When “Good Trouble” returns to screens, fans of the Freeform TV drama will reconnect with two young women, Callie and Mariana, trying to make it in Los Angeles.
At least, it will look like Los Angeles. But it will just be an illusion.
By using software that powers the hit video game “Fortnite,” producers of the TV series are digitally re-creating downtown Los Angeles. Instead of on-location shooting, actors and crew will be working in a studio where photo-real imagery of the buildings will be projected on LED video walls.
It will be faster, easier and — most important in the COVID-19 era — safer than having everyone congregate in public spaces, said Sam Nicholson, chief executive of Stargate Studios, which has partnered with the TV show’s creators to create the virtual sets.
As Hollywood faces mounting pressure to resume production and re-employ hundreds of thousands of cast and crew members who’ve been out of work for months, filmmakers are turning to virtual producers like Nicholson as a route to reboot TV shows and features halted by the pandemic.
Virtual production isn’t new. But thanks to the video gaming world, the technology has advanced well beyond the use of green screens, where actors perform in front of a blank screen that is green or blue and later replaced by an alternate background.
Instead of performing against a static, blank screen, actors and crew can interact in real time within a 3-D environment projected onto LED screens.
Some people think it’s the future of filmmaking.
“People have to utilize these tools to get back on line,” Nicholson said. “Once they’ve utilized them and realized it’s faster, better, cheaper, you will see a lot more virtual production coming down the pipeline.”
Marco Fargnoli, director of photography for “Good Trouble,” said virtual production will give the show more flexibility.
“Once everybody agrees on the protocols that will allow us to get back to work, we just want to be able to maintain the creative freedom that we had before the shutdown, as much as possible,” he said.
Producers expect that in coming weeks, studios and producers will need to comply with new protocols, including frequent testing and hand-washing, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Virtual production, they say, is one way to mitigate the risks.
“Once you take the machinery of that show and bring it out to successive locations, you are exponentially increasing your risk factor,” Fargnoli said.
Nicholson, a visual effects supervisor and cinematographer, said his company is fielding calls from streaming companies and studios eager to revive films and TV shows as fast as possible.
“We are bidding six jobs right now that are considering dropping set building and their location work, and using virtual sets,” Nicholson said.
Walt Disney’s hit show “The Mandalorian,” about an intergalactic bounty hunter, is a recent example of the possibilities of virtual technology.
Director Jon Favreau collaborated with Industrial Light & Magic and Epic Games to create a 20-foot-high, 270-degree semicircular LED video wall that eliminated the need for location shoots entirely.
“To a lot of folks, virtual production can often sound like we are making ‘Avatar,’ ” said Richard Bluff, visual effects supervisor for “The Mandalorian,” speaking at for the National Association of Broadcasters in the spring.
Furthermore, the footage can be played back for the director in real time, as opposed to having to wait for months after the shoot has wrapped to see the results typically created by visual effects artists after the fact. Backgrounds can be swapped out easily, avoiding costly set construction, Bluff said.
Bruce Jones, who is supervising special effects for the Warner Bros. science-fiction movie “Reminiscence” due out next year, said that instead of sending the entire cast and crew to a far-off location, visual effects artists can re-create the scenes.
“One day you’re shooting a desert scene and the next day you’re shooting a scene in the Arctic, and all you ended up doing was some costume changes,” Jones said.
But the technology isn’t just being used to create fantasy worlds.
Nicholson, who cut his teeth on the first “Star Trek” movie, highlighted the example of this year’s HBO show “Run,” a drama set largely on a train. Stargate used its virtual system to create the views out of the windows of the train to give the impression that it was speeding along.
Stargate’s proprietary system uses a software known as Unreal Engine, produced by Epic Games.
Miles Perkins, who works in business development for Epic Games, said the Unreal Engine is being embraced by the film community in a way it hasn’t in the past and interest is “extremely high.”