What are some of the Challenges to a Production Designer working in a VP over traditional film/TV?

Written by Alison Cross

Alison Cross, Production Designer for H2BG takes photos of the real props for the purposes of syncing when the virtual set rotates in 360.

The role of production designer as I teach it, starts with the script and imaginatively creating the appropriate world for that story to inhabit. Having the world offered as a virtual package goes beyond ‘finding a good location’ and initially feels like a loss of imaginative control. In truth it just spreads the creative construction of the story-world through a team: the imaginative work is shared. Unreal Engine build the original world, our Unreal Developer (in this case Dr. Andrew MacQuarrie) customises it and the team on the ground (in this case me) organise sets and props to blend with it. In principle, all these stages can respond to group decisions and imaginative input.

This team-work mix of pre-production as part-virtual and part-physical is true for many films now. Still, it is tempting to think there is little to do if the set is already chosen and is virtual. The ‘Art Director’ might be involved in early discussions about what setting to choose but it is a different member of the team that creates it. Deceptively, it seems that what is left is ‘just’ the management of the physical interface between the two. There is a lot to learn here.

Workflow is different: the pre-visualisation stage is crucial, long and detailed and throws up many issues for what will be seen in each shot and how it will be created. There are opportunities for every HoD to be involved in this early stage of cinematic storytelling. Every scene can be tried and tested, even re-scripted. Not least, the list of pre-production jobs is clarified.

Production Design in the Virtual space

Meeting online, we were led through our virtual location by Dr. Andrew MacQuarrie (Drew), our Unreal Developer (and virtual location manager). We were able to plan the scenes, what props and sets we would need and how they might be lit and shot. Drew added virtual characters so each shot could be planned and a detailed storyboard constructed. Being able to see and modify the world of our film extended the pre-production phase into a very detailed and iterative development process. We could see which parts of the scene would need to be real.

The success of the interface between virtual and real is what allows the audience to accept the world as continuous and not just a clever backdrop. Interactions with real objects and foreground have to be totally believable.

Dr Andrew MacQuarrie leads the Unreal Engine session with the creative HoDs online

Although more sophisticated, the ‘backdrop effect’ of the virtual environment means it resembles theatre design, the foreground has the physical stuff that the characters touch and the ground they walk on. We worked with a night-time shoot which made life easier in terms of what would be seen and at what level of detail. It needed to be only as ‘real’ as the lighting required. Night-time made life harder in other ways. Making characters show up by putting them in pale colours, which might have been a good idea for a normal shoot, would not work as green spill was an issue.

Customising our virtual location with additional strewn rubbish and graffiti, though possible, was ruled out due to the work involved and our short timescale. However, Drew was able to add wire mesh fencing, modify the goods wagon and pile up palettes to match our props.

As part of the planning stage of pre-production, we made several lighting and production design decisions that were later modified due to shooting in Hybrid-Green Screen VP. Reflective elements, such as glass and water, light coloured clothing, any light coloured props in contact with the ground, could all cause green spill. The wire mesh fence as a foreground element caused a moire effect.

The issues for the production designer at the real/virtual interface are: sourcing props and costumes to suit the story (as always); matching real and unreal for style and colour; attending to ‘the joins’ between real and unreal. Everything that will be touched has to be made, so the point of contact is credible. The question of feet making contact with the ground when walking through the set was overcome using a travellator. This enabled long distances to be covered walking into the virtual environment. Two ‘real’ set elements were created to blend with the background: the surface of a concrete paving slab where Lily sitting on a palette would pick up a stone, and the side of a railway goods wagon where both Lily and Tom would enter or exit.

Matching ‘unreal’ in measurement and texture

The usual process when imitating the real world in a surface is to take reference shots but using real concrete as a reference was not going to match up. Imitating the virtual slab in texture and measurement was the only way to allow it to be positioned and patched in. Drew checked measurements and sent some scale images.

This scale reference came as a shock. Some problems were immediately apparent: the curve of the slab was unnatural, the slab seemed unusually large, it was not immediately obvious what colour it should be.

For colour we went back to the original texture file, but it is still hard to match a colour on screen to a physical surface. Details of the actual colours used in the digital composition may not help either, as even printing is never an exact match. Comparing colours by eye, the surface was imitated in paint on heavy paper, using translucent layering. Careful measurement and calculations made the paper fit the slab in the unreal environment in case it had to be ‘blended in’.

