Short Film ‘Away’ Shows XR’s Vast Potential

ICVR’s trailblazing 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

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.”

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.

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.

Tostitos 5 Ways to Cinco: Case Study

Challenge: Tostitos’ 5 Ways to Cinco commercial features 4 distinctly different locations and times of day. Shot traditionally, this would have required 2-3 days of shooting, and 6-8 weeks of VFX work in post-production. ICVR was hired to figure out a way to execute this project in one shoot day and minimize the post-production work through use of an LED volume and Unreal Engine.

Execution: ICVR used Unreal Engine to create 4 photorealistic virtual environments. We worked with Director Brigg Bloomquist to virtually scout the locations, block out shots, previs the shot setups, and visualize the virtual set in relation to the practical set and camera. On the shoot day, ICVR’s virtual production team operated the LED-wall, and managed content deployment and playback through Unreal Engine and Disguise.

Results: ICVR successfully achieved the goal of shooting the full commercial in one day, saving a tremendous amount of time vs. practical shooting and traditional post VFX. The client was extremely satisfied with this time and budget savings, as well as with the photorealistic quality of the environments and reflections. For the production team, it was incredibly useful creatively being able to visualize the final frame live on-set and make quick on-the-fly adjustments to the virtual environments.

Remote Working – Tips & Tricks from an International Company

The COVID-19 pandemic is limiting the way we interact as human beings, and impacting every facet of our society. For businesses, this means teams working from home as employees follow the practice of social distancing.  For many who are not used to working remotely or don’t have existing processes set up, this shift can be very challenging and present difficulties when it comes to working effectively.

Because ICVR is an international team split between two continents, over the last 3 years we’ve built our business inherently based on digital communication channels and quickly onboarding new employees into our system. I want to share here some tips and suggestions on how to make the process of having your team home smoother.

Core Pillars: Communication, Processes & Discipline

Communication

Encourage efficient conversation between team members – there are a lot of tools today on the market to chat, call, share and collaborate on documents.

  • Slack or Microsoft Teams
    • Great communication tool for instant messaging, easy to separate communications into project focused channels and threads.
  • Zoom / Hangouts / Skype
    • Run group calls and scrums using either of these tools, and encourage screen sharing when applicable to explain and discuss more clearly.
  • Google Drive: Docs & Sheets, and Confluence 
    • Good ways to collaborate real-time on documents together with your team. Google Docs & Sheets give you ability to edit & comment on documents without sending documents back and forward and reduce time needed for direct calls.

Processes

Instill clear processes for self management and task distribution and make sure the team understands and follows them. Use task tracking tools to clearly assign tasks and communicate. It’s very easy to lose action items, for example, in a 25 email thread. 

  • Asana, Trello, Monday 
    • These are all great solutions that provide an easy way to manage and distribute tasks between team members. It’s important that every member stay on top of updating their tasks.
  • Jira & YouTrack
    • These are some great solutions for teams & projects that require more powerful and full-featured task tracking, but can be more difficult to onboard new users who are not familiar with them. Do research and pick what is best for your project, because switching halfway through a project is never fun.

Discipline

Make sure to keep your communication channels, cloud storage and task trackers organized and up to date. This is the responsibility of each employee, and of project managers to remind people as they’re getting up to speed.

Although working remotely allows for more flexible hours, it can lead to big communication issues if team members have schedules that don’t synch up (especially across time zones). Plan around this and create a clear shared schedule between the team with as much work hour overlap as possible. Schedule daily calls within this window to keep communication going.

3 Rituals to keep everything running smoothly:

Ritual 1: Weekly Planning

The team starts with a single list of tasks (broken down as granularly as possible) planned for the projects (we call it a backlog), sorted by priority. When team members make the weekly plan, they pull items off the top into a “Sprint backlog” and assigned to each team member. Some key things to remember:

  • Estimate the scope or difficulty of each task using time, and make sure team mates have enough time during the week to complete tasks. 
    • The person assigned the task should be doing this whenever possible rather than having an arbitrary or unrealistic deadline imposed by management. 
    • Task time estimation is a skill that needs to be developed. The more you do this, the better you will become at doing it accurately. Adjust future estimates by looking back previous ones and seeing where the discrepancy came from.
  • Measure your task completion velocity – the number of tasks completed in previous sprints – to provide a guide for the number of tasks that can be completed in the current sprint.

Ritual 2: Daily Standup/Huddle

Once per day the team gathers for a “Standup” meeting. No phone or other activities allowed, and the meeting must be as short as possible, so everyone can go back to work. Feel free to impose a time limit per person of a few minutes to help with this. Each person is required to say:

  • What I did since the last standup meeting.
  • What I am working on and will do today. 
    • Pay attention to this, because often people are not working on the top priority, or they get stuck on one task. If you have a different priority, this is a chance to ask them to switch.
  • Needs, roadblocks, and problems
    • Encourage everyone to be as honest about this as possible. Oftentimes people are afraid to admit if they are having issues or roadblocks and it’s important to identify them as quickly as possible. Even management should do this.

Ritual 3: Retrospective

After the sprint / work period is completed, the team does a quick “retrospective” to discuss what can be improved in the next sprint. It is a good idea to schedule these discussions on a regular basis, and constantly work to improve team productivity and happiness. Management should record this feedback somewhere and use it to inform future decisions and inspire changes. You can also use a happiness survey, anonymous questionnaire, and so on depending on what works best in your unique environment.

Some Other Tips & Tricks

No single system can be one-size-fits-all for every company, and it’s important to constantly evaluate your communication structure and see what you can improve on. Some of the little things we’ve done along the way include:

Onboarding Employees

In a virtual work environment it’s easy for new team members to feel like they’re just getting thrown into the deep end. For the first week, and intermittently after, a manager should have dedicated daily calls with new employees to check in and answer questions. This helps to imitate the onboarding training employees would get in a physical workspace and make them feel like part of the team.

Limiting Private Messages

Once, when slack sent statistics about our workspace at the end of the month, we realized that over 80% of messages sent were through private messages. Private messages restrict transparency of information, leads to miscommunications and having to repeat things, and makes people feel more isolated.

Team members were encouraged to keep all communication in public channels, even if they were just asking a question to one specific person. Responses can be nested in a slack message thread, and other team members can benefit from this information if applicable.

Help Desk Channel

Similar to the above point, all technical questions and general issues are asked and answered in a dedicated channel. Then, whenever anyone else encounters a similar issue, they can search this channel and view previous responses saving everyone time.

Daily Company-wide Task Announcements

All team members are required to share at the beginning and end of each day a one line message in a dedicated channel. This lets people know what’s going on in the company, even in other departments, and helps build a feeling of one connected office.

Don’t Forget the Human Element

This one is really important and often overlooked when working remote. There is an organic social element that arises in physical offices that allows people to connect on a human level independent from work. Make an effort to facilitate this whenever possible. 

  • Spend a minute at the beginning of calls asking how people are doing, and what’s going on in life. Meetings don’t all have to be straight-to-business and impersonal.
  • Management should have a virtual “open door” policy where team members can come to them whenever they need to talk about something
  • Encourage team members to play some online games or something similar together after work hours 
  • Have an off-topic “watercooler” channel where members can share cool links, funny memes, and so on