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Virtual Set Technology: How The Mandalorian Changed Special Effects for Hollywood

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Do you know the difference between The Mandalorian and every other special effects cinematic project made before it? In The Mandalorian, the actors could see the entire world around them, even though it wasn’t there.

In most movie sets, actors have to imagine their surroundings on green screens. In The Mandalorian, massive LED screens displayed backgrounds that were made beforehand in a video game engine.

That technology is slowly taking over special effects-intensive movies in Hollywood studios. However, it is prohibitively expensive for private individuals to use it at the moment.

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An app is still the best bet in such instances. A green screen with an easy app running on your mobile device will easily replace the green screen with any video or image background of your choice. It will also double up as a teleprompter or a video editor.

Virtual Set Technology

The Mandalorian was the first major Hollywood project to use virtual set technology. The benefits that it offers to actors are only one of its advantages. This technology can make lighting more realistic and filming smoother. Also, it can be more economical than using green screens if done correctly.

How Does the Technology Work?

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The showrunner for The Mandalorian was Jon Favreau. His past work in The Lion King and Jungle Book has made virtual production mainstream. However, a lot of the final output was still heavily based on blue screens and post-production labor.

The Mandalorian had the luxury of a large production budget. So, the makers could experiment with LED wall technology. The basic concept of this technology isn’t entirely new.

For example, during the car chase scene in James Bond’s “Dr. No,” footage played behind the actor in the car, giving the impression of a high-speed chase. That was how special effects were done before the green screen became mainstream in Hollywood.

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However, this technology was limited. For example, if you wanted to pan the camera during the shot, the background would not move.

That is the biggest advantage of virtual set technology. Artists create a realistic 3-dimensional background using the Unreal Engine. The background moves in sync with the camera’s frame. This is known as the frustum. It allows the background to shift according to the camera’s field of view.

The Parallax Effect

When objects in the background move at a different speed compared to the foreground, it is known as the parallax effect. Virtual set technology lets motion-tracking cameras create that effect within the virtual set. It gives the impression that the shooting has taken place on location.

The Lighting 

One of the biggest disadvantages of green screen technology was the lighting issue. Post-production happens several months after the actual shoot in big-budget motion picture projects. It becomes difficult to match the lighting on the day of the shoot to the lighting in post-production.

The light from the LEDs provides reflections inside virtual sets. They also provide the kind of lighting on objects that are indistinguishable from reality.

Spill Effect

The entire set is covered in green walls when you shoot with a green screen. In reality, you would have different colors reflected on you by different kinds of objects. On a green screen set, it’s just a lot of green reflection. The reflection is known as a “spill.”

When you build a 360-degree environment around all actors, you can create realistic lighting. You no longer get a green reflection on actors’ faces or clothes.

More Economical in the Long Term

When you are shooting with LED walls, you can create large and small environments in the same space. You don’t need to swap segments of the green screen. It allows savings in terms of time and space, which are directly reflected in the budget.

The initial investment in virtual set technology is much larger, but the running costs are low.

Artists can change the virtual world at a moment’s notice. Fill lighting, color, exposure – all of it can be changed without worrying about the time of the day. Objects large and small can be moved in the background without having to rebuild anything.

It Leaves Less to the Imagination

Actors don’t need to imagine where certain objects are when they shoot. They can focus on the blocking and performance instead. It saves the crew several retakes.

There are benefits for the director of photography too. The DOP no longer needs to guess where a background object needs to be if a frame-up is necessary. He can seamlessly transition from the actor to the background to create a story point.

The Future of the Green Screen

The Mandalorian crew used 360-degree led walls to shoot their scenes. Yet, they had to use green screens in certain shots. But, they were used in conjunction with LEDs.

The crew could pinpoint certain portions of the LED wall and turn them green. The combined use of the green screen and virtual set technology has its advantages. They can only make a small part of the background green. This will prevent lighting issues in post-production. At the same time, it will allow editors to add new elements.

Shooting with explosives is still a problem with led screen walls. For such scenes, the crew has to resort to traditional methods so that they do not damage expensive equipment. Although green screens may not become completely obsolete, their use will certainly be limited in the days to come.

The Volume

The Volume, a nickname given to the set design used in The Mandalorian, has been revived for Antman 3. Even the ceiling was covered in massive LED screens in The Volume. To get into the set, the cast and the crew had to use doors made of LED.

If this brief on the wonders of virtual set technology sounds interesting to you, don’t forget to catch Antman 3, which will be out in the theatres soon. It is going to make use of this technology like never before.

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