By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
With the growth of virtual production, there has been an increased demand for LED walls and stages. Production houses and VFX studios in the U.S. and Europe have built dedicated LED walls, stages and workflows, with more on the way. Some offer bespoke LED wall setups. Here is a sampling that highlights studios with LED walls and stages in a fixed location and those firms that set up bespoke/pop-up LED Volumes. This is not intended to be a complete listing.
FIXED-LOCATION LED WALLS
Studio Lab Fixed Location: Derry, New Hampshire. Size of LED stage area: Approximately 2,000 sq. ft. Size of LED wall: 14 ft. high x 52 ft. long. Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: April 2020. Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: “Yes. In addition to consulting, installing and integrating Volumes, we are often asked to bring LED Volumes directly to a client’s location,” according to Benjamin Davis, Studio Lab Director.
Comments: “While we are software agnostic, we primarily use Unreal in conjunction with the Disguise platform.”
Fixed Location: El Segundo, California. Size of LED stage area: 24,000 sq. ft. Size of LED wall: 145 ft. long x 20 ft. high (LED volume is 52 ft. wide by 65 ft. long in a 270-degree oval). Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: February 2021. Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: “We are building Volumes as needed!” says Keaton Heinrichs, Director of Business Development/Operations.
Comments: Plans to launch two more fixed-location LED Volumes soon: one in Q4 2021 and one in Q2 2022, according to Gary Marshall, Director of Virtual Production. The NantStudios campus in El Segundo also has an Epic “Innovation Lab” LED stage for demos, education and R&D.
Fixed Location: Atlanta, Georgia. Size of LED stage area: (35 ft. x 45 ft.) 1,575 sq. ft. Size of LED wall: 13.12 ft. high x 42.71 ft. long. (The wall is on a curve, so the size measurement is on a straight line.) Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: April 7, 2021.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: “Yes, our location is fixed but we can also move the setup to pop-up as needed,” according to Stacy Shade, TRICK 3D Head of Studio and Executive Producer.
Comments: “The wall is 26 LED panels across the curve,” adds Shade. TRICK 3D and Music Matters Productions joined forces to launch the LED-wall-powered XR stage located in Northeast Atlanta.
Fixed Location: Toronto, Canada. Size of LED stage area: 24,030 sq. ft. Size of LED wall: 208 ft. long x 24 ft high. (LED volume internal stage: 72 ft. in diameter, 90 ft, in length, 24 ft high). Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: January 15, 2021.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: “While we have done multiple pop-up set extensions, we try to focus on larger, more permanent installations as that is more cost-effective for our clients,” says Josh Kerekes, Head of Virtual Production.
Major wall productions: Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 and newest franchise, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Season 1.
Comments: One more LED stage coming in Toronto and one in Vancouver.
Fixed Location: Slough, U.K. Size of LED stage area: 3,500 sq. ft. Size of LED wall: 18m x 4.5m high (approximately 59 ft. x 15 ft.).
Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: March 2021.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: “Yes, we can advise, design and build custom-made LED Volumes at the client’s location. We pride ourselves on our flexibility and can adapt our current volume to fit the unique requirements of incoming film productions. Our extensive ROE Visual LED inventory, one of the largest in Europe, permits us to build LED walls at scale as per clients’ requirements,” comments Aura Popa, 80six Marketing Manager.
Comments: “The Virtual Production Stage at our studios in Slough features a ready-to-shoot and pre-calibrated curved LED Volume, specifically designed for film and TV drama,” says Popa. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve worked alongside industry leaders including Epic Games, DNEG, ROE Visual, Brompton Technology and ARRI on various R&D tests for camera and LED walls. The recent considerable interest globally in real-time live-action filmmaking with LED walls and remote workflows increased the demand for a specialized studio space with an adaptable pre-configured LED Stage. Set in an area of 3,500 sq ft, the Virtual Production Stage features a large format (18m x 4.5m) curved Mandalorian-style LED volume. The studio’s technical infrastructure supports HDR video by combining some of the most advanced VP technologies such as Unreal Engine, Disguise Media servers, Mo-Sys camera tracking, ROE Visual LED panels, and Brompton Technology LED processing, to name a few.”
Projects: DNEG, Wilder Films and Dimension Studios chose 80six’s studios to shoot the short film Fireworks, according to Popa. Fireworks was directed by DNEG Creative Director Paul Franklin, and also supported by Epic Games, Lipsync Post Production and StoryFutures Academy.
Fixed Locations: two in Manhattan Beach, California, and one in London, England. Size of LED stage area: Manhattan Beach Studios, Stage 1: 25,000 sq. ft., Manhattan Beach Studios, Stage 2: 18,000 sq. ft., Pinewood Studios: 24,742 sq. ft. Size of LED wall: Manhattan Beach Studios, Stage 1: StageCraft LED volume is 75 ft. wide x 90 ft. long x 23 ft. tall, 270-degree oval with LED doors. Manhattan Beach Studios, Stage 2: StageCraft LED volume is 75 ft. wide x 80 ft. long x 23 ft. tall, 270-degree oval with LED doors. Pinewood Studios: StageCraft LED volume is 75 ft. wide x 90 ft. long x 23 ft. tall, 270-degree oval with LED doors. Software driving the stage: StageCraft 2.0 runs ILM’s Helios. First operational dates: Manhattan Beach Studios, Stage 1: October 2019 Manhattan Beach Studios, Stage 2: January 2021. Pinewood Studios: February 2021.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: “Yes. ILM continues to offer bespoke custom Volumes for projects and have done so on projects such as The Midnight Sky (2020), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), and The Batman (2022).” says Chris Bannister, Executive Producer, Virtual Production – ILM StageCraft.
