Why the future of film is fake
There is a romance to movie locations. I travel to London from Surbiton station, in Surrey, and the wait for a train is lent an unexpected glamour if you know that one of the waiting rooms was used in a Harry Potter movie.
And that’s nothing – people’s desire to see where their favourite films or TV programmes were made has spawned a whole industry. You can take a Muggle tour or a Game of Thrones Tour. The London Film Walk takes in locations from such blockbusters as Thor, Paddington and Mission: Impossible. There’s even a website that lists details of planned shoots for fans of shows like ITV’s Endeavor for those people who want to spend an afternoon watching Shaun Evans and Roger Allam say the same five sentences 28 times.
Enjoy these quirks of connection with the films and shows you love because their time is short. Movie locations will soon be a thing of the past thanks to the Volume, the high-tech successor to the “green screen” that is becoming a fixture at every major studio - from Pinewood to Fox Studios in Australia. A two-storey-high cylinder made out of LED panels, the Volume was developed by Industrial Light and Magic, director George Lucas’s special effects company, and puts actors inside a 21st-century version of a Greek cyclorama.
Instead of vast sets or exotic locations, the Volume allows directors to conjure up computer-generated backdrops that “paint” the walls with fabricated worlds giving a constantly moving real-time backdrop.
Where Star Wars feature films have been shot on massive sets occupying large soundstages at Pinewood, supplemented with location work in Tunisia or Ireland, the Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian was shot in a Volume on an LA stage not much bigger than a warehouse. For producers and actors this is the future.
And it was production problems on a Star Wars film that originally inspired the new technology. Filming 2018’s Solo, scenes had to be re-shot after actors sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship struggled to react to the amazing spectacle of the fictitious Kessel Run, a light speed smuggling route, when all they could see was a green wall. (They were not the first actors to bemoan the ubiquity of the “green screen” - Sir Ian McKellan broke down in tears whilst filming the Hobbit due to the constant green screening, wailing “this is not why I became an actor.”)
Ewan McGregor, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels between 1999 and 2005, sympathises.
"After three or four months, it just gets really tedious,” he is on record as saying. “You’re talking to tennis balls, which will ultimately be alien creatures. Especially when the scenes are … I don't want to be rude, but it's not Shakespeare. There's not something to dig into in the dialogue that can satisfy you when there's no environment there.”
Skip forward 23 years from Phantom Menace, however, and suddenly McGregor is loving playing Obi-Wan in the eponymous series on Disney+ as every scene is filmed inside a Volume – as was every scene in The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and the forthcoming Ahsoka. As actors and cameras move around inside the virtual set, it adjusts to their position or to give the feeling of moving at high speed or time passing. It means actors can film almost anything without leaving the cylinder, swapping between three different worlds in a single day.
“It’s just such a gamechanger for actors,” McGregor said recently. “We were in this amazing set where, if you’re shooting in the desert, everywhere you look is the desert, and if you’re flying through space, the stars are flying past you - it’s so cool. It's like the beginning of Hollywood, when they had three-sided sets all in a row, and you would just go from one stage to the other. We're doing sort of the same thing, except just the background changes instead of the stage. And you don’t have to fly. Ever. I just want to stay at home, drive to work and have a proper job.”
Since the Mandalorian, the technology has been used in the latest Batman film – with an especially impressive take on Gotham City - George Clooney’s Midnight Sky, Thor: Love and Thunder, and even the apparently lo-fi How I Met Your Father, a sitcom about dating in New York, also on Disney +.
The show stars Hilary Duff and according to showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, the virtual set was an ideal and much cheaper alternative to flying Duff and the cast to New York to film on location. The virtual stage was able to recreate the Brooklyn Bridge without the rest of New York getting in the way.
“Ironically, the Volume was designed partly to cut costs but actually makes more expensive green screening look cheap,” says Ed Waller, editorial director of trade bible C21 Media. “Marvel films have used it - but the TV shows definitely haven't and there was a huge fan backlash over the CGI on [the Marvel series] She-Hulk when the trailer was released. UK film studios spent the last ten years investing in green-screen technology and that suddenly doesn’t look like the smartest move.”
The tech is easy to copy. Similar systems using LED screens and different software are proliferating. Warner Bros shot its Game of Thrones prequel at Leavesden in the UK using its "virtual production stage", whilst German directors Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar created a Teutonically superior version for their forthcoming mystery-horror show 1899, which included rain sprinklers, a revolving stage and two different tracking systems. Scenes on ships, in deserts, in Poland and Scotland were all shot essentially in front of a giant LED TV at Studio Babelsberg, the home of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The pandemic has given this tech a huge boost. David Attenborough’s recent Prehistoric Planet on Apple TV+, directed by Favreau, involved crews from the BBC’s Natural History Unit filming locations with a Cretaceous period vibe around the world then feeding them into the Volume, where convincing dinosaurs could act out the latest theories on the creature’s behaviour. As soon as lockdown hit, they had to work with sites in the Lake District and give them a touch up in the computer.
There will always be holdouts. Tom Cruise famously refuses to use green screen, as YouTube footage of him abseiling down the Burj Khalifa in Dubai demonstrates. Top Gun: Maverick was green-screen and Volume free. Miles Teller told interviewers Cruise “wanted all actors to be in the jets.”
There’s a handful of directors who agree – including Christopher Nolan. For Dunkirk, he had up to 60 ships in The Channel including the 350ft-long French destroyer, the Maille-Brez - a museum piece from Nantes that had to be towed using a pair of 200-ft tugs.
If he had shot that in the Volume, you probably wouldn’t have noticed the difference. But doesn’t it sound so much cooler that the little boats were actual originals used in the real Dunkirk evacuation and were piloted by the owners? For movies to be great they have to be a little bit fake, but it’s the reality that makes them magical.