look for full-spectrum LED lights with full DMX support. Then, you can use pixel mapping software such as Enttec ELM to sample parts of the onscreen image and use those to send matching hue and intensity controls to your DMX lights. Everything will match and look like the screen environment is lighting the scene when it’s your cinema lights. With the modest stage, you’ll need fewer lights, which means lower power consumption and less heat.

Watch for reflections

LED panels are somewhat reflective, so if you don’t flag your lights or aim them away from the screens, you’ll see their reflections on the screens, which ruins the illusion. Because this is a known issue, newer panels are designed with anti-reflective coatings. For example, Sony recently released its Verona series panels, which promise industry-leading anti-reflection coatings. The smaller the stage, the more important this becomes to control.

Multicamera/streaming technologies

A multi-camera setup is another vital component for Micro Stages, especially for remote participants. Strategic placement of various cameras ensures that every angle of the stage is covered, providing a comprehensive view that enhances situational awareness. This setup also bolsters communication and coordination across the team. Everyone, no matter where they are located, is kept in the loop and actively engaged in the production process.

A multi-input switcher enables operators to navigate between camera angles and computer outputs for a dynamic viewing experience. I recommend the Blackmagic ATEM ISO products for this. They punch way above their weight and have recording and streaming features. A switcher will also make you look professional to remote collaborators who need to engage with the content in real-time and make instantaneous, informed decisions.

Another pivotal element of the Micro Stage toolkit is PTZ (Pan-Tilt-Zoom) cameras. These cameras allow for adjustments in angle, zoom, and focus, diminishing the need for additional camera operators. A  smaller crew is not just a logistical advantage; it also translates to cost and energy savings.

And finally, high-quality audio equipment is essential. Microphones, remote wireless audio systems, and other audio solutions guarantee sound is captured with utmost clarity.

Versatility and applications

One surprising aspect is the range of shots Micro Stages can accomplish. If you analyze the kinds of content you currently produce, you might discover that much of your footage is close-ups and medium close-ups. Though we use wide shots to introduce scenes and depict broad action, information in most content is conveyed via dialogue in close-ups. That’s where a Micro Stage is at its most effective.

Depending on the lens and how you block a shot, modest group scenes, over the shoulders, and two shots, even head to toe, are very possible. Leaning into the classic virtual production techniques like previs and techvis, you can carefully plan and storyboard down to the shot and ensure each frame you create fits well in your LED stage.

Depending on the lens and how you block a shot, modest group scenes, over the shoulders, and two shots, even head to toe, are very possible.

If that’s not enough, shots can be continued virtually beyond the boundaries of the physical stage. Remember, you have a 3D environment that continues far beyond what’s displayed on the LED panels at a given moment. Using 2D compositing techniques and camera tracking, you can set up shots where a portion of the frame is live-action in front of the camera, and the rest continues into the 3D rendered scene.

The trick is to combine the two convincingly. But again, technologies and techniques exist to do that. The critical move is to have digital set extensions planned as part of the shotlist and not decided ad-hoc. 

Content creation

Creating photorealistic environments is one of the key challenges for LED volume virtual production. For the first few years, this process became the inversion of the traditional visual effects post-production rendering workflow. Instead of starting with bare green screenshots and filling in successive versions of renders over post, the environments need to be perfect and camera-ready before cameras roll in virtual production. So many early productions spent up to a year finessing those environments during pre-production.

Micro Stages benefit from a more agile approach, and today’s technologies support this. Generative AI tools like Cuebric are emerging, which can create camera-ready content almost instantly. Cuebric can generate 2.5D imagery, meaning instead of an entirely 3D environment, you have a series of flat pieces of artwork segmented into different layers. As long as the camera doesn’t move too far, you can get convincing parallax with this approach, akin to classic multiplane animation from Disney movies. 

Another possibility is digital backlots. Content libraries from companies such as Rosco and Pixomondo make a series of pre-built environments available with much lower development costs and timeframes. If the setting is less critical to the story and needs to be a photoreal backdrop for corporate communications, commercials, music videos, etc, these backlots are great options. Digital backlots and generative AI tools can lead to massive savings in prep time and reduced staffing needs for Micro Stages. 