The virtual concrete
The real paint surface
The concrete paving slab in situ

It was important to me to create set and prop items within a student budget. If we are to use this technology as a training tool for them, they must be able to afford the concomitant materials. Making the concrete slab as matt painting on heavy paper was cheap, easy to transport, did not reflect the green.

Painting the Wagon

The same applied to creating the side of a railway goods wagon: painted wallpaper could be pasted to a flat in the studio. The large scale of the wagon made reproducing it in metal too complicated and expensive, but there was still the issue of how Lily was to scratch her name on it in the last scene.

Drew, again sent useful images with measurements and, again, the scale seemed over large. Perhaps we just were not used to seeing figures in our Unreal environment.

The first layers of paint were put on wallpaper off site and the painting was completed once the flat was assembled. This ‘cheap and cheerful’ process is typical for the low budget of a student production and it is important to establish that this works. A loose, ‘theatrical’ painting style works very well for a night-time shoot, and even in daylight unless extreme close-ups are required.

Painting the wagon door prop to match the virtual
The wagon door prop on the set to serve as the entrance/exit into the virtual wagon
The virtual wagon door in this shot matches the real door prop in the second shot below.
Lead character, Lily, walks out of the virtual wagon space, past the real door prop.

The Metal Plate

As she leaves, Lily has to scratch her name on the side of the goods wagon. We did not want to deal with a large metal panel, but railway goods wagons often show a holder with a number plate slipped inside. This could be photographed and patched in for distance shots. Testing showed that acrylic paint on aluminium is easy to scratch into. An old drypoint plate was handy but it would have been good to have several as our one metal plate needed repainting between takes!

Lily scratches her name on the metal plate, fixed to the wagon door prop

Inside the Virtual Wagon

Lily enters the wagon to find Tom, sheltering in a construction of old cardboard boxes.

This set was simple enough to assemble but the cardboard had to extend under everything as a ‘floor’ so Tom could sit inside with his legs stretched out. Tom had to be backlit inside the box and it eventually became a bit cramped. Continuity shots were essential as the whole set had to turn through 180 degrees for the reverse shots against green screen.

Costumes

These were easy to plan as they just had to be practical and dirty but, again, there were things to look out for. Using a warm coloured scarf for Lily was intended to give her ‘inner warmth’ and make her a symbol of life and hope for Tom but the brightness of the scarf glowed in the dark and it had to be tucked inside. A light coloured shirt for Tom had to be replaced by a darker pullover as the pale fabric picked up green spill. Clothes were dirtied with mud made from compost and water and with coffee dregs. Using substances that wash out is important for a student production as they often use their own clothes!

This was an exciting project to be involved in! The teamwork of pre-production with everyone, not just production designers, getting to ask: “What shall we make this world look like?” and “How can we achieve it?” makes for an engaging and holistic approach to filmmaking. The work put into blending the real with the virtual pays off in a satisfying way.

What would I like to change?

The virtual environment we used was not scruffy and ‘lived in’ enough. It would have been great to have the time to add more rubbish and maybe graffiti on the walls. Because the environment was ‘off the shelf’ rather than custom built, I started by wondering “How many other filmmakers are going to choose this environment? Will it be recognised by audiences?” A designer wants the look of their film to be unique. Working with Drew in pre-production it became clear that our world could be customised, given the time, to look quite individual. The virtual worlds on offer from Unreal are a gift — no low budget production could afford the type and scale of set-up they can offer. What we should ask is: How does it need to be modified to help tell our story? How will we blend it with the world of real action?

Alison Cross is a practicing artist and educator, with experience of theatre design and set building, currently teaching production design to Film & TV students at University of Greenwich.

A team of filmmakers and academics at the University of Greenwich have created a micro-short film entitled, How To Be Good, in collaboration with industry leaders at Storyfutures Academy and Mo-Sys engineering to explore and document workflows in virtual production. In this first article of a series, principle investigator Dr Jodi Nelson-Tabor discusses what virtual production means in different contexts and how producing How To Be Good sheds an important light on how VP can be a managed and harnessed to create films that would otherwise be cost prohibitive and complex to shoot.

To follow the series, click on the following: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Follow the series/thread at #H2BG on Twitter @GREdesignSchool.

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Dr. Jodi Nelson-Tabor

Dr Jodi Nelson-Tabor is a Filmmaker, Writer/Producer, Sr Lecturer & Creative Consultant working across the traditional and immersive creative economy sector.