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Virtual Backgrounds Are a TV Reality

J. Paul Peszko discovers how the use of virtual backgrounds is becoming more of an integral part of the vfx arsenal on TV. Includes QuickTime movie clip!

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from Battlestar Galactica by simply clicking the first image.

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Zoic, whose work on Battlestar Galactica as seen above, is one of the leading firms at producing virtual backgrounds for television. The vfx house is busy creating vfx for 12 shows. Courtesy of Zoic.

When discussing the burgeoning use of virtual backgrounds in television, one might think that set building and location shooting are becoming passé. But as Zoic Studios creative director and visual effects supervisor, Andrew Orloff, points out, its more of integration rather than elimination. I think virtual backgrounds, (some call them virtual backlots) are a misnomer because its all about plates, putting the plates back together and using real footage most of the time.

Like Zoic, other visual effects houses have produced many types of virtual backgrounds from total photoreal panoramas to simple set extensions and everything in between.

Bruce Woloshyn, visual effects supervisor at Rainmaker, has done it all. For both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis we have made extensive use of virtual backgrounds for everything from creating otherworldly locations, to expanding on the series standing sets and, in some cases, creating the standing sets for Stargate: Atlantis.

Kymber Lim, exec producer at Entity FX, which has produced virtual backgrounds for numerous features, TV shows and pilots, says, Entity FX has created virtual backgrounds that consists of partial background replacements such as matte painting set extensions and sky replacements to completely all CG photo real backgrounds such as cityscapes for film and television, stands with 100,000 fans for Herbie: Fully Loaded and NHL spots, and CG environments with CG people using motion capture for National Geographics Fight Science.

Max Ivins, partner and visual effects supervisor at Look FX, has used total virtual backgrounds as well as virtual set extensions for the series Bones, which is set in Washington, D.C. but filmed in Los Angeles. We usually take our cue from the set. Whatever they give you on the set to extend from, the most important thing is to match it seamlessly.

As you can see, it is not only the large visual effects sci-fi shows that are using virtual backgrounds, but dramatic shows as well.

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Rainmaker has made extensive use of virtual backgrounds for everything from creating otherworldly locations to expanding on and creating the standing sets for Stargate: Atlantis (above). Courtesy of MGM Television. 

As the business has changed so much, states Zoics Orloff, were involved in so many more dramatic shows instead of large visual effects extravaganza type shows. It used to be we had Buffy and Firefly. Now we have 12 series running concurrently. Zoic, one of the leading firms at producing virtual backgrounds for television, lists among their credits the original CSI and CSI: Miami, E-Ring, Battlestar Galactica, Cold Case and Justice as well as numerous pilots.

So why have more and more dramatic shows have begun using virtual backgrounds. The simple answer is costs, Orloff continues. Its got to the point right now where for the Vegas sequence [in CSI] in order to rent a rooftop in Vegas and then have a series of night shoots, it was much more cost effective for them to build a set piece and shoot during a regular day on stage on a greenscreen, and then put the money that was going to be production money into visual effects money. That being said, its not just a matter of cost but also a matter of flexibility because to get up into these locations, its a practical nightmare. The elevator that goes up to the top of the Palms Skybar in Las Vegas is small. And to take a 50-foot techno-crane and to break it down into a gazillion pieces and take it up to a roof where you cant safety it off is a logistical nightmare. But if were on stage, the directors have all the equipment theyre used to having, and they can get all the shots they want without having to compromise. They can just roll that 50-foot techno onto our stage and use it on our set.

Rainmakers Woloshyn notes the cost savings in terms of amortization. In the case of Stargate: Atlantis, the cost effectiveness of the virtual backgrounds, especially for the standing sets, has been significant in so far as the amount of amortization the series has been able to get over multiple seasons using the same virtual models. Certainly, there is a greater expense to creating a virtual set of any kind for one-off usage in a particular episode. But for creating virtual assets to be used much like standing sets, the longer you are in production with these sets, the greater amortization you can get out of the costs.

Woloshyn would agree with Orloff that the logistics of using virtual backgrounds has meant much greater freedom for filmmakers. The one thing that virtual backgrounds and visual effects in general have really done in the last several years is to give filmmakers and story tellers more freedom, especially with sets of a massive scale. Sets and locations that would have been well out of reach, particularly for episodic television, are now available on a weekly basis. In a world of HD displays and more sophisticated audiences, the virtual sets and backgrounds are a definite plus, especially in the genre of science fiction, including Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis.

