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PRG OverDrive Revolutionizes Cinematography

by Mike Wharton • in
  • April 2018
  • Features
• Created: April 12, 2018

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A camera test on the set for the feature film, Umpire. Images courtesy PRG

    House of Cards might not seem the most likely place for a seed of an idea to germinate and revolutionize an industry. But that is exactly where PRG’s technologists, under the direction of Brian Edwards, PRG’s president of North America television and film sales, deployed the “immersion environment” and interactive lighting system cinematographer Claudio Miranda ASC had envisioned. This system is known as PRG OverDrive.

‡‡         Automotive Origins

Previously, Miranda had turned to the PRG team as a source for new technology and expertise. On one occasion, a car commercial required plates from Asia to be projected on a prototype car in an America sound stage. Miranda collaborated with PRG to use LED tiles to create interactive lighting, an Mbox media server to drive the Asian content and the PRG technical staff to operate the system. All of this technology and know-how combined to create reflections and interactive lighting on the car to simulate motion. David Fincher was directing and quickly saw the creative flexibility and control the PRG system afforded.

Fincher went on to direct the pilot episode of House of Cards and convinced the producers that the burgeoning technology was the answer to the complicated DC driving shots. No process trailer and road closures needed — the hero cars and actors were neatly positioned in a converted Baltimore warehouse.

PRG OverDrive offers cinematographers and lighting directors the flexibility to use LED video tiles and lighting fixtures to create digital interactive lighting effects, reflections, and plate shots in an easy and flexible way, in real time. Using LED panels to provide digital fill light on talent or vehicles paired with a high-resolution “hero wall” LED screen for the background, allow filmmakers the ability to create “in camera” lighting and motion effects while shooting on a stage.

Cameras catch the actors “driving” through the “countryside.”

‡‡         Screens and Motion

OverDrive is an entire concept, mostly used in car process work, or any mode of transportation for that matter, be it bus, helicopter, plane or spaceship. Instead of strapping the vehicle onto a flatbed trailer and pulling it down a street, the vehicle can stay stationary in the studio where light, time, temperature and noise are all under the filmmaker’s control.

Cinematographer Shelly Johnson speaks to his experience with the OverDrive system on the film Category Five. “Shortly after I was hired to do the film, Rob Cohen, the director, told me we had about 35 pages of dialogue to shoot in a storm-chasing vehicle going after a hurricane. He couldn’t really afford to drive through practical storm effects; whatever that would take, and he did not want to use green screen technology. He asked me to come up with a way to do a live composition of the storm.”

In Johnson’s research, he found PRG. “They seemed to be the best supplier since they had screens that were versatile and wouldn’t strobe. We have different demands for these types of screens in the movie business, because we need screens that will photograph well, not just look good to the eye, but actually photograph with a predictable result. By far PRG had the best screens.”

A second film unit captured a hurricane storm in Florida and sent the files to PRG. “The PRG crew then came to our warehouse,” continues Johnson, “and set up the OverDrive system around the storm chasing vehicle on the stage. We were able to create realistic driving shots in camera driving through this environment. The added advantage is that these screens are so bright; we were able to light the scene with the actual images. The finished result looks very natural and “un-Hollywood.” Because the images are moving, the light is constantly changing inside the vehicle just like it would in a practical environment. You are basically doing a live composite. In the film business, that is somewhat revolutionary.”

PRG OverDrive provides realistic looks for actors to respond to, in real time.

‡‡         Completing the Scenes

In the past, green or blue screens were used as a backdrop to the action being captured in principal photography on a soundstage, rather than shooting on location. A second unit is shooting on location capturing images the cinematographer and director wants the actors playing in front of. In post-production those images, or plates, are inserted into the film negative to complete the scene.

The disadvantages to this are myriad. The cost of taking the entire production to the location to shoot the scene, while not prohibitive, is still a line item a producer could do without. Couple that with the cost of shutting down street sections in a city and compensating the local government and businesses for the time it takes to shoot.

