THE END OF GREEN SCREEN?
WILL IMMERSIVE LED’S AND AR PORTEND A NEW ERA FOR IN-CAMERA CAPTURE AND VFX?
BY DEBRA KAUFMAN
ACCORDING TO HOLLYWOOD LORE, SPECIAL-EFFECTS ARTIST LAWRENCE BUTLER CREATED THE FIRST BLUE SCREEN TO PULL A GENIE OUT OF A BOTTLE IN RKO’S 1940 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. BUTLER WON AN ACADEMY AWARD FOR HIS INNOVATION, AND SINCE THEN BLUE SCREEN AND, LATER, GREEN SCREEN BECAME THE GO-TO TECHNIQUES FOR PLACING ACTORS IN FAR-FLUNG OR FANTASTIC ENVIRONMENTS.
Now, Hollywood technologists have pulled another genie out of the bottle – immersive large-screen LED displays and augmented reality – that may well replace (or at least alter) the use of green screen and similar longstanding processes. Industrial Light & Magic, 24Frame Studio, Production Resource Group and ARwall are just four of the companies finding such alternatives. If you’ve been to a sporting event or concert recently, you’ve seen immersive LED screens, which are now beginning to find a home in the entertainment industry. For years, LED screen resolution – measured by so-called dot pitch, which is the distance between sub-pixels – has been too low and its cost too high to use in lieu of green screens. But that’s beginning to change.
Augmented reality is another green screen alternative in the nascent stage. Both ARwall chief executive Rene Amador and chief creative officer Michael Plescia have VFX backgrounds and were quite familiar with green screen. “For the last five years, we’ve been hitting our head on the capacity of green screen,” Plescia admits. “Nothing has come out that is making a huge difference in what it’s capable of. When you’re painting hair out frame by frame, you’re thinking there’s got to be a better way.”
“Our interest in [augmented reality] began years ago,” Amador adds. “We noticed that the idea of spatial sensing and spatial technology – which some people call immersive – could be used for more than motion capture.” at idea crystallized with the advent of the Wii game platform, which allows the user to change the perspective on the screen via a controller, followed by Microsoft Kinect for Xbox, both of which relied on game engines for real-time movement.
“I began to see it wasn’t a fad, and I thought it had the potential to get on set,” Amador describes. More powerful GPUs from Nvidia and AMD accelerated the development cycle of necessary tools, and the ARwall partners worked closely with LED manufacturer Matrix Visual to create a screen that is 20 feet by 12 feet tall, with a dot pitch of between 1.8 and 2.6 mm. Virtual-reality expert Leon Hui came in as technical director to handle latency, and William Hellwarth is working on an interactive tool designed for directors to manipulate the background behind actors.
“Our core technology is all software that sits on top of any game engine,” says Amador, who currently uses Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. “ The data tracks the motion of the camera as it moves,” he explains. “Once the calculation of the camera’s position is made, a ‘secret sauce’ calculates skew and distortion for the image from the camera’s perspective.”
Amador notes one of the upsides of AR for backgrounds. “People abandoned rear- screen projection for green screen so they could move the camera,” he says. “But anything that changes the position that displays parallax is when it gets complicated and can increase four-fold in price. Productions have to decide which shots can move, and the rest have to be locked down. Green screen incentivizes productions to lock down the camera.”
Apparently Hollywood agrees. Amador reports that, despite how nascent his company’s technology is, the firm just signed a contract with a major motion-picture studio.
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