Disney Studios and Lucasfilm division Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) has been at the forefront of technological advances in filmmaking since its creation. Whether it’s CGI technology, new animation techniques, or the first use of motion control cameras, these studios have always been innovative in their approach to creativity and technology.
With the release of the Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney +, the buzz around their latest advancement has come to the forefront once again, as The Volume is looking to become a staple of the film industry going forward.
What is The Volume?
The Volume is the LED immersive soundstage that Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Mandalorian are both filmed on. An almost 360-degree stage of seamless LED panel screens and a ceiling, The Volume was first built at Manhattan Beach Studios in California for the first season of The Mandalorian, before being rebuilt and expanded for season two of the show. Now there are replica set-ups of The Volume being built across the world, from England to Australia.
Filming people in front of a moving background isn’t new technology. It’s been used practically since movies were invented, usually for driving scenes where it’s not feasible or safe to have a camera on the car as the actor drives along. What makes The Volume different is that it uses a variety of technologies, including Unreal Engine and Helios, to change the background in real-time as it’s being filmed. The process of using the stage and integrating these technologies and special effects with the filmmaking process is known as StageCraft.
How Does The Volume Work?
Ask any gamer about real-time rendering and they’ll probably start telling you how awesome it is that you can customize your character and the game’s world while seeing these changes play out in the high definition cutscenes in a game, rather than viewing pre-rendered footage with the default character and world. The principle behind The Volume works in a similar way, and Unreal Engine, which is used for much of the real-time rendering, started out as a video game engine before being used as part of StageCraft.
Before filming on The Volume, the team needs to already have a virtual backdrop set up, whether that be entirely made from scratch in CGI, layered images and footage of real scenery, or some combination of these methods. Unreal Engine then allows for this pre-made background to be digitally manipulated as filming is occurring, whether that’s changing the lighting, changing layered objects in the scenery, or even changing the position of the background on the screens. A team of on-set visual effects artists and engineers called the Brain Bar work to make sure the backdrop is perfect, and can usually customize it as needed in just a few minutes. This technology also allows for camera-tracking to change the background as the camera itself moves, giving a more photorealistic look to the shot.
Currently, most Hollywood movies and shows use green screen effects to substitute for backgrounds when a production can’t be filmed on location. By putting actors and some props in front of a green or blue covered wall, it’s possible to then digitally substitute the single-colored wall for anything or anywhere in the post-production process. This technology has been used in everything from the Star Wars prequel trilogy to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it has been refined for decades.
Green screen has many limitations, not least of which is the extensive post-production time it requires to implement, as well as the difficulty that comes with lighting scenes while avoiding “spill” reflections, and the challenge of matching filming to environments added in later. With The Volume, this post-production process is instead switched for creating the backdrops in pre-production, the lighting off the LED screens matches the set to the actors, and environments are visible to all while filming is taking place. This doesn’t mean the end of green screen technology completely, as even The Mandalorian still uses it for select scenes where only part of the environment needs to be substituted, or where special effects or stunts would put the expensive screens at risk.
Is The Volume The Future of Hollywood Filming Technology?
Despite the great visual results The Volume produces, it’s easy enough to assume that the cost can be prohibitive to any shows, movies, or studios that don’t have the budget and resources of a giant like Disney. And while that is true for the time being, there are other factors. For starters, The Volume means that less on-set location filming will be required, meaning that rather than trekking out to Tunisia to film the next Star Wars episode on Tatooine, it can be done in Manhattan Beach Studios. This saves not only airfare and the cost of moving crew and equipment, but it also means it’s impacting the environment significantly less. And, as anyone who bought a computer in the 90s can tell you, the more popular a piece of technology becomes and the more mass-produced its components are, the cheaper it gets over time.
In the history of filmmaking, the industry has always strived to find ways that work better, whether it be better special effects, better cameras and equipment or better filming techniques. From a technical standpoint, The Volume is better than green screen technologies, and it is becoming more widely available, with more studios building their own immersive LED screen soundstages. While it may not ever make green screens completely obsolete, The Volume is definitely the way of the future.