A Guide to Virtual Sets During COVID-19
Virtual sets are popular. While they have been around for years, their recent popularity is due to two major factors. First, Disney’s “The Mandalorian” was a major success and showcased just how much can be done with virtual set technology. Second, COVID-19 gave virtual sets a boost by allowing several productions to continue virtually uninterrupted during a period when others were shut down.
While there are significant advantages to using virtual sets—especially during this pandemic—there are also drawbacks. This article is designed to help you to decide if virtual sets are right for your next production. To do this, we will focus on answering three questions:
- What are virtual sets?
- How can virtual sets help during COVID-19?
- What are some limitations of virtual sets?
Let’s take a closer look at this promising new technology.
What Are Virtual Sets?
When we talk about virtual sets in the year 2020, we are talking about LED walls built on large soundstages that allow for real-time rendering of a desired location. This technology might seem new, but it is built atop nearly a century of Hollywood special effects.
Modern virtual sets are, in essence, the newest evolution of rear-screen projection. Invented in the 1930s, this technique involved actors performing in front of pre-recorded footage projected onto a background. It has been popular ever since. Quentin Tarantino has even used it to great retro-effect in several of his films, most memorably 1994’s classic Pulp Fiction.
Green screens (and blue screens) knocked rear projection out of the market. For most of the last thirty years, CGI has been the go-to method for generating otherworldly sets and locations. This has meant that sets were not fully realized until post-production. This, in turn, meant that actors and crew members were shooting in spaces that looked almost nothing like they would in the finished film.
Rear projection came back with a vengeance in 2013 with the release of two films that used it to newer and greater effect: “Gravity” and “Oblivion.” Both films used giant HD screens to render previously shot footage. This allowed the stars (Sandra Bullock and Tom Cruise, respectively) to interact with and react to their environment in real-time.
But the technology wasn’t fully ready to flex yet. “Gravity” still relied heavily on CGI while the screens on “Oblivion” were not dynamic. It was still, very much, old school rear-projection with a facelift.
Unlike old-school rear screen projection, modern virtual sets move with the camera. They can even accentuate lens effects. Made up of giant, concave, LED screens, virtual sets can act simultaneously as lighting and backgrounds.
Virtual set technology appears to be the new frontier of film and television production. Let’s look at how it can help us shoot during this pandemic.
How Can Virtual Sets Help During COVID-19?
Virtual sets have many positive features that can help us with our next productions. With a focus on COVID-19 safety, we want to highlight the following benefits:
- Increased location control
- Reduced travel
- Minimized crews
- Less on-set equipment
Increased Location Control
To adhere to A Safe Way Forward’s guidelines, we must construct zones around our locations and sanitize everyone and everything that enters. This requires a level of location control that is hard to attain when shooting on location.
Virtual sets offer an easier path to safety and security by allowing us to film on sound stages without the time and size limitations that once accompanied them. The LED screens can bring the world of your production to life without anyone having to physically move walls or lights.
COVID-19 has negatively affected budgets and schedules by requiring that we spend the necessary time sanitizing our cast, crew, props, equipment, and sets at every location. By turning one location into all our locations, virtual sets allow us to quarantine and sanitize a single space for the entire shoot, which can save time and money.
Another way that virtual sets allow us to positively readjust our schedules and budgets is by drastically cutting down on our travel.
With all the added restrictions placed on our production in the COVID-19 era, we must do everything we can to minimize company moves and reduce all non-essential travel.
Virtual sets allow us to set up shop in one location and stay there until we wrap. This means that we can drastically cut down the number of people who need to travel for a production. If we rely on local-hires as often as possible, we also eliminate non-essential travel when we shoot on a virtual set.
Virtual sets can reduce the added costs associated with COVID-19 compliance even further by allowing us to shoot with fewer crew members.
Virtual sets can reduce the need for on-set builders, on-set decorators, and in some cases, even on-set lighting technicians. This is a three-fold reduction in on-set personnel that can maximize social distancing and increase production safety during the pandemic.
The sets are still built, mind you, but they are built during pre-production on video game world-building software. This necessity for scheduling and planning is a limitation of virtual sets that we will get to shortly. Still, it allows for fewer on-set personnel on filming days.
The LED wall can be programmed to build the scene’s world, and it can also be programmed to provide lighting. This does not mean that we won’t hire lighting technicians; it merely means that we would employ them during the pre-production process. If done correctly, with the appropriate amount of planning, this translates into eliminating more on-set personnel.
Less On-Set Equipment
The most massive reduction virtual sets bring to a production is in the category of on-set equipment. The LED wall of a virtual set is built in-place. This means that it doesn’t need to be moved or torn down between shots, so we can keep tools, kits, sandbags, gels, and all the other little items a conventional shoot requires outside the bubble.
COVID-19 mandates that we sanitize every item that comes onto our sets. That process takes time, effort, and money to execute properly. Virtual sets can save even more time and even more money by eliminating the number of things we must sanitize each day of the shoot.
Now that we understand that virtual sets can save us time and money (by maximizing location control, cutting down on travel, and reducing personnel and equipment), let’s consider a few cons.
What Are Some Limitations of Virtual Sets?
Virtual sets have some negative aspects that we need to consider before deciding if they are right for our next shoot. A few we would like to highlight are:
- Availability – Virtual sets are in high demand but are not currently available in many areas. This is changing rapidly, however, with new LED walls going up almost daily. But even in the areas where they already exist, the demand exceeds the availability. The limited availability applies to trained and experienced personnel as well.
- Planning – To maximize virtual sets’ effectiveness, we must have our creative team and VFX team collaborate during pre-production. This means adjusting our schedules to front-load design elements. It takes time to design, load, and render entire sets, so these teams must be ready to finalize decisions long before shooting begins. While tweaks are possible on the day, they are currently limited by what is already in the system. This technology is still growing, but currently, using virtual sets effectively requires detailed advance planning.
- Audio – One of the most common issues with virtual sets is how loud they are. LED walls might be a magnificent gift for the camera and lighting department, but they are murder for the audio department. Due to their hard surfaces, curved shape, and the LED’s themselves, virtual sets bounce sound around noisily. If not compensated for correctly, it can sound like you recorded it on a raquetball court. Most of the issues, however, can be mitigated with a good sound team and an extra quiet set.
- Additional Crews – This seems like a contradiction. We just said that virtual sets allow us to cut down on crews. While that is true, we must also point out that the VFX team, which is traditionally needed in post, will be required on-set to help achieve the desired look for each shot. In the end, virtual sets still require fewer people than a conventional set, but once the VFX team is accounted for, the difference is not as large as one might hope.
As we search for a safe and viable path forward in this pandemic, we must consider virtual sets. They offer many benefits that can save us time and money. COVID-19 has ballooned our budgets and our schedules. Anything that can counteract that, even a little, is a welcome addition.
Most importantly, virtual sets offer us more opportunities to maximize safety. So long as we can find one that is available, plan ahead, and compensate for audio issues, virtual sets are a fantastic option for most productions during COVID-19.
In the middle of this pandemic, no one knows what the future of film and television will look like. But if virtual sets—and their giant LED walls—have anything to say about it, that future will be bright.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.