How One Studio Is Thriving During COVID (and Why It’s a Big Deal for Indies)

You can now set your low-budget film as an elaborate futuristic epic/period piece/remote on-location feature… for $35.

During the pandemic, one studio stayed open when most others closed. How? L.A. Castle Studios has developed "a better way to shoot." And owner Tim Pipher believes it’s the way of the future—perhaps no more so than for independent film.

“I guess some of it comes down to luck,” explained Pipher to No Film School. His studio has been slammed with work in the midst of the shutdowns. “COVID or no COVID, we think we've got a better way to shoot.”

Pipher sat down with No Film School to explain what that way is, and why it might be the way of all productions in the future.

Three important aspects of running a COVID-safe studio

The luck that Pipher mentioned would have to do with their studio naturally being built with ample space. Their space has 12,000 square feet that allows for people to spread out, the MERV 13 air filtration, and the roll-up window. Beyond that luck, however, is the technological innovation that L.A. Castle Studios has been investing in for years, from a remote video village to an entirely virtual production with multiple 4K Cinema Cameras.

“Our studio was built to take advantage of the financial benefit of being able to shoot with small crews and save tons of money on set construction and travel fees,” added Pipher. “And it was just by luck that this is the ideal scenario to fight COVID.”

So to recap, the basic necessities for shooting currently art:

  • Small crews
  • Big spaces
  • Virtual environments

Under the L.A. Castle Studios model, you can have a cast and crew of 10 people easily. In fact, Pipher says that a single crew member can in fact run the entire set. So far, Pipher’s studio has produced anything from feature films (where the director is not in the country, let alone the room) to the BET Awards. How?

Here's how it looks to get live feed from set at L.A. Castle Studios.

First, the live feed from the set can go anywhere in the world, or to a big, open room.

“We have a gigantic video wall that has a live feed to the stage,” explained Pipher. “So crew members, executives, sponsors, cast members can all be in this huge room, all spread apart, and still have a beautiful view of the action that's taking place on stage. Instead of everybody crowding and huddling around a view monitor, everybody could be spread out 30 feet apart and still get that same view.”

Second, they use a three-camera setup for 360-degree shooting on virtual sets.

“We've probably got 200 different sets that we've already used that are all set and ready to go,” said Pipher. “We've got a virtual backlot building that's probably as big as Warner Brothers.”

One cast member, one crew member, three 4K cinema cameras and a lot of computer power.

How Unreal Engine is revolutionizing production

Small pockets of the film industry have been talking about virtual sets for years. While the idea has generated a lot of interest, it hasn’t yet been adopted on a large scale—especially on low-budget productions who could arguably use this technology the most. That’s about to change.

"It's a lot simpler than people think,” said Pipher. “There are no special filming techniques. It’s shooting just as if you were in a real million-dollar set or as if you had traveled to the South of France. You shoot with the same techniques. You light it the same way. You do the same camera movements. Everything is exactly the same, except those sets aren't really there. And when you look up into the monitors, you see the talent in that set or in that environment."

Pipher said the possibilities are almost endless.

"You can mix in as much real stuff as you want," he said. "If it's a living room scene, for example, and there's a virtual couch in there, we can either use that virtual couch and have the talent sitting on a green box, which makes it looks like they actually are sitting on that couch. Or we could just eliminate the whole virtual couch and put in a real couch.

"Let's say we're in a castle and we want to change the big throne to a drawbridge or something. They're all built to very easily change them, to add things, to take away things. We can be anywhere the producer can imagine. Anywhere in the universe past, present, or future. We're shooting for every network and entertainment company there, and it's all virtual.”

The cost of a miles-long virtual environment is... $35?

Tim Pipher has a friend who was working on the set of Star Trek in Toronto. The set cost a million dollars to build. (And that doesn’t count the cost to store it while it’s not being used.)

Just before COVID hit, the friend came to L.A. Castle Studios, where they had a virtual set-up of a space station, and expressed his disbelief to Pipher.

“He looked around, saw himself in the monitors, and said, ‘What is going on here? They spent a million dollars on the set [in Toronto]. This set is just as good, if not better.’ I told him this set cost us $35. So for $35, we've got a million-dollar set. And by the way, it’s a huge set; we could take off and run down halls. We have towns that are miles long and we can walk through every mile of that.

