For as long as filmmaking has existed, there has been a need to build fantastic worlds in front of cameras. The earliest techniques borrowed from theatre: Painted curtains and wooden, two-dimensional backdrops. Then, we painted worlds onto glass, photographing them onto the film itself to blend the real and the fake. At the same time, artists worked out how to project previously-shot film onto a screen behind the actors. These days, we’ve flipped this story, dropping real actors into digital environments that only exist inside computers. But now we’re blending the very old and the very new: Digital backdrops in “virtual” studios could end the blight of green-screened cinema, and its myriad problems. That’s what’s being experimented on in a former newspaper press in Oxfordshire, UK, where the first “all virtual” film has just been shot.
But that is a side project to his day job, as co-founder and CEO of Rebellion Developments, the British studio behind Sniper Elite. Rebellion doesn’t just make games, however, and owns comics giant 2000AD, the name behind Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper, as well as publishers Abaddon and Solaris. Now, the company is building its own studio to create TV series and movies based upon its vast library of IP.
Percival is a short film, first broadcast on Kingsley’s aforementioned YouTube channel, and marks a new chapter in Rebellion’s filmmaking ambitions. The five-minute clip depicts a battle-scarred knight of the round table played by Kingsley, who is close to death in a forest. King Arthur is dying, the (Holy) grail is missing. The titular knight is left broken and bloodied when some unknown force gets involved. Suddenly, time speeds up, aiding his recovery, and transporting him to the eerie ruins of a church, where he receives a vision that inspires a new quest.
Rebellion says that it’s the world’s first “all virtual” production, with all of the action playing out entirely in front of a halo of large flat screen displays. These monitors are connected to PCs running Unreal Engine, where the virtual environments are produced. Essentially, the painted curtains and matte paintings of yesteryear have been replaced with LED TVs showing footage from a game engine.
You might have heard of the technique before. The first high-profile instance of its use was Disney’s The Mandalorian, which shot the majority, but not all, of its scenes in these studios. In that instance, the action was filmed in a 270-degree horseshoe of LED displays 20 feet high.
Star Wars has long been a standard-bearer for titles that push the state of the art of filmmaking. The prequel movies, shot between 1997 and 2003, leaned heavily on shooting actors on green screens, with CGI backgrounds added in afterward. This process, of standing actors in front of blue or green curtains, is known as “Chroma-Key” or “Chroma-Keying.” And after Star Wars, Chroma-Key became ubiquitous for even modestly-budgeted films with special effects. The mid-noughties saw a trend of films almost exclusively using the technique, including Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Sin City and 300.
These days, green screen is everywhere: the battle of New York from Avengers Assemble, for instance, was mostly shot on a New Mexico green screen studio and then tinkered with for months by an army of CGI artists.
Virtual studios have the potential to make a big difference to film-making. Because the background and environments were already visible in the shot, there was no need to add them in afterward. It also gives actors a better handle on what they’re doing, since performing in an entirely green void can understandably hamper performances. It’s also a lot easier, and cheaper, to shoot than sending your crew across the globe to real-world jungles and deserts that even a lavishly-budgeted show like The Mandalorian could hardly afford.
He Sun is the head of Rebellion VFX. He has previously worked on The Lion King (2019), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and the aforementioned Mandalorian. He had originally planned to run a visual effects experiment with a rented LED wall, but: “Jason [Kingsley] said ‘let’s make a movie!” The studio would exist for just three days, but COVID-19 would mean that any production could only use a skeleton crew. With less than three weeks of preparation time, the shoot was run as a test to see if the virtual studio could deliver under some of the toughest conditions.