A shot of Industrial Light and Magic’s StageCraft, an LED stage production technology created for “The Mandalorian.”
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has crippled film production in the U.S., causing shooting delays and hindering widespread travel.
A technology developed for the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian” could be the solution.
Due to Covid-19, productions have scrambled to meet new guidelines that protect cast and crew during the filmmaking process. That includes social distancing and reducing the number of people on set at a given time as well as testing staff at least three times a week.
Even if productions quarantine for two weeks and create a bubble for filming, travel restrictions and budget constraints can make it difficult for studios to justify shooting in international locations, even if they are open to the public.
That’s where LED screens come in.
Although not the first production to implement LED technology, “The Mandalorian” has become the most famous for it. The team at famed visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic devised a system known as StageCraft that immerses actors in a 20-foot high, 75-foot wide and 270-degree semicircle of LED video walls.
The technical innovation from the veteran special effects house doesn’t just place a static image on the screen, it moves the 3D image in time with the movement of the camera. Thus, creating a seamless background that acts just like a real location.
For “The Mandalorian” this became particularly important because of the main character’s metal armor. Had a greenscreen been used, the post-production team would have had to edit out the green shine in his armor and replace it with a virtual image of his surroundings. Using StageCraft, the background is already present and reflected in not only his costumes, but any metallic surfaces of vehicles and weapons.
The innovation inspired the filmmakers behind HBO’s “Westworld” to utilize similar technology during their production of season three.
The show used exterior shots of the City of Arts and Sciences complex in Valencia, Spain as the inspiration for the ultra-modern San Francisco headquarters for Delos, the company that owns the Westworld theme park. The production used real-time LED screen backgrounds to project those shots in the windows of interior sets. The images would subtly move as the camera shifted.
“All those delicious reflections, right there in the set,” co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan told Variety about the project back in March.
Representatives for Industrial Light and Magic did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
The rise of LED
More than 50% of “The Mandalorian’s” first season was filmed using this new technology, basically eliminating the need for on-location shoots.
With the coronavirus pandemic limiting where productions are able to shoot, LED technology is going to become increasingly important.
For the most part, LED screens have been used in films that need to create “locations that you can’t travel to without a rocket ship,” said Mark Gill, the president and CEO of Solstice Studios, who has produced films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love.”
Films like Universal Studios’ “First Man” used a similar LED technology for a number of its shots of outer space.
Screenshot of LED screens used in filming of Universal Studios’ “First Man”
“I think what is going to happen is that those things are going to be used a lot more for locations that you could travel to,” Gill said. “So, you might be in a sound stage in Vancouver and recreate central London.”
Implementing the technology isn’t cheap, Gill said, but it’s necessary for those that need to jump-start production. Particularly, those that are unable to do so in the U.S, where coronavirus cases are still spreading actively.
Pinewood Studios, the filming ground for nearly a dozen Marvel films, announeced Thursday its plan to bring a similar LED stage to its facility.
To start, the production studio in Atlanta will offer a rig that can be transported to any stage on the lot and used for filming. However, the ultimate goal is to have a permanent LED stage installation with a capacity of up to three cameras.
Pinewood Studios in Atlanta, Georgia will be adding a permanent LED Process Stage to its facility.
“LED virtual production technology offers tremendous opportunities for filmmakers; whether it’s car process work, live set extensions or interactive lighting effects,” Erik Messerschmidt, a cinematographer steeped in emerging production technology, said in a statement. “This particular technique is valuable in the age of COVID, when insert cars and extensive location work are compromised or otherwise impossible.”
The LED rig can help reduce the cost of productions, as film crews won’t have to build their own rigs, and can make post-production work easier.
“It was coming anyway,” Gill said of the LED technology. “It’s now been accelerated and everybody is pushing really hard for it.”
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of CNBC and NBCUniversal. NBCUniversal produced “First Man.”