Comments: “StageCraft 2.0 running ILM’s Helios is our primary engine offering our most dynamic set of production tested tools. We also support Unreal Engine and can ingest assets from a wide variety of 3D content creation tools based on production needs,” says Bannister. “Helios is Industrial Light & Magic’s first cinematic render engine designed for real-time visual effects. It was engineered from the ground up with film and television production in mind. Helios was designed from the start to work seamlessly with ILM StageCraft and is compatible with all the major content creation tools including Unreal Engine.”
History: “Along with The Mandalorian, ILM utilized LED screens for accurate real-time lighting, reflections and backgrounds on films such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Solo: A Star Wars Story,” continues Bannister. ILM StageCraft Volumes were currently in use on The Book of Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Coming: “We are evaluating continued expansion in a number of key creative production centers including Vancouver, Atlanta, Sydney and London,” says Bannister.
Vū Studio (Diamond View Studios subsidiary)
Fixed Location: Tampa, Florida. Size of LED stage area: 20,000 sq. ft. Size of LED wall: 100 ft. wide x 18 ft. high. Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: November 2020.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: “Yes, back in April we announced turnkey LED Volume solutions for companies/studios interested in creating their own LED Volumes,” comments Jonathan Davila, President & Co-founder of Vū.
Comments: “Vū is now one of the world’s largest LED Volumes, but also a provider of proprietary Vū LED Panels for other studios looking to build their own LED Volumes. We produce our own panels called Vū Panels. We also engineered the first-ever in-panel tracking system in partnership with Mo-Sys, making the Vū ceiling panels the first of their kind,” says Davila.
Fixed Location: Potsdam-Babelsberg, Brandenburg, Germany. Size of LED stage area: 17,890 sq. ft. Size of LED wall: 180.5 ft. long x 23 ft. high (or: 75.5 ft. volume diameter x 23 ft. volume height; 4,306 sq. ft. total shooting area). LED wall: 1,470 ROE Ruby panels. LED ceiling and ARRI Sky Panels: 4,090 sq. ft. Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: May 3, 2021.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: “If productions request a pop-up volume, we’re ready to create and operate it,” says Türkiz Talay, Dark Bay Public Relations and Marketing Director.
Projects: The Netflix series 1899.
MELS Studios and Postproduction
Fixed Location: Montreal, Canada. Size of LED stage area: 15,000 sq ft. Size of LED wall: 17 ft high x 35 ft long, with a ceiling. Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: October 2020.
Bespoke/pop-up availability: Yes.
Past productions: The Moodys, Arlette.
Comments: MELS also does commercial productions with its volume. Companies like Nissan and Loto-Québec have used its stage. In addition, MELS has a full-time team of development, tech artists and digital imaging specialists. Its installation is reconfigurable and can be moved on demand to any of its 16 stages.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: Yes. “Rather than maintaining a fixed Volume, Weta Digital has partnerships with companies like Streamliner Productions and Avalon Studios here in Wellington, New Zealand. This allows us to tailor solutions that are the right fit for productions shooting here. The technology has many useful applications, and not every project needs a fully immersive Volume. We’ve also been working with technology providers in other production centers around the world to produce content for Volume stages,” says Dave Gougé, Weta Digital Head of Marketing & Publicity. “LED panels can be strung together to create any shape or form needed for production. Planning is important to build the wall necessary for a film. Having a fully dedicated virtual production stage can be a fantastic tool and can be utilized for
many projects. Other projects will require customization and will need to be built on location. Often times, a large LED wall isn’t necessary, and it is more about placement and fitting the LED into a set in smart and methodical ways. This means working closely with production designers, directors of photography and set builders to plan and execute,” says Gougé.
Projects: Avatar sequels, KIMI, Black Adam.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: Yes. Tim Webber, Framestore Chief Creative Officer, says, “One of our core aims as an industry is to make the impossible possible, and LED technology is another tool by which we can achieve this. It has clear standalone benefits – allowing cinematographers, directors and production designers to see their ideas evolving in real-time; assisting with perennially tricky issues like matching lighting; helping cast to better visualize the CG world around them; and allowing directors and camera crew to see ‘non-existent’ backgrounds through the camera. But perhaps its biggest benefit is when it is part of a wider creative-workflow shift that begins with concepting and previs and extends all the way through to final VFX and post, all enabled by real-time technology. Virtual scouting, ICVFX, postvis and the rapidly-developing application of engine technology are all helping streamline, hone and speed up the filmmaking process, and ultimately offer limitless storytelling opportunities to directors and showrunners.”
