By Noah Kadner, January 15, 2024, Frame.io
“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.
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.
Small scale virtual production 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.
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 panel moire in virtual production
Moiré is one of the many challenges found in virtual 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.” Click to continue reading