‘The Mandalorian’, without practically expecting anything from her, ended up being revealed as a real delight; A sensation that evolved constantly growing during its first ten episodes, and that has increased even more if possible in a second season that is raising the levels of spectacle and charisma with episodes like ‘The Marshall’.
Its scarcity of dialogue, replaced by an extraordinary narrative courtesy of Jon Favreau, its iconic soundtrack composed by the Swedish Ludwig Göransson, its expansion of the ‘Star Wars’ universe or its – for the moment – simple and direct plot are some of the reasons what do they do worthy of all possible praise.
But if something has made him fall asleep before the Disney + series, that is his visual bet. A technical and aesthetic treatment that screams “cinema” from the rooftops and that hides behind it a revolutionary technology known by the name of Stagecraft and that it could turn upside down the panorama of television productions – and perhaps cinematographic ones – from this moment on.
During the next few lines, and after researching the system – and smiling like a kid watching a magic show while doing it – I am going to explain how Stagecraft works, the possibilities it offers to filmmakers, cinematographers or production designers, and the multiple benefits that contributes to a shoot.
Cutting-edge technology born in the 30s
Rear projection used in ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’
In order to understand the concept on which the bases of Stagecraft are built we must go back to the 1930s, when the technique known as rear projection began to be used.
This visual effect placed the actor or actors between the camera and a screen, behind it a projector that reproduced a fixed or moving image previously filmed on it. In this way, shots with different types of backgrounds without leaving the recording studio.
Although the idea of rear projection had been conceived before, it was not used for the first time until 1930, when Fox premiered his feature films ‘Lily’ Y ‘Just Imagine’. Until then, the technology could not be used due to the need for cameras and projectors capable of synchronizing their shutters, and the lack of a negative with which the projected image could be more efficiently exposed – this would be the Kodak panchromatic.
From that moment, rear projection was used in productions of all kinds, extending to contemporary feature films such as ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Aliens: The Return’ or ‘Terminator 2: The Last Judgment’, and was progressively evolving towards techniques like Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation or the more sophisticated frontal projection.
The future now
Finally, this evolution of rear projection has led to this year 2019 and the aforementioned Stagecraft. But how exactly does this almost futuristic sophistication of a technique work a decade away from its centennial? To answer this question, we must move to “The Volume” – “The Volume” –.
Volume is the name given to the physical space in which Stagecraft is shot. This space is composed of a physical or real ground —For example, a sandy surface with stones like the many found in the desert places of ‘The Mandalorian’— and three huge LED panels with 4K resolution – known as Render Nodes – located to the left, right and above the ground, the latter as a sky.
The result of these different surfaces is still a kind of cube cut in half that allows space to place the technical team in front of the “stage”. And with all these pieces in place, that’s when the magic happens and the heritage of rear projection enters the scene.
In this case, the projection of a previously shot image onto a screen is replaced by loading a CGI 3D scene, generated with the Unreal Engine 4 graphics engine – commonly used in the video game industry – that is displayed in real time in the Render Nodes. But be careful, because there is still more. Much more.
Once the image is being projected on the LED panels that serve as stage and sky, its X, Y and Z axes are automatically synchronized with those of the physical camera with which the relevant scene will be shot. When the camera moves, the stage will react accordingly to the movement of this as if it were a plane in a real location. Witchcraft.
All are advantages
But the benefits of Stagecraft are not limited to the possibility of shooting in the most varied hyper-realistic scenarios without the need to leave the comfort of a set. Furthermore, the invention in question allows filmmakers and cinematographers do scouting of locations from “inside” the digital environment using a virtual reality set.
Once equipped with the goggles and controls, filmmakers can access the render, scroll through it and even modify the geography and scenery; changing rock positions, varying textures, repositioning objects … An almost infinite source of options that the filmmaker can approve thanks to a virtual director viewer with which to plan frames simulating lenses of all kinds from the VR kit.
However, beyond this versatility, the great virtue of the Stagecraft may be related to its interesting treatment of light. And is that it is the LED screens themselves that serve as the main source to illuminate, starting with the one on the ceiling – just as in an outdoor shoot it would be the sky – and ending with the two verticals that surround the set.
So that, the light will affect the stage and the actors in real time along with the camera movements, varying depending on the position of the Sun in the render – something also modifiable – and allowing adjust different parameters of the colorimetry of the scene such as shades or saturation, all through an application installed on an iPad.
Stagecraft also allows load presets with specific lighting situations for the same stage. Sunsets, sunrises, nights, days, different weather parameters … all of them can be modified and will make it possible to shoot – and Terrence Malick would have liked this already in ‘The Tree of Life’ – roll in an eternal magic hour.
To finish off the play, in case we do not like the “natural” lighting of the render or are insufficient, LED screens allow you to add virtual “spotlights” of different types to add to the ambient light, being able to vary its color temperature, its size or its hardness. Something essential to create specific effects, reinforce backlights or add nuances to the characters or tangible objects present in The Volume.
There were many of us who were perplexed when we learned that Each episode of ‘The Mandalorian’ was going to cost Disney a whopping $ 15 million, but after knowing the benefits of Stagecraft, this amount does not seem so exorbitant.
And it is that more than a whim or a new digital romp by Jon Favreau, this way of shooting the new spin-off of ‘Star Wars’ seems rather the definitive test in the face of an investment in the future which will grant both Disney and anyone who can afford to checkout the ability to move to impossible environments with three screens and a movie camera. I still have a hard time believing it.
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