As we await production to resume in Los Angeles, the team and I at Ringer have pondered this question: What’s the safest, most creatively versatile and least budget-busting approach to production in this new COVID-19 world?
The biggest challenge to production is that traditional film sets are inherently not conducive to social distancing. There’s rarely enough space to spread out and there are too many things that get touched. Trimming crew size is certainly an option, though a smaller crew can reduce shooting speed and lead to additional shoot days and expense.
But there is a solution and it has been around for a long time: virtual sets via green screen. Pre-COVID-19, we used virtual sets when it was too expensive to build the real thing (see “Worst Cooks Awards” below) or when it wasn’t possible to travel talent to the perfect location (see “Oil Well” below).
At this strange moment in time, virtual sets are quite possibly the safest way to achieve high-production value without significantly impacting the budget. The reason? The number of crew members required to film on green screen is remarkably low while the speed of shooting is remarkably high. Also, there are far less physical moving parts on set and therefore less opportunities for transmission of the virus.
Below is a plan for virtual-set production that has been tailored to the COVID-19 era. I’ve developed this in collaboration with our executive producer, Silke Thompson, and our head of VFX, Elliott Jobe.
STEP 1: CHOOSE OR DESIGN A ‘LOCATION’
There are numerous stock CG virtual sets available – homes, office buildings, landscapes, you name it – and many look very real. These sets can be easily customized and lit in CG as needed.
If a stock virtual set doesn’t fit your creative, 3D modelers and matte painters can quickly create anything you can dream up. One can even scan and photograph a real location to create a 3D set from it. Other great options are stock photography and licensable imagery from movies (as we used recently for Terminator: Dark Fate).
STEP 2: PREVISUALIZATION
Once the virtual set is chosen or created, all the shots can be pre-visualized in CG. The result is either an animatic or a storyboard. These will serve as the roadmap for the shoot, telling the DP what lenses to use, the camera height and distance to subject.
STEP 3: CREATE A DYNAMIC LIGHTING GRID
Using data from the previz, a dynamic lighting grid is designed. This grid can be easily installed on a green-screen stage in a day by a small team of grips and electrics. On the shoot day, the lighting is controlled by a board operator, reducing the lighting crew to a fraction of its normal size. At the flip of a few switches, the lighting can be customized for each shot, which allows us to achieve between 20 and 50 setups per day.
STEP 4: TINY CREW PRODUCTION
If I were on-camera talent, I’d be pretty concerned about the number of people on a film set while I’m acting my heart out without a mask, gloves, or other protection.
With this new production model, we can reduce the size of the crew to roughly 10 to 15 people and keep them spread out on the stage. Since we’re shooting on green screen, we can even shoot actors separately and then composite them together in post.
A small number of clients could be on set, each with their own viewing station, and the remaining clients could view the monitor remotely via Zoom.
STEP 5: START VFX DURING THE EDIT
There’s no need to wait to lock the cut before starting final VFX. As soon as the shoot is over, the VFX team can begin rendering the final backplates, which can be dropped into the first cut.
When you factor in savings for locations, set builds, permits and manpower, the cost of shooting on a virtual set is often comparable to a traditional shoot. And there are many ways to keep the budget down, such as using pre-built virtual sets, reducing the number of unique shots and shooting multiple projects at the same time once the lighting grid is in place.
On a final creative note, these techniques can be used to create photo-real results or stylized worlds such as the virtual set we built for Nick Jr.’s Storytime. There’s really no limit. The key is planning. Like all production, the little details make the difference.
Hopefully, we can get back to the full array of production options soon. For now, let’s think of the new limitations as an invitation to unleash our creativity. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Orson Wells: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
Rob Meltzer is the founder of LA-based agency, Ringer. Prior to forming Ringer six years ago, he directed promos and commercials for Stun for more than ten years.