The Virtual Backlot

Stargate Studios has built an impressive reputation for providing sophisticated visual effects for many high-profile television projects, including Heroes, The Event, CSI: NY, The Gates, 24, Knight Rider and The Walking Dead. Recently, I shot an interview with Stargate founder Sam Nicholson, ASC, about the work his company had recently completed for the final season of Fox’s 24. The last season of the show included a large number of scenes that took place in New York City at some logistically difficult locations like the United Nations building. For a Los Angeles-based show like 24, the time, budget and location challenges of shooting in New York City can be difficult to complete on time and on budget.

During the interview, Nicholson spoke about shooting with a new multiple-camera rig known as Orbis, which Nicholson, along with Curt von Badinski, co-founder and technical operations manager for View Factor Studios, had been developing. The idea behind the Orbis rig is to shoot background plates that can cover any scene in 360º views more efficiently.

While shooting background plates on location to later be composited with studio footage of actors shot on greenscreen or bluescreen isn’t exactly new technology, the Orbis rig, when combined with Stargate’s Virtual Backlot™ technology, forms an extremely versatile and powerful way to give filmmakers unparalleled access to any location through a variety of innovative proprietary techniques. These can range from totally immersive sequences shot entirely on greenscreen to simple set extensions that marry into principal photography.

The Orbis rig on the road.

From the viewpoint of a producer or production manager, location shooting is always a challenge, especially when compared to the control and convenience available when shooting in the studio. Weather, sound issues, crowd control, traffic, political issues, air travel and a host of other factors often conspire to make shooting television on location, especially far-flung locations, a formidable obstacle. Another significant obstacle to location shooting is that A-list talent often is unable to travel for production because of scheduling conflicts. The Virtual Backlot technology allows producers to integrate location shoots into their shows economically without bringing the entire production or even a traditional B-unit to the actual location.

Explaining the genesis of the Virtual Backlot technology, Nicholson explains, “Twelve to 15 years ago, we were thinking that if we had the ability to fuse film photography with actors in a photorealistic virtual world in real time, we could become like a sound-effects facility that has the technology and the sound effects themselves—a one-stop shop. The next question became, ‘Why does the backlot have to be real?’ We spent the next few years flying around the world, capturing large chunks of Washington D.C., New York, London, Paris, building up an extensive library of background plates shot with multiple cameras.”

Production manager and Orbis camera operator Ben Windle.

“One of the tipping points we had with the Virtual Backlot was created by 9/11. We were doing the show E.R. at the time. None of the actors wanted to get on a plane to fly to the locations. E.R. needed to shoot in Chicago, so we told the producers, ‘We can go to Chicago and we can virtualize big chunks of it. We can shoot the locations in such a way that they will work for the whole season. Then you can build all of your sets on a greenscreen stage. The actors were happy that they wouldn’t have to be shooting in Chicago in the winter, so it worked out pretty well.’