Shoot It on the Virtual Backlot
How Stargate Films is Creating a Library of 3D Environments for TV
Nicholson says Stargate is working on 22 television shows, including 14 pilots. “We can now do things in 3D that were considered impossible ‘ and bring them to life in a TV schedule,” he says.
These are no ordinary stock footage shoots. The technique depends on the creation of a 360-degree immersive environment. The Stargate Films cinematographer (often Nicholson himself) goes to locations with several cameras including a Sony HD F-950 recording to HDCAM SR tape and, for tight spots, the Panasonic 24P HPX-2000. Each camera is outfitted with a nodal camera head that enables pan or tilt with no perceptual shift. In other words, a tilt from the top to bottom of the Eiffel Tower or a full 360-degree pan from the top of the London Tower fills out this virtual universe. “That becomes photographic data, essentially,” Nicholson explains. “Then you can, ideally, texture wrap onto 3D surfaces. So you’re looking at a combination of 3D modeling and photographic textures.”
To this high-res panorama, Stargate Films adds elements including digital still photos and 3D elements that, says Nicholson, take these virtual backlots “to the extreme, with interesting adjustments.” A virtual backlot of Moscow’s Red Square, for example, blends live-action elements shot with the Sony F950 with 20 high-res digital stills mapped onto the same model.
The 3D CGI objects play a special role in selling the immersive environment. “Imagine you’re sitting in a 360-degree IMAX theatre with 3D objects between you and the screen, and you’re the actor,” says Nicholson. “The world exists as a 2D backdrop, and as you get closer, you start seeing depth. The closer the objects are to the camera, the more important it is that they be 3D.”
With a virtual backlot at their disposal, directors can create their own shots. “I can pan from the Champs Elysee to the Eiffel Tower,” says Nicholson. “But another filmmaker might want to move from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the River Seine.”
Stargate uses Alias Maya 7 to extract the lighting map from the environment, which then becomes the lighting map for any 3D object in the environment. Nicholson notes that the virtual backlot can also use 2.5-D elements by multi-planing 2D objects, cutting them out and painting the background behind them.
Stargate Films is now working on expanding the number of virtual backlots available to directors. Though the library is fairly extensive, there are many more cities, monuments and environments to shoot. They’re currently shooting all over Los Angeles to capture the elements required for a virtual backlot to support Raines, a procedural crime TV pilot with a healthy dose of the supernatural, for director Frank Darabont. “We’re doing time-shifting during a scene, so it’s changing from day to magic hour to night in the middle of a shot,” says Nicholson. “In many instances, because of Virtual Backlot, you don’t need locations or sets. And it looks exactly like you’re really there.”