Bts of a scenes from the movie "The Peripheral" in which LED background is used to simulate a bike ride on the street of London.
May 10, 2023

The future is now: shooting “The Peripheral” at ARRI Stage London

Cinematographer Stuart Howell BSC takes us behind the scenes of his time-travelling adventure “The Peripheral” and reveals how ARRI’s virtual production stage made some of the show’s trickiest shots possible.

May 10, 2023

Real and virtual worlds collide to spine-chilling effect in Amazon Studios’ high-concept sci-fi series, “The Peripheral.” It’s 2032 in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Flynne Fisher (Chloe Grace Moretz) lives with her professional VR gamer brother, Burton, and their sick mother. Flynne, also an avid gamer, is given the chance to beta-test her brother’s new game, transporting her to a troubled future London. 

Helping to bring William Gibson’s slickly plotted novel to the screen was Stuart Howell Assoc. BSC, who shot four episodes of the first season for director Vincenzo Natali. Howell relished the opportunity to craft “The Peripheral’s” distinctive settings on both sides of the Atlantic through his lensing. “It was about finding a contrast that works,” he explains. “Vincenzo and I felt the American parts of it should have a slightly nostalgic feel to them. We looked at a range of photographers and Stephen Shore resonated with everyone, with that Ektachrome, Polaroid feel to his colours. None of us wanted to create a desaturated show—it had to be quite vibrant, but a bit frayed around the edges.”


ARRI Stage London’s adaptable set-up helped to create authentic driving scenes

Principal photography commenced in May 2021, with camera equipment supplied by ARRI Rental. The first episode swings between Flynne’s home in North Carolina and London, kicks off the series with some eye-popping set pieces, including Burton’s night-time motorbike ride through central London. 

The challenges of the sequence included a night shoot on 2021’s August Bank Holiday involving some of the capital’s most famous landmarks, including Westminster Bridge, Trafalgar Square, and Buckingham Palace. It was originally going to be shot in lockdown, allowing the team to take advantage of the rarely-empty London streets. But as the city had now reopened, Howell notes it would have been impossible schedule-wise—not to mention “astronomically expensive” —to film actor Jack Reynor on a low-loader around London’s streets for the close-ups, so a more time- and cost-effective alternative was sought. The cinematographer remembered being shown around ARRI Stage London in its early stages and had a vision for shooting the close-ups of Reynor in the volume.


Shooting a fight scene in a Rolls-Royce kept crew and talent safe and focused on the action

The state-of-the-art studio, located at ARRI’s UK premises in Uxbridge, West London, and managed in partnership with Creative Technology, is equipped with a wraparound ROE Visual LED volume that features a curved 30 x 5-meter primary wall. Two playback systems utilize Creative Technology’s proprietary servers—nDisplay for real-time rendered 3D environments and Photon for uncompressed 2D environments. The volume’s technology stack is complemented by ARRI’s highly flexible and versatile stage design, so that productions have the tools they need to shape the most effective workflow for their needs.

“The Peripheral” was one of the first productions to benefit from ARRI Stage London’s virtual production capabilities. After visiting the stage with the producers, they went in for some tests “and everyone loved it,” says the DP. He remembers that Jonathan Nolan, one of the show’s producers, was especially keen for everything to feel as real as possible, so shooting on the stage felt like a useful way of bringing some of the show’s trickier shots to life without sacrificing authenticity. 

Although Howell and his department were new to the pioneering technology, they had engaged in plenty of research and could make use of the expertise of the stage’s experienced technicians. “The biggest challenge with VP stages is all the decisions need to be made before you shoot it,” he says. “We had to choose locations, figure out how we were going to shoot these plates, and work out angles. Also, it’s a photographic process at the end of the day, so things like lens choice, focal length, depth of field, and T-stop have got to work across the whole plane—from what you’re shooting in the car to background plates. These are the kind of things we tested extensively.”


Shooting in the volume delivered an immersive experience for the crew

The adaptable set-up at ARRI Stage London and the ability of its panels to cast lighting effects, even when not in frame, helped make the shoot go smoothly. As the stage’s side panels are moveable and tiltable, they allow for ultimate customisation to suit each production. The DP recalls, “The beauty of the virtual reality stage is that you have the reflections there. At ARRI Stage London not only do you have the background screen, but you have the LED roof which uses projection as well. Then they have side panels which you can bring in on certain angles to light faces and increase and decrease the brightness. The front screen also creates ambient light, as if you really were driving through London.” 

The motorbike ride wasn’t the only sequence that made sense for some virtual production treatment; a fight in a Rolls-Royce while driving around the capital was another perfect candidate for shooting in the volume. “Even with a stuntman driving, they’ve got to be 95 percent concentrating on the driving and 5 percent on the fight, so it wasn’t really what anyone wanted,” Howell adds. “I think we ended up in a good place where you wouldn’t know that the scene wasn’t shot in a moving Rolls-Royce.”


The adaptable setup at ARRI Stage London helped make the shoot for "The Peripheral" go smoothly

The third element was a glass lift zooming through the mysterious research institute. “We could have done that green screen, but they’re in a glass box,” the cinematographer says, “so from my point of view, what really makes all that work is the interactive reflections. And at one point, a whale swims past the elevator and we can actually see it, rather than have someone say, ‘Act like you’ve just seen something.’ The more we discussed shooting in a volume with those three elements, it became obvious that was the way to go. It was definitely worth doing.”

Howell remembers how much the cast enjoyed the experience of working in the volume too. “When the actors are doing green screen work normally, you’ve got a big screen behind you and you’re looking out at the crew and someone behind a camera,” he says. “But when Jack was on the motorbike, he had the projection behind him but he could also see where he was going. He knew that up there, he was going to turn left. It wasn’t just the director telling him to get ready to turn left—Jack could see where he was going as if he was driving down a real road, so he loved it. I think the virtual production adds to his perception of what he’s doing and makes his job easier.” 

Embracing a new approach to cinematography with virtual production technology may have been a learning curve for the whole team, but Howell was delighted with the result. “With the motorcycle scene, there was a worry it was going to be too exposed,” he admits, “but I thought it all worked very well.”

Note: This article originally appeared in British Cinematographer

All images: Will Case, Creative Technology