Virtual Production has been a major buzzword for the last several years as filmmakers get more and more excited about the possibilities of a live digital background.
Working on a virtual production means having a computer live-generate your background to appear on a screen behind the characters. This means you can put your characters wherever you want in the world, but unlike traditional green screen work, it happens in realtime, live, in front of your eyes.
This saves tremendous time and effort in post, and it also allows for more creativity on set. Since you can see the shot live as you shoot, you can make decisions on framing and blocking, allowing you to collaborate more organically with the virtual environment. For a certain slice of production, it's incredibly exciting.
Of course, it isn't cheap. The most famous virtual production was The Mandalorian, and the full setup for the StageCraft stage apparently cost more than $100 million. Of course, it can be used on more seasons of the show or rented to other shows, but that is a large investment and not likely something most of us will get to use anytime soon.
That's why it's exciting that a more affordable platform for similar productions has just been released, the ARFX Home Studio from ARwall. For $9500, ARwall will set you up with a box running their software and a puck that you attach to your camera for camera tracking. You provide the TV, and you can be doing virtual production from home with a pretty turnkey, user-friendly system.
We attended a virtual demo of the product and were impressed at its functionality and simplicity. By using the puck to track the camera, the system knows where the camera is, and as you move the camera around, it redrew the background behind the lead performer perfectly. The background operator was using a normal keyboard to change things like the background, where you were looking, lighting, and even bokeh to replicate shallow depth of field. The user interface was only a few simple settings, not a host of menus. From launch, it comes with a host of virtual backgrounds, and more will be available over time. It was pretty impressive, especially considering the price point.
Of course, there are going to be limitations. The primary limitation with the current setup is the screen size you can access. While 84" screens are quite common under $3000, when you want to go larger than that, the price starts to go up wildly. This isn't ARwall's fault, of course, they just built the box that powers the screen, not the screen itself, but it is a limitation. The demo I viewed was done on an 84" screen, a very common "big" screen size, and it worked just fine for close-up shots and medium shots. Going to a wide wouldn't really be possible unless, perhaps, you were working with children.
Because of this framing limitation, this tech currently feels more focused at home broadcasters and streamers. However, we filmmakers love taking a tool not quite built for us and finding a way to put it to use.
For this technology to get really useful for filmmakers who love a wide shot, we need bigger screens. To get there we are likely looking at either projection or bigger monitors. Bigger monitors are of course coming but aren't going to get big enough and ever be cheap. Affordability comes from volume, and I don't see a world where 20' TVs are selling in big numbers. So projection looks like the more likely option, which is less than ideal but not impossible. Projection has issues with brightness, since projectors are often pretty dim, but with a camera good in a low light situation, and perhaps with an ultra-bright screen, it might be possible to do something interesting with this technology in that way.
The company themselves have a 19' x 19' LED screen in its Burbank testing facility and have been doing some interesting work even at that screen size. Those likely remain out of many users' reach as far as purchasing but are definitely something within reach for renting.
So why should an independent filmmaker consider purchasing a unit? One reason is realizing that it's often useful to become the master of a toolset you can afford and then scale up your skills. Many colorists working on high-end systems in top facilities started with a home setup. Many folks in 3D started with independent rigs, got skills, and graduated to bigger jobs.
ARwall has a toolset limited by current screen sizes, but within those limits, you can do very, very cool stuff and those skills you develop will likely serve you well on larger projects. There are going to be a lot of interesting jobs you can do on this scale, and that expertise could help build connections.
One scenario that jumps immediately to mind is easier pickups from big productions. Let's say you did a full budget virtual production on a major stage that cost full rate, then in the edit realized you needed to change some dialogue but can't afford the full stage again. Since you can port over the same virtual background, an ARFX Home Studio setup might allow you to shoot pickups easily without getting that stage time back.
I've worked on countless jobs where we wanted to change a line of dialogue and we either had to go all the way back to the location, or build a virtual match for it. Using the same virtual backdrop again, maybe even from a setup in the post house where you can then cut it in immediately and see if it works, sounds amazing. In fact, it seems like something some post houses might investigate for this kind of pickup and insert work. Need a close-up of the keys dangling from the lead actor's hands? Have the original digital background? Very useful.
There is also another option, which is if you own a stage and you want to find ways to extend the use of your space. Investing in something like this kit and a projector for your white cyc might allow you to fill some of the dead days in your facility, especially since this would require no build time. It could literally be a single day rental, which is often tricky to fill (most shoots need prep and wrap time).
The ARFX Home Studio might not be something we all rush out and buy, but it's exciting that this tech is coming closer to our smaller budgets and the ease of use I saw in the tech demo was encouraging. These kinds of tools are absolutely something to be paying attention to.
Again, the ARFX Home Studio setup comes in at $9500 and is expected to begin shipping this fall. Check out more atthe ARwall website.