Written by Kent Matsuoka on Feb 9, 2022. Posted in Contributors

Location Filming in a Post-Pandemic World

I recently got an opportunity to visit Disney's new Infinity Stage last week at their Burbank lot to witness a demonstration of ILM's StageCraft technology made famous on The Mandalorian. As illustrated in the image above, being Angelenos, we were all bundled up in our puffer jackets for the 60˚F cold-for-LA morning. However, soon we were transported from Burbank to New York, and halfway around the world to the tropical Maldives in the space of a couple mouse clicks, all without any of the hassle of flights and visas, or worrying about fluctuating currencies and political strife.


Obviously, there are still limitations to this technology, but as we have seen with Lost, the availability of enough diverse elements helped establish Hawaii as a viable production centre able to cheat Australia, Iraq, Korea, Los Angeles, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom through the magic of digital set extensions. Orca Studios in Spain understands that need for the Canary Islands to remain viable involves an ability to accommodate those brief one page establishing and flashback scenes in order to land larger productions. The group has invested in developing an LED 'volume', what ILM calls the LED video wall used to create realistic environments for actors to interact with.



When I first started in Hollywood, the creative advantages of filming on a practical location was often weighed against the cost of building a set on a stage. If it was cheaper to take the company out into the real world than it was to build out a whole new set on stage, we could easily justify the tens of thousands of dollars in location and permit fees involved.


Although this thought has been supplanted in the past decade by an increasing dependence on VFX to stretch the production budget, ignorance of its limitations can greatly affect the cost of such a decision. In the best case scenarios, VFX was used to extend a practical location by camouflaging its physical limitations, as opposed to creating a whole new world in the digital space, thereby exponentially increasing its cost compared to practical alternatives.


On one hand, you gain the scale and scope of shooting in a practical location that you cannot recreate on a stage. On the other, you have absolute control over the environment, freedom to remove walls for camera, and the lack of worry about upsetting neighbours with late shoots or complaints from home owners for irreparably damaging their property.



An option that had been used in the past by USA’s Covert Affairs was the use of the VFX crew already hired to shoot plates of various international locations for the digital set extension. By bringing along one of the show’s actors to practically shoot the actor at the location in question for an establishing shot, they acted as a splinter crew without the cost of traveling the full production and three-ring circus that it brings.


They found that the production value of physically filming the character in the actual location greatly enhanced the scope and quality of the scene, and was offset by the reduced time in post paring the first unit foreground element with the VFX unit background plate shots.


With the progress in virtual set technology, that line has been blurred even further. Only a smaller splinter crew is necessary to go out to shoot the plates necessary to project the location on the volume (often with the ability to access smaller or more sensitive locations that a full production crew could not), while the bulk of principal photography could be done within the confines of a controlled studio environment with far less cost to build out a set.


Amazon's Glenn Gainor was instrumental in developing Sony's own proprietary Innovation Studios before his move. He pointed to the increasing difficulty to control a practical location and the potential loss of historical landmarks such as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris for posterity as a driving factor in his pitch, “archiving the world” as he called it—creating a bank of real world assets that could help filmmakers be “in two or three locations in one day.”


As location fees in congested and sensitive neighbourhoods can easily reach in excess of USD100 thousand per day, coupled with lingering covid concerns of bringing 200 cast and crew into a strange neighbourhood or travelling to another country, the appeal of shooting virtually suddenly seems more viable.


Does this mean the end for location mangers and film commissions? Far from it, but as Army cavalry forces learned after the development of mechanised armour in World War I, they were forced to adapt in order to remain relevant.


For Location Managers, someone still has to scout the locations and facilitate the acquisition of plates for the shots. As long as they remain a part of the conversation, discussing how and why shooting practically might be advantageous, as well as knowing when the desire for a popular tourist attraction, mission critical military asset, or fragile historical location might benefit from a small plate crew and principal photography shot virtually, they will still serve a purpose. Simply letting the VFX team lead the conversation and handle plate acquisition is a great way to move in the same direction as Kodak and Blockbuster.


The need to acquire plates and update them as both your region & technological requirements grow is where film commissions can still play an important part in this equation. Sure, Hollywood will pay to get and keep frequently filmed locations 'on file'. However, iconic locations not previously accessible due to tourist traffic — or remote and ecologically sensitive locations unable to support a production crew  — could be acquired by the film commission itself, utilising local crew, with licenses sold to the studios for their use to go back into the community and the commission’s coffers. For rural communities blessed with a unique physical location yet at the same time lacking a significant local crew base or hotel beds, this now presents an opportunity to reap such revenue and expand their viability to Hollywood. Sensitive military assets that normally require security clearances to access could be archived and controlled by the government, with military photographers or veterans with clearance trained in plate acquisition gaining a useful skill they can take forward when transitioning back to the civilian world.


Orca's Adrian Guerra has planned a multi-prong strategy, archiving plates of Spain and the Canaries to be licensed for use on virtual stages in Madrid and Los Angeles, as well as providing the virtual stages. He elaborates: “Besides the obvious uses for sci-fi/fantasy environments, this technology is accessible for smaller productions. We can avoid small locations where a director is only going to shoot half a day or time spent at certain locations that are very expensive or have limitations like a hotel or hospital, where you can create your own.”


With a perfect storm of enduring hesitation for gathering in public spaces with strangers, a continuing building supply shortage, and companies such as Netflix and Amazon rewriting the Hollywood-centric business model with smaller niche properties focusing on smaller demographics and smaller budgets in third areas outside traditionally accepted production centres, I expect to see leaner productions with greater acceptance of virtual sets in the future, so the sooner we understand how such productions operate, the better the chance we will continue to evolve with the industry and remain relevant.


The increasing costs of filming on location and the impact to the community is always a concern for location professionals and film commissioners who sometimes mistakenly believe that VFX is either stealing their work or otherwise a quick and easy fix for difficult practical effects. Meanwhile, many VFX artists bemoan the unpredictable nature of practical locations and additional work it can create.


In reality, the best visual effects supervisors and location professionals understand that the best results are reached through collaboration, and a basic understanding of each other’s craft can yield dividends in cost savings to the company.


Kent Matsuoka is a Hollywood producer and location manager. His work includes: Hawaii Five-0, War for the Planet of the Apes, Bumblebee, and the upcoming feature Jamojaya.



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