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Feb. 8, 2024

Shooting an action-packed showcase at Canada’s SP Studios

A highly choreographed fight scene, shot with ALEXA 35, explores the role of virtual production as an enhancer of visual storytelling at the ARRI Solutions-designed facility.

Feb. 8, 2024

Located in Mississauga, Ontario, SP Studios opened its doors in 2023 to support commercial and feature productions across its range of high-quality studio environments. ARRI Solutions provided conceptual design, consultancy, and technical integration for the facility, including its 14 meter x 4 meter immersive virtual production studio.

A key objective for SP Studios is to train and educate the filmmaking community on the evolution of virtual production technologies and how to harness them for their production. To showcase the full capabilities of what a medium-sized virtual production facility can provide, SP Studios put out the call for young creatives to pitch concepts for experimental, original content that would push the boundaries of what can be achieved. 

Director and VFX supervisor Ray Xue proposed an ambitious, action-packed project: a highly choreographed fight scene that would not only move seamlessly between day and nighttime but would also transition the action that starts inside an Asian-inspired teahouse out to an exterior scene.

Watch the VP showcase “Ronin Knights”

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The project was shot in just two days with an ALEXA 35 paired with anamorphic prime lenses and lit with a series of ceiling-rigged SkyPanels and ARRI Orbiter fixtures. We spoke to Ray Xue and DP/VP Specialist Conor McNeilly about their approach to the project and their experiences on set. 

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The virtual production project not only showcased different times of day but also interior and exterior transitions

Take us through the concept and what you believed would be the main challenges, before shooting.

Xue: As a VFX supervisor, I had a good understanding of virtual production and what it can bring to a project, but this was my first time directing in an LED volume. One of the main advantages is the precise control you have over time of day and lighting conditions, so with that in mind, we developed the concept of a fight scene that would take place in day and nighttime settings. SP Studios’ owner Khasan Arapov suggested adding the layer of taking the action from interior to outside the teahouse, which I loved, as it blurs the lines so beautifully, making the audience question what is real and what is virtual. 

McNeilly: From my perspective, it’s always simpler to pick a more slow-paced and controlled project, but this stood out from the start as a really fun brainteaser. How do we keep things consistent and ensure we live up to the creative expectations when the action is more involved, and with multiple changes to lighting and environment? 

How did you develop the environments?

McNeilly: Having Ray Xue on board from the very beginning of the project was essential, because getting the aesthetic right from the outset was very important. There are, of course, nods to “Star Wars” and samurai influences, but we wanted to ensure this had its own identity. We have a small in-house VAD team that built this beautiful teahouse, and a destroyed version, and utilized a few assets from Unreal Marketplace to build out. We really wanted to push ourselves with lots of real-time visual effects, adding intensity with sparks and flames, which gave us the freedom to play in this creative space we’d made.

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We really wanted to push ourselves with lots of real-time visual effects, adding intensity with sparks and flames, which gave us the freedom to play in this creative space we’d made.

Conor McNeilly

Cinematographer/VP Specialist

How did your expectations of the shoot match the reality of being in the volume?

Xue: My expectation was that virtual production can have a very long set-up time, and whether we would have time to get everything we wanted to get the specialty shots I had in mind. And we did spend a lot of time on our first day to get everything exactly how we wanted, in terms of look, tracking, integration etc. But once that work was done, it was amazing how quickly we shot and how much we were able to get in-camera. On the second day we captured so much more than we even expected. 

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The fast-paced, highly choreographed film was captured with an ALEXA 35

And did that lead to more spontaneity during the shoot? 

Xue: Absolutely—and so much that is in the final edit. I had a shot list, but once you see what’s captured in-camera, it makes you realize that you can almost disregard your original list and just go for it. What else can we do, where can we put the camera, what else can we try? 

We shot on an ALEXA 35, which was either shoulder-mounted or rigged on a MRMC Bolt robotic arm. This gave us a great balance of consistency from the motion control robot but we had the shoulder-mounted shots for more creative, dynamic emphasis.

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During the shoot, the ALEXA 35 was either shoulder-mounted or rigged on a MRMC Bolt robotic arm

How difficult was it to keep that high level of consistency you needed for the dual timelines?

Xue: I must give so much credit to the amazing stunt coordinators, Emerson Wong and Aurélia Agel, for maintaining the consistency for the two sequences. They had rehearsed the choreography so well and repeated take after take without missing a beat. That made it so much easier. Initially, I wanted to do each shot in turn, once in daytime and then the night one in succession, but it would have taken too much time switching back and forth. Instead, we broke the fight into sections which made it a much smoother shoot.

McNeilly: We had done a lot of testing beforehand because we wanted to do some of the VFX work live and in-camera. But there were still a few things to watch out for with such a fast-action shoot and it definitely helps when the DP is also the virtual production supervisor! There were a lot of small things to check off in my head beforehand: Where is the tracker? How far away is the teahouse in relation to the fighting? etc. Another great thing about the VP stage is that we could pull off the screen overlay and then tweak to get the backdrop to a consistent position. Also, with so much movement on the stage, it’s nice because you have lots of content to work with in the edit, you can cheat those cuts to make it very effective.

How did you approach and adjust the lighting in the studio to match the various times of day?

McNeilly: The studio’s pre-rigged lighting provision was our primary source, with eleven ARRI SkyPanels rigged above the stage and some floor-mounted ARRI Orbiters when required.

The great thing about virtual production is that we have full control over how we want to light a scene. As our environment was built in-house in Unreal Engine, we were able to take all of our lighting information from the virtual scene and translate that to the real-life stage using the DMX feature on the ARRI SkyPanels. This made switching between set-ups extremely fast and consistent to what was behind the actors on the wall.

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A dual timeline showed the fight scenes in day and nighttime lighting

SP Studios offers a medium-sized facility—did that help to remove any overwhelm with your first virtual production?

Xue: For me, the only main difference is the wide shots that can be achieved, but actually we went way wider than the wall in this project by extending in the VFX for one or two shots. I enjoyed the level of control—creatively and technically—that this stage gave me, and I felt the end result for this project would not have been much different in a bigger facility. Larger studios fit well for projects where there’s a need for a bigger crew and production.

McNeilly: I think this project shows that if anyone is considering virtual production but feels that it’s not something they can access, as long as your creative and your team are solid, you can achieve fantastic industry-level content in this size of studio. We had limited time and budget, but facilities like this are designed to ensure that shoot days are as productive as possible. 

What will you take into your future projects?

Xue: In my opinion, in virtual production shoots, it’s important to remember that the wall doesn’t replace, but instead enhance VFX. So much can be done in real-time in-camera, but I can also add even more during the VFX process, a lot more of what I call ‘invisible VFX.’ My advice: think of it as a big stepping stone for making your world look even more beautiful. Blend all of the tools you have available, and you’ll find that your project will look its very best.

Opening image: Benjamin Dunlop