Environmental benefits of micro stages

Virtual production Micro Stages also offer substantial environmental benefits. Their compact size minimizes their ecological footprint. A Micro Stage requires less physical space and reduces the impact on the surrounding environment, creating a more sustainable approach to modern filmmaking.

Reduced resource consumption is combined with more modest staffing requirements. The decrease in the need for extensive sets and on-site personnel contributes to a lower overall demand for environmental resources, aligning production practices with the urgency for greener production.

Micro Stages also require less power than their larger counterparts, which reduces their carbon footprint. Their ability to operate on residential or non-commercial power sources adds to their sustainability. Micro Stages produce less heat, mitigating the need for extensive cooling systems. This not only contributes to the overall energy efficiency of the setup but also ensures a more comfortable working environment for the crew.

By reducing the need for transporting large sets and numerous crew members, Micro Stages contribute to lowering emissions, cleaner air, and a healthier planet. Using virtual environments instead of complete physical sets further diminishes the demand for natural resources. By leveraging Micro Stages, productions can not only embrace innovation and efficiency but also protect our planet for future generations.

Business sustainability

Many early adopters of virtual production technology discovered that the massive flex of setting up an LED stage was not the end of their challenges. Staying in business in a given market is the true test of a facility’s suitability.

The reduced startup and operating costs of Micro Stages contribute to their long-term financial sustainability. Because Micro Stages occupy so much less space, they can easily fit into existing facilities. If your company has a small insert stage with a green screen wall or a small set, it can be easily updated with an LED screen. You might have existing production equipment that can be useful in virtual production.

You probably won’t need to make major changes to your power infrastructure either. For example, a 16’ x 9’ LED wall might only use 3500 watts at typical usage. That’s the equivalent of three or four refrigerators or four desktop computers. You might need to add a few extra circuits to your fuse box to handle the increased load, but it won’t require industrial-level power.

With lower startup costs, you won’t have to hustle for new clients constantly. This means you can carefully develop your client base and not have to offer drastic price reductions to keep the pipeline moving. Being the cheapest at a service doesn’t always translate to success, so having the flexibility to be choosy when you seek out business makes a huge difference.

The relative financial freedom created by the lower entry cost also enhances creativity and innovation. In other words, you’ll be spending less time worrying about covering startup costs and paying down credit card debts and have more time to innovate.

if you have more time to develop skill sets and test cases in this nascent stage of virtual production, you’ll have a competitive advantage

What ultimately excites would-be clients is less the specifics of stage hardware and more the creative capabilities of the team operating it. So if you have more time to develop skill sets and test cases in this nascent stage of virtual production, you’ll have a competitive advantage and better chances at long-term business sustainability. Let me give you an example.

HIGH. A micro stage case study

Although Micro Stages may sound new, they’ve already been proven in practice across several projects. One recent example is HIGH, a short independent film produced as part of a feature project pitch. Philadelphia-based filmmakers Tisha Robinson-Daly and Jonathan Mason collaborated with virtual production producer Ben Baker and James Blevins at MESH to test the possibilities of modest stages in their script inspired by the true story of a cell phone tower climber’s tragic demise in 2014.

Although the scenes include what appears to be a cell tower perched precariously high above a massive city, the actual set was just a few feet off the ground in front of a very modest LED volume. The filmmakers used the demo stage at the disguise and ROE Visual Virtual Production Accelerator facility in Chatsworth, California. The screen was approximately 28′ wide x 16′ deep x 12′ tall, considerably smaller than typical large-scale setups.

“Bringing this technology to the indie filmmaking level, to a script that has a compelling story behind it and great filmmakers behind it, was the fascinating part of this project,” says Dane Brehm, technologist and on-set colorist for the shoot. “The volume helps filmmakers tell their story, whether in outer space or practical locations on Earth where we’re not able to get a crew to safely and efficiently and under multiple different lighting conditions and locations.” 

Then they see the actual footage and go, ‘Oh my God. Wow!’

“I’ve had a great reaction by first showing people the production design and an iPhone photo of the stage, and they’re like, ‘mmmhmm,’” adds Baker. “Then they see the actual footage and go, ‘Oh my God. Wow!’ It’s really satisfying to realize how modest the stage setup was.”

