September 2023

Virtual production: Virtual Studios vs LED Volumes

Virtual production: Virtual Studios vs LED Volumes

Photo: Behind the scenes recording of The Tower from Spark Media Partners / Beezr

dock10's head of production innovation Richard Wormwell spells out the difference between a virtual studio and LED volume - and explains which is best suited to your virtual project.

Virtual production is arguably the biggest buzzword in content creation right now. Yet there is still quite a bit of confusion about exactly what virtual production is and how it can help.

Virtual production has become a bit of an umbrella term to cover anything that captures 3D computer-generated images in real-time through a camera. These images are sometimes referred to as virtual environments and are created by 3D artists working alongside traditional set designers and art directors.

Virtual production creates worlds that blur the lines between the real and the digital. By placing a 3D scene into a real-time renderer and by employing 3D camera tracking technology, it becomes possible to blend virtual environments with physical objects - including people - in real-time and in-camera.

Currently, there are two primary techniques for delivering a virtual production: virtual studios and LED volumes. Each technique tends to be used for different kinds of programme making – as we explain below.

Virtual studios

A virtual studio uses a green screen environment to key presenters, sets and sometimes audiences into the centre of realistic 3D sets.

Virtual studios are primarily used for multi-camera productions like live news and sports. However, with advancements in rendering quality they are increasingly being exploited by light entertainment and factual entertainment formats.

Virtual studios aren't a new technology; they have been around since the early '90s when real-time camera tracking became a commercial option. While some amazing effects were produced, the graphics often looked very artificial as realistic computer imagery was still in its infancy.

Nowadays, however, computer-generated sets can have photo-realistic graphics thanks to powerful render engines like the Unreal Engine. More accurate camera and talent tracking also allows productions to place presenters in the centre of the virtual environment, even giving them virtual shadows and allowing the real world to reflect onto virtual objects.

As each camera has its own tracking data and render engine, and is keyed in real-time, it's possible to shoot in a multi-camera set up, recording each camera in isolation for the edit. In the galleries the production crew see and work with the final composite image. By using clever combinations of masks and garbage mattes, it's possible to shoot in 360 degrees - even into areas where there is no green backdrop such as the lighting rig.

As the green screen and all the surrounding area can become the virtual environment, it's possible to create entirely virtual worlds with no physical props, just the presenters in the studio with eye line monitors for reference.

However, for light entertainment formats where the presenter, contestants and audience need to respond to each other, a more hybrid approach is usually employed. Designers will combine and enhance a traditional set build with virtual elements.

A ‘hybrid set’ will incorporate many of the physical elements that feature in a traditional set, including rostras, podiums, scoreboards, desks and chairs along with audience seating. These physical objects can then be enhanced with virtual elements, such as video walls, large header pieces and foreground effects.

This hybrid approach to virtual production allows producers to make their shows look much bigger and to create more imaginative sets while saving money on building, transportation and storage, rigging and installation. Hybrid sets are also more environmentally friendly to create. Overall, they can create the look of a big Saturday night entertainment show, but on a daytime budget.

dock10 deploys virtual studio technology across the whole facility, creating full virtual and hybrid sets for shows such as BBC Bitesize Daily, Match of the Day, the FIA GT World Championships and Dinosaur with Stephen Fry.

LED Volumes

Virtual productions that use LED volumes have also grown in popularity in recent years, with The Mandalorian arguably being the most famous example. LED volumes lend themselves best to single camera shoots – such as film, episodic drama and commercials.

The set-up for an LED volume is not unlike the projected backgrounds filmmakers have been using since the silent era. The major difference is that the LED video wall technology is now so good that the naked eye or camera lens can't spot the pixels or the joins in the wall.

To create an LED volume, a series of LED panels are assembled in a large curved layout, providing a wrap-around environment for the talent; this large curved wall is sometimes supplemented by moveable lower pixel quality screens above and to the back of the space, creating a confined area. This area is referred to as the volume, as in the volume of space that is available to film in.

An LED volume is also quite smart. By harnessing the power of camera tracking and real-time render technology, it responds to the camera's movement on-set and adjusts the perspective of the vision in the screen to create the perfect backdrop parallax. As with virtual studios, the real time render allows for lighting and location to be altered in a matter of seconds.

Actors perform on a physical set, in front of a large array of LED screens, allowing them to see the background images and react to them. The other advantage is that LED screens cast light onto the talent and the physical set making for a very realistic, life-like shoot. As a result, LED volume stages are starting to appear in key filmmaking locations around the world.

Both virtual production processes have a place in the industry, and both offer new and exciting ways to create out of this world content. All you need to do is decide is which is the best approach for your production.