Posted February 2021

We’ve all seen—if not heard all about—Disney’s 2020 Emmy Award Winner The Mandalorian. Besides being the first live-action series in the Star Wars franchise, what makes this television show so noteworthy is that over half of it was filmed indoors on a virtual set with LED walls that displayed premade backgrounds instead of using green or blue screens.

Cinematographer and colorist Chad Terpstra said that since so much time and resources were dedicated to the technology that made The Mandalorian, doors have opened up for others in the industry to follow in their footsteps; in fact, he recently had the opportunity to experiment with virtual sets himself as the Director of Photography (DP) for General Motors’ Opening Keynote at All-Digital CES 2021 that aired globally on January 12.

Directed by Anthony Garth, the presentation not only told GM’s electrification story but engaged a tech-savvy CES audience through a series of mixed reality locations, which was possible because of the Epic Games Unreal Engine, the most powerful real-time 3D creation platform. “I was honestly a little intimidated as I’m used to finding the perfect sunset to shoot, and now you can just bring it to you,” said Garth, who had never experienced working with a virtual set before this. “As it started to build and come together though, I knew it was going to be amazing, especially being able to showcase Mary Barra in so many locations, which, as the CEO, she never would have had the time and accessibility to do.”

One of the most significant benefits of virtual sets is the lighting. The light from the LEDs provide realistic colors and reflections on actors and props, which Terpstra said was a game changer, especially in this specific shoot while dealing with the reflective nature of cars and actually having the technology to properly incorporate all the environmental reflections that would normally surround them in real life. Additionally, with virtual sets, actors no longer have to imagine the scenery as they can see it themselves.

“As a DP, this helps me, too, as I don’t have to guess either,” said Terpstra, who had settings like exposure, color and animation playback at his fingertips. “Personally, I found it much more satisfying to be able to finish the whole image on set as opposed to with the green screen where someone comes along and finishes everything later. With this though, pre-production is key as the environment has to be perfected and made convincing beforehand. And we’ve only just scratched the surface with what’s possible with that.”

Both Garth and Terpstra said that there will always be a place for green screens and on-location shoots, but as virtual sets continue to evolve, they agreed that they’ll be the way to go, especially in terms of time and budget. “There’s always new technology and challenges, and that’s the beautiful part about directing,” said Garth. “I was honored to be asked to do such an important project and learned so much.”

Behind the Scenes with Virtual Set Technology
By Danielle Alexander