Short Film ‘Away’ Shows XR’s Vast Potential

ICVR’s railblazing game engine tools launch worlds of possibilities — in filmmaking and beyond

Imagine filming in different locations without ever leaving the studio — and in a fraction of the usual time. Imagine creating entire worlds on set that look exactly as you picture them, without physically building every component. Now step out of your imagination and into the reality of interactive content creator ICVR.

ICVR used its groundbreaking new XR (extended reality) tools to create the award-winning four-minute film “Away” in one day in a single studio. Here’s how the team, including Gro Creative (on-set production) and ETC (production equipment), pulled it off.

XR Stages: Full 3D Environments

Combining physical and virtual elements on a film set isn’t new, of course. Green screens and editing software allow anyone with a computer to make movie magic these days. But XR stages go way beyond a screen rolling in the background. “One of the biggest misunderstandings about XR is the confusion between shooting 3D virtual environments on an LED wall versus flat plates,” says Chris Swiatek, virtual production producer and cofounder of ICVR. “These are not flat plates being shot and captured in camera. These are full 3D environments.”

Artistry meets technology in these 3D environments, also called LED volumes. The result: photorealistic scenes without the need to create all the elements physically or add extensive VFX (visual effects) in postproduction. And ICVR’s tools, using Epic Games’ open-source 3D creation platform Unreal Engine, allow a level of detail never before possible. The technique is still in the dawning stages but shows immense potential for countless applications beyond filmmaking.

The Process

1. Preproduction

The “Away” team flipped the traditional moviemaking script on its head, starting with virtual environments and building the narrative to fit them. “Content development starts with the creative vision,” Swiatek says. “What exactly is this environment going to be, and what’s it going to look like? What purpose is it going to serve?” The film’s post-apocalyptic setting led to two virtual environments: a large forest with varying terrain, and a multilevel cyberpunk city. 

Next up: building 3D assets to fill the environments, as well as pulling from existing asset libraries. The 3D assets for “Away” included trees, a wrecked plane and neon signage. Minimal physical assets brought into XR Stage’s Los Angeles studio, where the film was shot, included leaf piles and a few trees. 

Following asset creation came blocking, or figuring out roughly where to place those assets. Then the team fine-tuned the virtual set based on the actual shooting points. This involved adding umpteen details for realism and testing how everything looked using the actual hardware and LED walls.

Previsualization came into play here too — “the process of going into the scene that you’ve created and starting to use virtual cameras as well as stand-in characters,” Swiatek says, “to start planning your shot setups and your camera positions.”

2. Shooting

As you might guess, creating environments in a game engine on a small screen is one thing; shooting realistically using an LED volume is quite another. Challenges included making the camera perspective realistic, showing the movement of the character’s journey on a fixed stage, and hitting the standard 24 fps (frames-per-second) film format with such highly detailed 3D assets. Bring on the creative thinking and technical know-how.

First, the team used inside-out camera tracking to shoot. “A camera is attached to the camera that’s looking up at a constellation of infrared markers, which give it its placement on the stage,” says Jay Spriggs, XR systems integrator. “And then we’re also feeding zoom and focus data into that camera so that the Unreal Engine can understand where it is, what the lens characteristics are, and be able to reproduce that.”

While that might sound dauntingly technical, the solution for conveying the journey’s movement on a fixed stage was surprisingly not: The actor walked on a treadmill while the virtual set traveled a path through the city. The team matched the speeds of the two actions to create an effect similar to using a camera dolly.

As for hitting the 24 fps rate, swapping in a photo sphere for some of the 3D environment did the trick, allowing the LED processors to perform optimally.

While those challenges required creative solutions, they’re dwarfed by the advantages of working on an XR set.

3. Advantages of XR Sets

  • Quick scene changes. Traditional scene changes in filmmaking can take a lot of time, but “it only took a matter of moments for us to flip production from the cyberpunk scene to the forest,” says Scott Kelley, director of “Away” and cofounder of Gro Creative. 
  • Endless possibilities in one space. “Everything is in one location,” Kelley says, “and within that location you can change the worlds any way you want it…. The options are limitless.”
  • LED screens supply lighting. The screens provide many leverage points to light naturally — no separate, extensive lighting system needed.

And these advantages extend well beyond filmmaking. “It is really hard to conceptualize the vastness and fidelity that these LED volumes offer until you see it in person,” says Madeline Donegan, executive producer of “Away” and cofounder of Gro Creative. “This technology is going into the mainstream pretty soon, and it has a variety of use cases across many many industries.” Commercials, music videos, news and talk shows, interactive theater and location-based entertainment are just a few possibilities.

“Away” has won five Telly Awards, honoring excellence in video and television, and is being screened at film festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Check out the full four-minute video on YouTube and watch the behind-the-scenes film here

The film hasn’t just won honors, though — it has opened the door to a new world of visionary possibilities. It “really is such a powerful example of what you can do with virtual production,” Swiatek says. 

ICVR’s “AWAY” Named Winner of 5 Telly Awards

ICVR’s short film “AWAY” has been named the Winner of 5 Telly Awards in Non-Broadcast category in the 42nd Annual Telly Awards. The Telly Awards honor excellence in video and television across all screens and is judged by leaders from video platforms, television, streaming networks, production companies and including Netflix, Dow Jones, Duplass Brothers Productions, Complex Networks, A&E Networks, Hearst Media, Nickelodeon, ESPN Films, RYOT, Partizan, and Vimeo.

Established in 1979, The Telly Awards receives over 12,000 entries from all 50 states and 5 continents. Entrants are judged by The Telly Awards Judging Council—an industry body of over 200 leading experts including advertising agencies, production companies, and major television networks, reflective of the multiscreen industry The Telly Awards celebrates.

The awards are:

  • 3D Graphics/Animation: Non-Broadcast (Gold)
  • People’s Telly: Non-Broadcast (Gold)
  • Visual Effects: Non-Broadcast (Silver)
  • Entertainment: Non-Broadcast (Bronze)
  • Use of 3D Animation: Non-Broadcast (Bronze)

“AWAY” was made to explore the storytelling possibilities in the new environment that is virtual production on LED volumes. At this intersection of gaming, animation, and filmmaking, ICVR was able to put together its creative expertise and technical know-how by creating this short film using Unreal Engine in one production day.

“In the media and entertainment industry, many have rushed into adopting and expanding the use of game engines and LED volumes in virtual productions. The main hurdles we noticed and wanted to solve were the high up-front cost of these technologies and the lack of technical knowledge of how to achieve certain shots and motion on LED volumes. So, we collaborated with the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, XR Stage, and GRO Creative to address these hurdles during the creation of AWAY.”

Sinan AlRubaye, Head of Growth at ICVR.

 

This announcement caps a year-long celebration of creators defying limitations by embracing platforms to increase awareness about injustices and promote solidarity for movements, as well as geographical, like developing fully remote pipelines for dispersed teams.

The full list of the 42nd Annual Telly Awards winners can be found at www.tellyawards.com/winners.