LED Stages Are Suffering Because of This Filmmaking Blunder

LED stage on 'Bullet Train'
'Bullet Train'Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing
The popular form of virtual production is hitting some bumps, but why? 

Virtual production and cinematography have recently gone through a massive change. Thanks largely to The Mandalorian successfully making waves in the industry for its inventive use of an LED stage and virtual production pipeline for filming, many productions want to use virtual production toolsets in their workflow rather than a traditional approach. 

These LED stages have become one of the fastest-growing areas of visual effects and production technology, expanding from three stages in 2019 to roughly 300 stages in 2022. Unfortunately, the industry’s quick jump to these types of stages is revealing a massive flaw in many productions. 

An industry observer tells the Hollywood Reporter that the business, tech, and creative models for these pricey LED stage installations require more understanding from filmmakers before the stages can be used to their full potential. 

Filmmakers' lack of prep is why LED stages are facing growing pains
'The Mandalorian'Credit: Lucasfilms Ltd./Disney+

The problem with oversaturating the market 

The installations of LED stages are starting to clog up the virtual production pipelines. 

Miles Perkins, the industry manager of film and TV for Epic Games and maker of the Unreal Engine used in virtual production, reports that the rise in capacity comes from investments from studios, stage complexes, and VFX companies. 

Oscar-winning VFX artist Ben Grossmann estimates that the cost to build an LED sound stage for virtual production can cost between $3 million to $30 million. It depends on the size of the LED wall and the structural engineering needed to retrofit the stage. 

This hefty price doesn’t account for the media that is projected onto the LED walls, which is the most expensive element in the process. “You could start spending a lot, very quickly, on the content,” Grossman says. 

Filmmakers' lack of prep is why LED stages are facing growing pains.
'Thor: Love and Thunder' Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Any film or TV that would have used a green or blue screen is now opting for LED stages. Disney is relying heavily on the stages. Having already used them on The Mandalorian and Thor: Love and Thunder, the studio is set to use the stages on more upcoming projects like Lucasfilm’s Ahsoka and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. 

Other studios are following Disney’s footsteps into this new world of virtual production, with Star Trek: Discovery, Bullet Train, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis using the LED stages to heighten their CGI-based worlds. 

There is nothing wrong with using these types of stages, but the oversaturation of stages is currently unsustainable. Some stakeholders are starting to worry that there are too many on the market right now, especially when the demand for traditional soundstages is also on the rise. 

The virtual production stage at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in London, which opened in 2021 and was used for HBO’s House of the Dragon, is already shutting down. 

“Due to the high demand for studio production space, the virtual stage at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden will revert to a traditional soundstage to provide more flexibility to our clients,” a Warner Bros. representative says. This means that the company spent upwards of $30 million only to remove the LED stage after a year, making this investment essentially pointless. 

Filmmakers' lack of preparation is why LED stages are facing growing pains.
BTS on 'The House of the Dragon'Credit: Warner Bros. Television Distribution

Proceed with caution 

As I said before, there is nothing wrong with wanting to use an LED stage, but productions should understand how to work with these types of stages before throwing themselves into the deep end of virtual production.

But if a filmmaker doesn’t know this before stepping on the stage, then things can start looking bad. Unfortunately, LED stages are still a very new thing and not many filmmakers are comfortable enough to use them. 

As an anonymous source tells the Hollywood Reporter, “Some [shows] have been super successful; others were a bloodbath because people were unprepared.” 

Filmmakers' lack of prep is why LED stages are facing growing pains.
The LED stage for 'The Mandalorian' Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney+

How to be prepared for LED stages

LED stages can help control the costs, schedules, and complexities of production instead of traveling to locations. These types of stages are the perfect place for filmmakers to experiment and see what works best for their needs. 

But like with any technology, there are a few drawbacks

Cinematographer Greig Fraser, who won an Oscar for his work on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and used LED stages for The Mandalorian and a portion of The Batman, says that virtual stages “do not do midday or daytime sunlight very well,” but can be great for never-ending sunrises or sunsets. 

