LED Volume technology moves from otherworldly to Main Street with real-time CG digital environments that eliminate production cost overages common in on site shoots.
Over the past year, Pixomondo (PXO) has opened three virtual production facilities, with shows like Star Trek: Discovery and Avatar: The Last Airbender employing its stages and crew. With virtual production an obvious choice to create otherworldly fantastical settings for major productions, it’s also quietly making itself an essential tool in hosting the creation of more everyday earthbound settings.
Recently, PXO worked on a spec/proof of concept for McDonalds that was shot entirely in virtual production on one of its Toronto stages, showcasing the technology’s potential. With co-directors Matt Manhire and David Whiteson at the helm, a McDonald’s commercial was recently shot entirely using the new technology called the LED Volume, a giant LED screen that displays a CG photoreal environment.
The technology is unique in that the CG digital set reacts and moves in real-time with the camera. As the camera moves, the interactive parallax and depth in the background looks like shooting in a real environment. It allows for freedom of movement within the environment.
Check out McDonald's Friends:
The project, produced in collaboration with Alter Ego, PXO, William F. White International Inc., Virtual Production Academy, and Feels Like Home Films, saw co-directors Manhire and Whiteson spend nine weeks overseeing the creation of the McDonald’s interior and exterior assets down to the precise level of detail of digital coffee cups on the counter and specific featured items on the menu boards.
“We feel so strongly about this technology and it being the future of advertising that we initially set out to make this commercial entirely on spec,” commented Whiteson. “Sometimes you need to provide a proof of concept to convince people that it’s the right way to go. The results don’t lie. It’s impossible to tell that not only is the restaurant computer generated but that everything was entirely captured in camera.”
“Absolutely mind blowing,” added creative marketing agency, Cossette executive creative director Craig McIntosh. “This isn’t just going to change the production process; it’s going to change the ideation process. Anything is possible now. Visiting the studio and seeing the screen in action with my own two eyes, it felt like I was stepping into the future.”
"Typically, with virtual production we’ve seen a world of fantastical environments whereas the challenge that we undertook here was to create something completely recognizable that exists in our everyday lives,” explained Manhire. “This is far more difficult because the viewer instantly knows what a McDonald’s restaurant looks like. The margin of error is far smaller.”
For this specific piece, the story itself illustrated the power of shooting on the LED Volume. Not only was the weather in different seasons (Winter, Spring and Summer) simulated, but sunrise lighting for the entire day was created. The effect, which would not have been otherwise achievable due to cost, was doable within the LED Volume studio. The shoot itself was one 12-hour day, requiring a third of the crew, and a third of the lighting equipment that would have been needed in an alternate, 2-day conventional shoot.
“Ironically the day we showed up to the studio to begin filming there happened to be a snowstorm outside,” shared Manhire. “David and I laughed about the fact that if we were on location we would’ve been in serious trouble. There would have been significant financial overages to clear the snow and then days or weeks in post cleaning it all up. With virtual production it was all a non-issue.”
McDonald's Virtual Production Shoot - Behind-The-Scenes Look:
LED Volume technology has been around a few years with the Disney show The Mandalorin pushing the technology to the forefront, illustrating its non-traditional uses. PXO's virtual production work can currently be seen in Season 4 of Stars Trek: Discovery as well as in the upcoming Star Trek spinoff Strange New Worlds. It is currently in production on Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender which is shooting on its Vancouver Virtual Production stage
“The advancement of the LED Volume allows for an extreme amount of natural light and freedom in camera movement,” explained directory of photography Eric Whipp. “I’m no longer chasing the sun, trying to maintain shadows and light quality. No need for giant soft silks being assembled, or numerous 6k lights to simulate the sun. I had a total of four lights for the entire day, and yet we have this continuous sense of sunrise all day long. It’s incredible! It really does feel like we’re in a McDonald’s restaurant… except we’re not!”
“Where the strength of the LED Volume can be harnessed in commercial production, is in the reusing of the assets time and time again.” concluded Whiteson. "Once we’ve built the restaurant in CG, McDonald’s can reuse that asset forever eliminating the need to ever go to a real restaurant location again. They just return to the studio and load up the CG environment on the LED Volume. At the push of a button all the artwork and signage in the restaurant instantly turns to French or special promotions, eliminating the need to print posters, rehang them in the space costing precious set time, or heavy post-production costs fixing it after the shoot is complete.”
Continued Whiteson, “Having 25 years in the post-production industry I’ve seen my fair share of problems arise on set that are left for me to fix in post. This approach really can reduce those mistakes to almost zero.”