Next steps

If you’re still reading this far, perhaps I’ve piqued your interest. Setting aside the financial requirements of building a Micro Stage for just a moment, let’s discuss real-life use cases for one. Where would you benefit from this technology, and is it a good fit for your needs?

Educational institutions benefit from Micro Stages in many ways, and in fact, many of the clients I’ve worked with over the years have been colleges and universities. They use these facilities to teach virtual production to their film departments. Higher education institutions also use stages to create internal communications, screenings for events, training, stagecraft for dance and theater, and much more. Because the schools focus more on technique than scale, Micro Stages tick the boxes of utility and cost efficiency well.

Another great use case for Micro Stages is internal communications departments at corporations. These facilities, often run by an internal team of filmmakers, are responsible for creating presentations for both internal use and external promotion. 

I once spoke to the manager at one of the largest tech companies in the US about their use of LED volumes and their modest stage. The manager constantly worked with VIP executives to help them present important internal communications. Before the LED stages, the shoots would take them onto the company’s corporate campus to shoot in signature locations. 

However, the visuals and sound were often compromised by weather and changing lighting conditions. By capturing perfect versions of these backgrounds and reprojecting them on the LED stage, the productions not only went much smoother but also looked more professional, which was great for the manager’s reputation and the company’s image. As a bonus, the VIPs were all the more comfortable on-camera and impressed with the tech involved, helping with corporate retention and image.

 
As this sporting event demonstrates, virtual stages needn’t be limited to TV and film production. Image © Disguise/Meptik

Boutique advertising producers and even local/regional TV stations and networks benefit from Micro Stages similarly to internal comms departments. In both cases, a Micro Stage with LED panels will take the physical and functional place of a modest standing set, painted backdrop, or green screen cyc wall. The difference in terms of footprint and managing requirement is minimal enough to find its way into a budget without ruffling too many accounting feathers, especially if the facility is already using decent broadcast gear and cinema cameras, which can be repurposed. 

Conclusion

I hope you’ve learned more about what Micro Stages for virtual production are and what they can mean for your projects. To review, here are some of the key benefits of this ‘just right’ approach to virtual production. They’re eco-friendly in terms of power consumption, reduced crew footprint/travel expense, and physical set construction. They also offer relative financial freedom for improved creativity, especially when compared to traditional, large-scale sound stages. You only really need a full background directly behind the subject, and everything else can be extended virtually at a fraction of the cost.

The smaller scale of this approach also means flexibility in staffing. You can expand/contract your staff as needed per project/season. You can also use broadcast tech and streaming capabilities to integrate remote staff rapidly and increase your market share well beyond local clients.

The increasing quality and reducing costs of the panels themselves are a large part of this move to Micro Stages. When The Mandalorian first came out, the 2.8mm panels used were the state of the art in 2019. But they wouldn’t have worked well for a smaller stage. Now that 1.5mm and even 0.9mm panels are available for similar prices, you have the flexibility to get the camera much closer and work with much smaller stages. Add in the power of broadcast gear, tracking solutions, and pixel-mapped DMX lights, and you have everything you need to look massive while working modestly. 

You have everything you need to look massive while working modestly. 

While it’s definitely possible to build an LED volume from scratch on your own, I recommend at least speaking to one of the many integrators out there. You can save a lot of time and energy and get the best components for your precise goals, as there’s really not a one-size-fits-all solution here. Companies like Vū Studios, Lux Machina Consulting, and AbelCine are great bets in this area because they have a lot of experience and success stories. You can also reach me via LinkedIn.

Virtual production is constantly evolving, and the game changers of today will be the standards of tomorrow. But what’s really interesting is that you can see the results in camera vs. having to wait for a post-production period. That’s what makes all this so exciting to folks like me. This is a timely opportunity to embrace virtual production on your own terms.

Noah Kadner

Noah Kadner is the virtual production editor at American Cinematographer and hosts the Virtual Production podcast. He also writes the Virtual Production Field Guide series for Epic Games. Kadner has broad experience in cutting-edge production and post-production workflows and spent a number of years working internally at Apple. If you’re looking for advice or a turnkey virtual production LED volume in your facility, you can contact Noah via The Virtual Company.

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