Adds Webber, “Framestore is adopting an agile, flexible approach to the way we work with LED. There’s understandable appetite and excitement from clients working across film, episodic, advertising and immersive, but we’ve never been a company to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to creativity, and we’d never shoehorn clients into solutions that aren’t tailor-made for them. At present we have a small (32.75 ft. x 11.5 ft.) LED setup in our LA studio, which we mainly use for tests, demos and small shoots. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we’re used to working with third-party suppliers for feature film work, and for the upcoming Netflix title 1899 helping to design and set up Europe’s largest LED stage, Dark Bay.”
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: Yes. “Lux Machina doesn’t own any stages presently, but we do design, install and operate stages on behalf of studio and media groups, says Lauren Paul, Lux Machina Director of Business Development. “We worked with NantStudios to design and install their stage and will supply supplemental production support when required. We will be installing four other stages this year, with more to come in 2022, and have consulted on at least half a dozen other permanent stages. Lux Machina has had a hand in developing and improving LED, rendering and camera technology product lines to support their use in virtual production.”
On Lux Machina’s joint venture with U.K.-based Bild Studios: “Our partnership with Bild Studios is intended to support our upcoming projects in both the U.S. and the U.K. Having just recently opened our office in the U.K., and with many of our projects taking place in the U.K., we felt it’s important to work with Bild Studios so that our clients will have access to the world’s best talent and most cutting-edge technologies and workflows,” says Paul. “We use a variety of tools depending on the goals of production, but our workflows and proprietary software tools predominantly center around Unreal Engine and Disguise.”
Coming: “We will be deploying fixed stages in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seoul and the U.K. Sizes of the stages range from 40 ft. [to] 60 ft. and 90 ft. in diameter,” says Paul. The firm expects to increase that number in 2022 and beyond.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: Yes. Naomi Roberts, Dimension Studio Head of Marketing, comments, “At Dimension, we set up a new bespoke custom build for each virtual production. Our live projects on feature films are under wraps at the moment, but we wrapped on the Fireworks short film with DNEG earlier this year. Fireworks began in January 2021 with an LED stage 18m x 4.5m high with a 2.5-degree curve. In terms of software, scenes are running in Unreal Engine. The Unreal scenes run through Brompton servers and nDisplay to the LED wall. We used EZTrack for camera tracking.”
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: Yes. (DNEG sets up LED walls bespoke, as required.) Paul Franklin, Creative Director at DNEG, comments, “LED technologies have made an enormous impact on how we make films. For First Man, we used a large LED backing to create the spectacular views of the upper atmosphere and space seen by the U.S. astronauts in their quest to be the first to land on the Moon. The brilliance and resolution of the screens gave us ‘final pixel’ results, often without the need for additional post-production. A few years later we took LED techniques to the next stage for Fireworks, creating real-time interactive content that tracked the movement of the camera to produce a full 3D effect completely in-camera. I have no doubt that LED Volumes will become the standard way of doing shots that previously would have required months of post-production to complete – it’s a game-changer.” Fireworks began in January 2021 in collaboration with DNEG and 80six in Slough.
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: Yes. Michael McKenna, CEO & Director of Virtual Production, says “Final Pixel is an end-to-end creative studio specializing in Virtual Production. We can work with producers and clients from the initial idea all the way through to final post. We manage the entire Virtual Production workflow and pipeline to give our clients a single point of contact in a complex process. Our international Virtual Art Department designs, builds and optimizes content, and we specialize in working closely with producers and clients to understand the concept and creative needs before speccing the Virtual Production studio. We partner with vendors in the U.S. and U.K. to put up private stages which are not available to the public. With clients that are major TV networks and shoots involving A-list talent, this is often a necessity. A typical setup is a 18m x 4.5m curved Roe Black Pearl/ Black Diamond LED wall, 2x Arri Alexa Mini LF with Dual frustum, Brompton Processing, Disguise 10-bit workflow, and all driven by Unreal.
Projects: Dancing With The Stars (ABC), Upfronts (Discovery), TVC (Shutterstock).
Fixed Location: London, U.K. (Innovation Lab, a demo space). Size of LED stage area: 6m x 8m (approximately 20 ft. x 26 ft.). Size of LED wall: 9m x 4m (approximately 29.5 ft. x 13 ft. high|) curved wall, with a 6m x 4m (approximately 20 ft. x 13 ft.) ceiling. Software driving the stage: Unreal Engine. First operational date: September 2020 (of LED volume).
Bespoke/pop-up walls availability: Not at this time.History: Based in the Soho district of central London, Epic’s Innovation Lab is situated in the epicenter of London’s VFX and production district and serves as a hub for the creative community. The space is designed to serve primarily as a demo and testing environment for the industry, rather than an active production studio. However, Epic used the Lab to film the host sessions Epic’s “Unreal Build: Automotive” virtual event, which attracted participants from around the world. “Additionally, Epic MegaGrant recipient Imagination recently shot a test film at the Lab with excellent results,” says Alistair Thompson, Director, Epic Games London Innovation Lab.
Comment: The NantStudios campus in El Segundo also has an Epic “Innovation Lab” LED stage for demos, education and R&D.
Coming: Plans for demo stages in other locations.