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Implications of "The Volume" and why it's here to stay

Implications of "The Volume" and why it's here to stay

Recently, I've seen some articles speaking out against ILM's LED Volume technology, saying it is inhibiting creativity by forcing filmmakers to think entirely inside of a 70' diameter space.

The Mandalorian came out in 2019, and I'm honestly surprised it's taken this long for these kinds of articles to come out. Usually when there's some kind of new technology in film--digital, 3D (color and sound as well, I'm sure) there are always people who are quick to naysay. I think LED Volume technology, however, is a little harder to wrap your brain around--so it takes a little longer to fully understand the implications of it.

I work in the virtual production industry, I've been a consultant and VP supervisor for a few years and we're opening a large LED volume in Chicago in just a few weeks. We're already talking with some huge shows about it, and the interest only seems to be picking up speed. However, this technology absolutely does have some pretty major downsides:

  • Limited physical space

  • Screens are delicate (rain/pyro/snow/stunts are tricky or impossible)

  • Calibration of the system takes ages

  • Off-axis artifacts with DoF and color

  • Moire pattern when focused on the screen

  • Absurdly expensive (even for the film industry)

So why, then, has this industry absolutely exploded in popularity over the last couple years?

Is it because it's cheaper? Well, yes and no.

If the alternative is shooting on an actual location, an LED volume will almost certainly be basically the same cost. That is, your bottom line number will be equivalent. Now, obviously, it's cheaper than actually going to the moon for real, so it's not really possible to make a blanket statement on cost.

What is possible to make a statement on, though--is how it affects production.

You've seen articles recently about how overworked the Marvel VFX artists are. You've seen articles about people dying in car crashes from overwork. You've seen articles about the insane hours we all put in. I can tell you, from firsthand experience--this isn't even scratching the surface. The filmmaking process is brutal, there's no nice way to put it.

Sometimes you get to work on something great, and being able to say "I helped make that," is an amazing feeling--but the truth is, this industry has changed. The majority of productions happening are not epic cinematic masterpieces. They're cookie cutter movies and quickly made shows to fill streaming services. Dedicating your life for 9 months to a mediocre project that everyone hates is the fast lane to burnout and depression.

The LED Volume is the answer to this problem. This technology allows shooting days to be shorter, it allows them to be far safer, and it enables this while increasing the creative options available to the crew (if they can accept the limitations.) The ultimate promise of virtual production is not just cost savings; it's life savings.

There is something to be said about shooting on top of a mountain, or the bottom of the ocean. After all, we're in the business of showing audiences things they've never seen before! But at a certain point, the returns diminish--and the audience, frankly, stops caring. I know that sounds depressing, but if 95% of people can't tell the difference, if the crew is happier, and if the studio is able to get their content, it really is a win for everybody.

Now, I do want to mention that literal billions are being poured into R&D for this technology. It's only going to get better, and many of the limitations we face today will be solved in the future. It also will never replace location shoots, as there will always be scenes that simply can't be done in a confined space (car chases etc.) We've really just begun to scratch the surface of what we can do with virtual production.