US TV NETWORK - LOS ANGELES, 2021

Final Pixel has taken the Upfront presentation to new levels by being the first company to deploy full, Mandalorian-style virtual production in the TV Upfronts process. With practical foreground sets and photoreal 3D background environments running in Unreal Engine, many viewers didn’t even realize they were watching a virtual production.

This Upfronts project involved shooting several celebrities, which always creates a pressure-cooker environment: They may only be available for an hour or two, so it’s critical they are not kept waiting and that time in front of the camera is maximized.

The script was a challenging eighteen pages long – which also created a feeling that this was an almost impossible project to pull off.

The four scenes involved a studio apartment, dark alleyway, salon and suburban living room. To make things somewhat manageable, we planned for three locations to have the same wood floor, and one to be asphalt/city street.

 

Initial Concepts

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After several rounds of mood boards and sketches, the client approved direction for the four different environments. Our Virtual Art Department created models which included the foreground practical set. This revolutionized client expectation management. In a first, we were able to present images to the client showing exactly how the scene would be lit on the stage.

With an unprecedented level of confidence, clients could see exactly how the scene would look in camera, with no unpleasant surprises. This is a key benefit of Virtual Production.

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Green screen and screen replacement

In this rapidly-evolving world, every shoot involves breaking new ground. Firstly, we wanted to find out if post-shoot screen replacement was feasible. In this case the monitor above the subway entrance was required to display key art for a TV show which was not available at the time of shooting. We were not sure if it would be possible to track the green-screened 3D TV as we do with fully practically-shot screens. To our delight, it worked perfectly.

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For the salon scene, we ran real video clips within the Unreal Engine project – inside three TV screens. This also turned out to work fantastically-well. In-scene video is no problem at all.

Shooting with the double frustum

Another first for the shoot was using two cameras with the corresponding two frustums. Director and DP had to make sure there were no overlapping shots, otherwise the frustums would overlap in-camera and ruin the shot.

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For the whole team, seeing the two frustums on the LED wall with differing focal lengths was quite the head trip. Additionally, the camera team were testing a pre-release Arri signature zoom, and had the ability to see the 3D model change perspective while zooming. This was a real insight into the power of the Virtual Production film-making paradigm.

 

We pride ourselves on being one of the few studios that successfully blends CG and reality. The physical art department found pedicure stations for rental in Los Angeles. The virtual art department then faithfully recreated them in 3D, allowing the production designer to place them into the Unreal Engine scene. This gave astounding fidelity to the previz, which contributed to the wildly-successful client expectation management. Now the UE scene was so detailed, our director could do all his blocking and staging inside the software.

Preparing the Stage

Since founding the company at the beginning of the pandemic, Final Pixel has worked with a range of different LED wall configurations, preferring to choose the screen format to fit the needs of the creative. For this job we setup a wall which was 60 feet x 20 feet wall with a slight curve. Once the wall was built and we saw their content up on the giant screen, it was clear everything was going to work beautifully. It was just a matter of how fast our art team could execute foreground practical set changes.

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The team barely had enough space to store all the elements on the stage and had to keep swapping out set pieces in the parking lot.

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Global control

The need to make fast on-set changes extended to the 3D environments. For the alley scene, our director needed to move the steam funnel along with its particle smoke animation, without causing a delay in production. Our  technical artists are based all over the world and were able to remote into the stage and make the change to the model live on the LED, literally in minutes, while the on-set team continued working. This ability to collaborate over vast distances demonstrates another powerful aspect of virtual production.

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Four Locations in One Day

As the shoot day approached, and our crew timed out their quick set-changes, it became clear that while it was possible to shoot on four sets in one day, there was just too much dialogue to capture in a single shoot day. Luckily there were some pages with the lead actor that could be shoot on the pre-light day. The end result was that we were able to shoot a staggering eighteen pages in a day and a half.

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The power of Virtual Production was clear and our TV network clients were delighted.

Many who were watching the shoot remotely on zoom had no idea that the actors were in a studio and not actually out on location. A win-win for Final Pixel, and Virtual Production with Unreal Engine.

Such a flawless production could not have been achieved without the contribution of Creative Technology who provided an incredible level of technical support. Additional assistance came from Disguise, Mo-sys and Arri Burbank.

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