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Kymber notes that a production wont choose a virtual background over a real location unless they can substantially cut costs. Its generally extremely cost effective by definition since the production will generally choose a virtual set only if it is cheaper than the alternative of shooting in a practical location. Beyond the cost of building or finding the set, there is the cost of staging it, scheduling it, lighting it, flying a camera around it, etc. In practice, if the character is in jeopardy, you are likely to need vfx help on the shots anyway. A virtual set is built exactly to the level of detail that the camera sees based on the cut. There are no extraneous walls that need to be built and its easily modifiable as things change.

Look FXs Ivins would agree and says that virtual backgrounds are becoming quite commonplace in television. I think that last year and the year before it was a trend thing with the networks. I dont feel like Im in New York or I dont feel like Im in Chicago. They wanted to establish where they were the in-thing to do. Theres a lot more of that being done now that they know they can do it. Its one of those things thats becoming commonplace because its a lot more cost effective than going there [to a location]. Its mostly when they want to tie the main actors to that location. Now they know it easy to do, to put a landmark from that city in those shots.

But what about the production value of virtual backgrounds as compared to shooting on location? We try to use the best of both worlds, states Zoics Orloff. Our methodology is not to reconstruct the whole thing virtually. For example, on this Las Vegas sequence (for the original CSI) the set of the rooftop is way cooler than any other rooftop that actually exists because Richard Berg, their production designer, designed it and built it from scratch. So, it looks fantastic, and it matched exactly whats in the story. Youre not trying to make something thats the standard look-alike casino bar. Theyre able to build the set and use all the talent from the production design side at CSI to build that set. So, its a really cool set, the production design is great. Its our stage, so you can bring a ton of extras in. The flexibility of being on our stage allows you to bring that 50 techno-crane on there, to bring that steadicam up there, to do what we need to do to get those really cool looking shots that CSI is famous for.

For sci-fi TV series such as Stargate SG-1, Rainmakers Bruce Woloshyn notes that virtual backgrounds give filmmakers and storytellers freedom to include sets and locations previously out of reach for episodic. Courtesy of MGM Television.

For sci-fi TV series such as Stargate SG-1, Rainmakers Bruce Woloshyn notes that virtual backgrounds give filmmakers and storytellers freedom to include sets and locations previously out of reach for episodic. Courtesy of MGM Television.

To enhance their virtual backgrounds, Zoic has improved the technology that enables them to capture the background plates as evidenced in the premier episode of this years CSI, mentioned previously. Were using a still camera on a film camera, Orloff explains. So weve developed a special camera head that allows us to balance the camera in a way that we can take multiple exposures of the background on film and stitch them together in a giant moving 4K matte painting of Las Vegas. So, what youre seeing is a really great set with really great looking Vegas plates in the background. What were able to do is gain the control of exposing and focusing the backgrounds.

Rainmakers Woloshyn says that production value is a matter of design and execution. The value of a virtual set is really only as good as its design, and then its execution into the production pipeline and the final shots. A poorly designed virtual set at the concept level will rarely flow smoothly into production. As, especially if integrating live action photography, a poorly designed virtual background can exponentially add to the cost on a per shot basis over building an actual set. Even more importantly to the audience, poor execution of a virtual background will take them out of the story. However, a well designed and executed virtual set can do wonders to add to the atmosphere for a particular storyline.

Ivins agrees. The more planning you have involved in doing it, the better it turns out. I think in general the productions find it to be a big win for them when they get that location identification with their main actor but they dont take them there. As far as loss of quality goes, if the director has planned it out well and knows what they want to shoot and we know what they want to get and we get a photographic element to put in or we build a virtual one, theres no loss of quality.

If the planning and execution are exact, often the virtual background will look much better than the set. The production value in the sense of quality of look is extremely high, says Entity FXs Lim. Basically it is a photoreal environment. On more than one occasion, we have created digital set extensions of a real set, only to be asked by the production to digitally remove some of the real set and extend our extensions to take up more of the frame. The digital set simply looked better than the practical one.

Just how extensive is the use of virtual backgrounds in television? Lets see what the various effects studios have produced.

