When it comes to visual effects, XR stages are changing the order of operations for the film and television industry. Made of hundreds of LED panels joined together and powered by video-game engines, XR stages offer film sets the potential to merge principal photography and post-production into one big, collaborative process.
Used on productions like Disney’s The Mandalorian, XR stages eliminate the need for a green screen, immersing actors into photorealistic backgrounds. Video-game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine create 3D, motion-sensitive environments in real-time, allowing the background to follow the actor’s movements and make it look like they’re walking through a faraway landscape when in reality, they’re on a soundstage.
“Just being able to shoot someone in multiple locations in one day, that’s got to be the number one reason to do it. Number two — putting people in places that are impossible,” said Greg Russell, co-founder of virtual production studio XITE Labs.
“It’s kind of the Wild West,” said Lauren Paul, vice president of sales and marketing at Lux Machina, the virtual production company behind the XR technology used on The Mandalorian.
“There is this desire to be able to see people interact with the world without necessarily having to take them to that world. And that is where it’s going to be limitless,” Paul added. “This really makes hard shots medium, medium shots easy, and the easy shots no brainers.”
Just don’t ask what the “X” in XR stands for.
“The best way to think about it is that the idea is that the X can mean anything, which just means an available or a viable reality that we can use,” said Dan Bartlett, associate dean of the School of Digital Media at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Basically, XR can mean mixed reality, augmented reality, or extended reality. But Bartlett wouldn’t limit its definition to just one word.
“Yes, we do use mixed reality, because that’s effectively what that LED wall allows us to do. Yes, we use augmented reality, because we’re able to put overlays in front of the camera feed in order to get foreground elements. So it’s really about just the idea of using whatever tools are available to you in order to bring the imagery to life.”
SCAD recently built its own state-of-the-art XR stage for student use at its Savannah campus, as part of a a sprawling 10.9-acre filming space featuring a Hollywood-style backlot and soundstages. The school, which is hosting the SCAD Animation Fest this week, will soon unveil an XR stage at its Atlanta campus as well.
The XR stage is a tool that the filmmakers of tomorrow would do well to learn, according to Gray Marshall, chair of visual effects at SCAD.
“The term ‘disruptive’ is often overused in technology and everything, but I don’t think it’s overused in this case,” Marshall said.
“Traditionally, production design and visual effects did not really have a meeting place other than around the table every once in a while. Now they’re cohabitating. So if that’s not disruptive, I don’t know what it is,” said Marshall. “That pre-production becomes broken away. At the same time, in order to actually create visual effects, it’s almost always been relegated to post-production by habit,” he said. “So they’re coming all together at the same time.”
The university hopes that giving students the tools to learn how to use XR stages will help them get comfortable with the way the production landscape is evolving.
Sean Hussey, a film and television major with a concentration in producing, is one of many SCAD students who have already begun using the XR stage in student film projects.
“It’s been a really cool process so far to get to start by building a lot of the environments that you see on an XR stage. That’s a lot of what our film class has been able to do as part of our collaboration — and then being able to take those and go up and put them up on the XR stage, kind of test camera settings, kind of figure out what the filming process is like,” Hussey said.
In terms of how he’s experienced the changes in the production process, Hussey says it’s all about workflow.
“I’ve always been used to the ‘Let’s get everything ready to shoot, we’re going to shoot everything, and then we’ll work in post-production with VFX and editing and color and all those great aspects.’ But now we’ve taken a VFX team, which is primarily used to coming in at the end and bringing them into the conversation, on the front end,” he said. “So we’re doing a lot more pre-production that takes a little bit longer than we’re typically used to.”
But people who work in post-production needn’t worry.
“I don’t think post-production is going away,” said Marshall. “Some aspects of what we currently call post-production will now be part of pre-production and production. … They’re still going to be edited, there’s still going to be people changing their minds later on, and there’s still going to be stuff to fix.”
“Especially if you’re talking about really VFX-heavy projects, there’s always going to be shots that you just cannot achieve in-camera,” she said. “Even what you can catch on camera, there will still be a need for visual effects to some degree. But it’s about making that easier and bringing the creative process to the stage.”
“The more adoption of this technology, I think the more innovative we’ll get with what you can shoot,” she added. “Even on The Mandalorian, we shifted from just being able to do exteriors to being able to do interiors — being able to do the interior of offices, interior bedrooms, interiors of nightclubs, and that sort of thing. So I think we’re starting to see a shift towards what was previously thought could be captured, and there’s this growing interest, growing expanse, in what’s possible.”
Main Image: An XR stage at SCAD Savannah, courtesy of SCAD.