“If you’ve got something happening sort of in a dawn or dusk environment—what we did in The Batman in the construction site overlooking Gotham—then it works really well because you’re dealing with soft light,” Fraser says. 

While LED stages can solve some logistical issues that come with shooting on location, Fraser believes that there is a danger when filmmakers don’t understand what something is good for and what it is not good for.

Filmmakers' lack of prep is why LED stages are facing growing pains.
'The Batman'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

To help filmmakers understand what LED stages are good for and not “give virtual shooting a bit of a bad name,” Epic Games created its Unreal Fellowship, a 30-day course in virtual production. Participants apply for a seat in the course, and those who are accepted are paid $10,000 by Epic Games to complete the course. 

Since launching two years ago and partnering up with the American Society of Cinematographers and Art Directors Guild, the course has trained around 2,000 professionals. 

The Visual Effects Society is also helping filmmakers by introducing an online virtual production glossary to help everyone in the industry understand terms like “virtual production.” According to the glossary, virtual production is defined as a technique that “uses technology to join the digital world with the physical work in real-time. It enables filmmakers to interact with the digital process in the same ways they interact with live-action production.”

This definition hints at what the future of filmmaking will look like. Virtual production, be that a LED stage or performance capturing, will create an immersive experience for the cast and crew that could translate well to audiences. But to make this possible, filmmakers have to take a step back and learn as much as they can about virtual productions before taking one on. 

What do you think about virtual productions? Do you think LED stages are a fad or will they be around for a long time? Let us know what you think in the comments!     

Your Comment

4 Comments

The 80/20 rule would suggest that only about 60 of these stages are currently profitable for the studios and VFX houses that operate them. The other 240 are likely to shutter over the next several years. I wasn't aware that they don't handle midday daylight well -- though the soft light and contrast make sense. Seems to me that outside of fantasy and sci-fi projects or those with weeks of traditional golden hour shooting that the tech is cost prohibitive. Having said all of that, the LED stage is certainly here to stay. The results speak for themselves but likely will be reserved for tentpole projects.

October 21, 2022 at 8:48AM

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Ben Starkey
Videographer/Editor
81

Actually, I could see these stages as being ideal for Rom-Coms too, which often have a lot of traveling around and don't care much about "accurate" lighting anyway.

October 28, 2022 at 8:51AM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
264

I see this being driven by the same thinking that says "We'll fix it in Post" as the "cheaper" way of doing things. Rarely is that the case, nor does it look as good as in-camera. LED stages are great for certain shots, and if it's replacing a green/blue screen then we ARE getting "in-camera' which is obviously preferable.

As the recent Andor series made extremely clear: there's NO substitute for the REAL thing. They filmed a great deal of the series in the Scottish Highlands, including in and around this huge hydro-electric dam (set dressed and extended to be "sci-fi") allowing for angles and scale utterly impossible with an LED wall. It felt tactile, lived-in and REAL. This was what made the original Star Wars so successful, and that would extend to some of other science fiction greats, like Interstellar or classics like Alien (or Aliens for that matter). In some cases, painted backdrops actually work great, but when it counts, a physical set will always win out. In Interstellar they used the LED walls for all the space scenes, sure, but they also built a FULL-SCALE spaceship for all the actors to be in. All the locations were REAL on the ground, fully-built sets.

October 28, 2022 at 8:49AM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
264

It's not a fad as much as it is an evolutionary step in the development of computational filmmaking. While virtual soundstages may have limitations they also have huge advantages in allowing the producers full artistic control of the backstage on the fly. They will prosper or perish solely on the merits of their inherent technological and economic qualities.

So what's in the future for camera, lights, action? I don't know if there will be cameras, or lights but there will certainly be action and stories told in the virtual universe of a computer.

November 14, 2022 at 8:12PM, Edited November 14, 8:14PM

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Dave Palmer
Retired Electrical Engineer
368