Kymber Lim of Entity FX, which is creating virtual backgrounds for Smallville (above), says if the planning and execution are exact, often the virtual background will look better than the set. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Kymber Lim of Entity FX, which is creating virtual backgrounds for Smallville (above), says if the planning and execution are exact, often the virtual background will look better than the set. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Right now our biggest virtual background shot is for CSI, the original show, states Zoics Orloff. Were doing a whole scene thats probably about five or six pages of dialog on a Las Vegas rooftop. Thats all greenscreen, shot on stage on a set piece with plates that we went and shot on a Vegas rooftop with matte paintings and digital building replacements as well. Last season, we did a huge amount of work for E-Ring, which was a show where they went to a different country every week basically. Most of the stuff for that show was shot in our parking lot against a green screen. We went everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Afghanistan. I think we did all the Stans. We also worked with CSI: Miami, where we created an entire building interior. We did a pilot called Drive, where we shot cars on a freeway. It was a six-minute continual visual effects shot that went in and out of cars as they were driving. So, all the cars were shot on green screen, and we had moving plates on the freeway from multiple camera angles that were stitched together. It was kind of similar to the sequence in War of the Worlds, where theyre coming in and out of the car as its driving down the freeway. We did Battlestar Galactica, the mini-series and the first two seasons, where we did the replacement of the hangar bay and Caprica, which is the city we did as a virtual city drop. Weve done forest replacements for them. Also, on a show, Eureka, thats airing on SCI FI Channel right now, we replaced whole towns. Weve done a digital aerial shot thats completely created by us of a mountain town, zooming down into a house thats a set piece. Were also working on a show called Stand Off. This year, were doing Cold Case, which has a mineshaft that were creating a virtual backdrop for. Were working on Justice, which we do all kinds of visual effects for including virtual backdrops, scene replacements, and building replacements.

For CSI, plates shot from a rooftop, matte paintings and digital buildings were used for a Las Vegas rooftop scene. Courtesy of Zoic Studios, CBS Productions, Jerry Bruckheimer Television, and Alliance Atlantis.

For CSI, plates shot from a rooftop, matte paintings and digital buildings were used for a Las Vegas rooftop scene. Courtesy of Zoic Studios, CBS Productions, Jerry Bruckheimer Television, and Alliance Atlantis.

For a television show like Stargate SG-1, Woloshyn explains, we have created both interiors and exteriors (sometimes of the same location) of far away worlds for years. It has allowed the series to not only expand on the realm of places to explore, but on the sheer scope of these locations. For instance, in the SG-1 episode Evolution Part 2, we were able to take the actors to see the massive fortress of Anubis on a lava-covered alien planet both inside and out, without ever leaving the studio lot. And, even though practical sets were built for much of the coverage inside the fortress, we were not only able to expand and show the massive scale of the rest of the interior of the structure, but totally tie the architecture of both the inside and outside of the fortress together in a very stylized design.

For Stargate: Atlantis, even some of the series standing sets have been created with either virtual backgrounds, or virtual extensions of the practical set pieces. This has enabled the production to have standing location sets that in the real world actually extend the massive structures beyond the confines of the studios sound stage. In one case, only a single wall and doorway have been constructed on the sound stage, while the rest of the entire 360-degree set has been created in the virtual world. And, like any other set, once the virtual set has been completed, it can be used to create any camera angle required by the particular scenes coverage.

Adds Lim: Our current film and television productions at Entity FX that use virtual or digital backgrounds are Into the Wild, The Air I Breathe, Smallville and the CSX pilot [for A&E]. For Into the Wild, were creating invisible effects such as sky replacements and adding CG water or a dust storm to allow the background plate to tie into the effect. For The Air I Breathe, there is a sequence of extensive greenscreen shots where we had to recreate the background plate and replace it with a photorealistic matte painting. For Smallville Season 6, Episode 1, there is a matte painting background of Metropolis, a virtual interior of the phantom zone, and a digital recreation of a real forest. For the CSX pilot, were creating a completely ominous virtual background that we travel through.

Last year we did a lot of pull outs from the Washington Monument, adds Ivins in describing the work Look FX did for Bones. We did an entire virtual Washington, D.C. at night time and pulled way back to the reflecting pool [in front of the Washington Monument]. We did an Arlington Cemetery shot where we did a synthetic background and shot the actors on a green screen. We did a total combination of synthetic backgrounds and set extensions. They were at the Arboretum here in L.A. and they had some fake tombstones, and we just did a synthetic extension. But they wanted them [the actors] walking past rows and rows [of tombstones] and they didnt have enough set dressing to make that shot happen in live action. So, we did a completely synthetic background, where [the actors] were on a greenscreen, and we built an extensive background so they could have a massive amount of tombstones.

The use of virtual backgrounds in television are no longer trendy and are becoming quite commonplace. However, dont expect set designers or production carpenters to disappear any time soon. Even with greater technological innovations, virtual backgrounds will, for the most part, complement and enhance practical sets and empower directors and writers with a creative freedom that heretofore could only be imagined.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isnt writing, he teaches communications courses.

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