"So how did we get that set for $35? There is a marketplace for these sets. Most of these environmentsand there are thousands of themwere originally made for video games. And a video game designer could be anywhere in the world. It could be a 15-year-old kid or a 70-year-old industry veteran. He or she makes an environment for a video game then says, 'Hey I'd like to make it a little more money off of this. Let me post it to the marketplace and see if I can sell it a hundred times or whatever.'

"So the price on these environments is $20, $40, $60. They're as close to being free as it gets in this industry. And then when the production is over, you don’t have to either disassemble that set or put it into storage and keep paying those storage fees until season two comes along. Our sets are stored in a thumb drive. So whether it's two months later or two years later, we've got that set up and running five minutes after it's needed.”

Another example of a castle set. Here, with a spooky lighting concept that is completely customizable.

Why virtual environments can be a boon to DPs and camera operators

Wondering how working on a virtual set will change lighting and camera needs? Does the virtual set restrict the creativity of these departments? The way Pipher sees it, it only opens up more creative possibilities. 

"The lighting within the virtual environment can be changed,” said Pipher. "We get the look and the mood of that virtual environment that the producer wants. And that's the overall set lighting. Then we have a fabulous array of LED RGBW lighting, including tube lighting and panel lights, and everything else. So we can tune the lights on the talent and the props, the real stuff, to exactly match the virtual lighting and virtual environment. So if you're in a space station and there's an orange glow coming up from the floor for some reason, we can put a tube light in there, a real tube light, to get that same color orange coming up so the virtual lighting and the real lighting match perfectly.

"And of course we do the rest of it just normal, the same lighting you would do in the real world or with practical sets. And that is to make the talent look nice and to set the mood. And match the set. So if you've got a window over on one side of the set, you want to have that light coming through.

"It's exactly the same way as if you were in a practical set, but it's even better. Because say you've got a light coming through a window. You've got a light stand on a real set, you can't shoot in the direction of that light stand. With our technology, we can mask out that light stand so that it becomes invisible. And that frees up a lot of the shots.

"So not only do you save all the money, you open up all those creative doors. We can shoot 360 degrees. We can shoot away from the town. We can have the camera start looking in the opposite direction of the talent and then have the camera come around and reveal the talent in whatever the set is. If you were shooting away from the talent on a real set, you're going to see the craft services table. But here, we can mask all that out which can lead to some cool shots. That can lead to some very cool shots."

Tim Pipher and single-person crew demonstrating the ability to rack focus between real subject and Unreal engine virtual environment.

Pipher said the backgrounds can also be responsive to camera movements.

"And by the way, let me add that you get true depth of field," he said. "As the camera moves in, you can have the background go out of focus, pull back out, come back into focus. You can make things look as cinematic as you'd like. You can rack focus on things that aren't even there. If you want a very crisp background, maybe for a commercial where you want to see the client's logo crisp and clean, you can keep everything crisp back there. You have enormous flexibility that you don't usually get in the real world."

Best ways to become familiar with this new shooting style

Think this style of shooting sounds intriguing? Want to learn more to stay competitive? Here’s Pipher’s advice on what you need to know.

"Nobody needs to take any courses on how to best use it because you see everything right in the monitors," he said. "You can see if your shot looks cool. Our walkthrough video is a good start."

You can see the walkthrough below.

"You could brush up on Unreal [Engine]," he added. "You probably know somebody who's already working with Unreal, but anybody who's worked with any 3D modeling software will find Unreal to be a breeze and in a lot of ways better than what they'd done before. Go to UnrealEngine.com and check out the marketplace and see all the environments that are already made."

He also suggests taking inspiration from sets that are already there.

"You could even go to the marketplace, check out the environments, and then write your scripts around those environments," he said. "Or adjust your scripts slightly so that you can take advantage of these particularly great environments. If you do that, you've got it made because you've got your locations all set and ready to go. And then you come into a place like mine and hopefully, specifically my place, and shoot, get a big-time production in a hurry and at a reasonable price."

He said he believes this way of shooting is here to stay.

"With or without the pandemic, we think we've got a better way to shoot," he said. "I am 100% sure that you shoot now with this, or you're going to be shooting this way in five or 10 years. This is the way things are going to be done.”


Thank you, Tim!

Have you filmed in a virtual environment before or after COVID? Would you reverse-engineer a script based on a cool set in the marketplace? Please share in the comments.     

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