August 2020 - Australia’s leading supplier of video technology and production for the live events and entertainment industry, TDC – Technical Direction Company, was approached by production company Exit Films to work together on creating a full Virtual Production for an NRMA Insurance TV commercial. This was the first time a virtual LED background was used in Australia to replace a traditional green screen on set. TDC knew that to be able to fully deliver the vision of award-winning director Marc Forster they had to use equipment offering superior performance and reliability, so chose the winning combination of Brompton Technology’s Tessera LED processors driving ROE Visual LED panels.
The commercial, which focused on road safety during the holidays, followed an eight-year-old girl and her magical CGI toy bunny working together to save her dad from distracted driving. The team’s main challenge was to convincingly portray the fast movement of the car, which is generally a difficult environment to film, whilst telling an emotional story that relied heavily on close-up shots.
“Knowing how much Forster disliked the fake screen look, we wanted to give as much realism as possible to the production by bringing a cutting-edge LED screen technique for moving picture purposes,” explains Alex Rendell, Technical Project Manager at TDC. “In that way, instead of actors having to imagine the surroundings, they could actually be in them.”
The TDC team collaborated closely with the DP Ginny Loane to build what became Australia’s first 180-degree LED cyclorama, featuring ROE Carbon 3 3.75mm LED panels. The LED wall served both as the moving backdrop and the main lighting source for the car interior and actors, removing the need for extensive on-location shooting and offering realistic ambient lighting effects and controlled, accurate reflections everywhere – even in the actors’ eyes.
Working with post-production company Framestore, the team considered aspects including LED pitch, moiré issues and panel diffusion, colour accuracy, as well as frame synchronisation and high-resolution playback. After analysing all planned camera angles, the team shot the 180-degree background plates with a multi-camera rig, as well as a prosumer VR camera. It was then all seamlessly stitched together before the shoot to play properly scaled on the LED screen backdrop.
“Having the footage shot at the chosen time and location ensured that the same scene could easily be re-created over and over again, with moving reflections and light outside the car windows perfectly in sync with the action inside of the car,” continues Rendell. “Additionally, having the video content displayed on an LED screen created a realistic environment for the talent to act in and interact with, resulting in authentic performances.”
Brompton’s Tessera SX40 4K LED processor ensured the LED screen looked flawless and the pre-filmed content was perfectly translated onto it, with accurate scaling and colour.
“The main thing that the Brompton processor helped with during the project was the ease of positioning and scaling of both screens within the 4K camera footage,” adds Rendell. “This enabled full flexibility of the car orientation relative to the screen and camera angles during the shoot.”
Forster's decision to shoot in anamorphic mode for a more cinematic look offered a far shallower depth of field at the same angle of view, meaning that everything outside the focal plane became a lot softer. This not only looked great, but also prevented moiré issues from the LED panels. As all the action had to be filmed from within the car, a Cooke 65mm T2.6 Macro camera was chosen for its excellent close focus distance properties.
Once all the parameters had been worked out, it was easy to execute the planned shots on a soundstage within a day, and in-camera. “The director and the clients were happy as they could see the character in the environment that it was supposed to be in and tell the story in the best possible way,” states Rendell.
Using an LED wall as a digital backdrop replacement for traditional green screen has multiple advantages, according to Adam Fiddler, Technical Operations Manager at TDC: “By re-creating the world on the digital scene, it allows cinematographers and actors to be in touch with the space they are filming in. By using the technology in this way, filmmakers are able to frame the particular part of the set or background they want to see in the camera and also reproduce lighting looks and reflections in real time. That would take weeks to do in post-production. By using this method of production, film companies are able to save time and money in lengthy post-production work and capture more engaging content on set.
The TDC team have been using Brompton processing since 2015. Their initial purchase was the Tessera M2 processor to support their investment in ROE Black Onyx 3.47mm. The team was so impressed with M2’s reliability that when the demand for large-scale high-resolution and 4K screens increased, the team further invested in Brompton’s Tessera SX40 4K LED processor as well as its XD data distribution solution.
“I was really excited about being able to run fibre to the screens whilst reducing the number of copper connections,” says Fiddler. “OSCA seam correction is the feature we utilise a lot with Brompton. Building huge seamless screens was something that attracted us to Brompton processing in the first place. The colour representation and ability to operate at low brightness without compromising image quality were also great selling points for us to pitch to our clients.”
Another feature of the Tessera SX40 processor that TDC found particularly useful for this project was ChromaTune. “We made use of the ChromaTune feature in the Tessera software to be able to manipulate colour adjustments on set for the best results on camera. To have all these kinds of features on board with the SX40 proves that virtual productions can be made on a smaller scale,” says Fiddler.
According to the TDC team, deploying an LED screen as a replacement for traditional green screens is becoming an increasingly viable option, as it opens up new creative possibilities to teams that are working on tight budgets, or even as an alternative for crews limited by lockdown by constructing a transformative, immersive environment.
“With Brompton’s advances in HDR, Ultra Low Latency and High Frame Rate, we see Brompton as being at the forefront of pushing Virtual Production technology across many industries,” concludes Fiddler.