Multi-Camera Rigs Shoot Live-Action Settings That Become High-Quality Virtual Environments

For ambitious TV programming, Stargate Studios is one of Hollywood's go-to VFX facilities. The company was founded in 1989 by Sam Nicholson (pictured, top), a cinematographer and special visual effects supervisor who got his feature-film start building kinetic lighting effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and won a Primetime Emmy for Nightmares & Dreamscapes in 2006. Stargate can deliver a wide variety of VFX shots, but it has become known as an expert in green-screen environments, helping TV shows credibly set scenes in distant locations without leaving Hollywood.

Watch the company's most recent demo reel, below, to see a sample of its work, including Emmy-nominated VFX for Pan Am and The Walking Dead.

We asked Jason White, a producer at Stargate, about the latest additions to Stargate's evolving arsenal of image acquisition tools. Among the company's most recent purchases are a number of Sony A7s mirrorless cameras that Stargate has been using since February for capturing elements or background plates for 10 different shows—NBC series Heroes Reborn, Telenovela and dramatic pilot Love Is a Four Letter Word, Disney Channel movies My Invisible Sister and Further Adventures in Babysitting, Showtime series House of Lies and Ray Donovan, the TV Record (Brazil) miniseries The Ten Commandments, the NBC/Sky TV miniseries Apocalypse Slough, and TNT's Sharon Stone drama Agent X.
The A7s appealed to Stargate not only because of its 4K capabilities, but also its celebrated low-light capture abilities. "We have to shoot a lot of plates, and often we'll need to get a large variety at a certain location so a network show or movie can have a choice of day, night, or dusk, so we need that variation in sensitivity from the sensor," White explains. "Being able to shoot with the A7s and get all those times of day, with everything still looking good, was important to us.

"And, yes, we are always shooting 4K. Given that most things are still delivering in HD, having the extra resolution to play around in allows us enormous flexibility in post."

nine-camera-rigBut the A7s didn't become a viable camera until February, when the company got its hands on the Shogun Atomos monitoring and recording system, which Stargate decided was the most mobile and cost-effective recording option for a rig with multiple 4K cameras. "We were able to pair them up as soon as the Shoguns became available," White said. "We've got several dozen SanDisk Extreme Pro SSDs, ranging from 240 GB to 960 GB, that we rely on for all media recording. We send them out with single-camera rigs, three-camera or nine-camera circle rigs, or split into four- and five-camera or three- and six-camera configurations." 

A single camera shoots standalone plates, while a three-camera rig captures a 180-degree panorama or a driving plate and a nine-camera rig (pictured) features eight cameras arranged in a circle, with one pointing up to capture picture data for reflections.

A common complaint from early Shogun users has been that reflections on the unit's screen make it hard to read in bright lighting conditions. We asked White how his team has been coping. "The screen is a bit reflective," he agreed. "But since we have our Shoguns separate from our cameras, we can usually angle them away from the sun, or they are in our vehicles for our driving plates. Turning up the brightness also works, but that does drain the battery. A few of our supervisors have bought the Atomos Sunhoods for the Shoguns and have had great success."


Depending on the show, Stargate captures footage at either ProRes HQ or ProRes 422. "For every 240 GB, the 422 gives us about 15 more minutes of recording time, so it does add up if we need to get a lot of plates," White says. "And with a SanDisk Extreme Pro 960 GB SSD, that's over four hours of ProRes 4K on a single card." The footage comes back to Stargate's IO department, which offloads everything to Stargate's network drives, where the files are accessible from the company's offices in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, and the UAE.

Stargate is happy with the set-up, and is considering buying a few more Shoguns. "[Atomos] is comfortable and flexible enough that they're willing to work with us on whatever we need, whenever we need it," he said. "The same goes for SanDisk. They've been extremely reliable for us."