In addition, with green or blue screens, actors have nothing to react to. Finally, and certainly most important to the cinematographer, who has done everything he can to make sure the scene is lit to his satisfaction, loses control of the image when post production does the composite editing. Reflections on the glass, mirrored surfaces and actor’s faces need to be “painted” in post. With PRG OverDrive, these are no longer concerns to the cinematographer.

“In relying less on green screens, coupled with today’s trend to use less visual effects and create more “in camera,” adds Johnson, “this plays right into that need in the film business.”

‡‡         Live Stage to Motion Pictures

“Those early discussions between Brian and Claudio were the first time we got our head around the idea of this immersive experience,” stated Zoe Borys, who does business development for feature film and television at PRG.

Very high resolution LED screens were out of reach, but the 11mm stealth screen was available and, when driven by the PRG Mbox Media Server, Edwards and the PRG team saw an opportunity to expose the feature film and TV industry to the assets PRG normally deployed in the live entertainment. Coupled with PRG’s production values and their global presence, he felt the time was right to push the new technology into the market.

Now with the advancement of high resolution LED, the 11mm tiles have been replaced with 2.9mm tile capable of 4k content playback. This high-resolution tile allows for direct shooting of the LED wall eliminating the need for green screen shooting.

‡‡         A Range of Solutions

In terms of the products used for the OverDrive process, a lot depends on conceptualizing the idea with the cinematographer, visual affects director, production designer, and director, as to how angles of camera are going to shoot into the windshield of the vehicle. The 2.9 to 3.2 mm pixel pitch provide the best image for in-camera scenes, while 9mm tiles are often used for lighting the action and the actors.

All productions start with a storyboard, of course, be it hand-drawn, a mechanical drawing or PowerPoint. After determining the size, make, and model of the car being used, PRG creates a Vectorworks drawing and plot in design to figure out what the camera angles are with the reflection.

“When we talk with the cinematographer,” says Borys, “we first try to determine whether they are looking for reflections that would occur from the lit scene or looking to create content that will feed into the LED wall that puts the actor in that virtual space.”

Reflections from LED screens on film, Category 5.

‡‡         A Dynamic Light Source

Kramer Morgantheau ASC, cinematographer on The Darkest Minds, was aware of PRG OverDrive and reached out to Borys and the PRG team, hoping to give the new technology a try. “I was looking for a way to make car scenes realistic without actually shooting out on the road, which can be really impractical.” The film, Morgantheau notes, is practically a road movie with a lot of scenes of teenagers inside cars driving across the country.

“Green screen can look fake, and towing a vehicle has its problems.” Morgantheau says. “The solution really is using these super high-res screens both as a background plate and as a light source. By using different resolutions, depending whether in the shot or not and their Mbox media server, PRG’s board operator really dialed it in. Driving scenes in movies always have logistical problems; PRG has come up with a really clever solution for them.”

In the recently released Tupac Shakur film, All Eyez on Me, the city of Las Vegas was recreated in a Baskin Robbins warehouse in Atlanta. Rather than move the entire production to Las Vegas to get the necessary outdoor scene shots of the Las Vegas Strip at night or send a second unit to get the shots, the production hired David Smith, owner of drivingplates.com. Smith’s business operates much like the Getty Images service — he has a library of over 3,000 shots, or “plates,” which he licenses out for periods of time.

Smith utilizes a camera package attached to a vehicle, and as it passes through any particular environment, the cameras capture front, back, left, right and upwards (sky) views. The plates are then uploaded to PRG’s proprietary media server, the Mbox. These are adjusted to meet post-production’s standards. In this instance of All Eyez on Me, Vegas had grown and changed quite a bit since the Tupac murder, so post production edited out objects rather than adding to the content.

PRG technology puts a motorcycle on a bridge.

‡‡         A Team of Collaborators

The preparation that goes on before cast and crew are assembled for filming a scene with OverDrive involves a great deal of direct collaboration between PRG, the cinematographer, visual effects people, the director, and gaffer. “We ask them to organize files by the protocols we set in order to get fed the information systematically,” say Borys.

“Then we upload those files into our Mbox media server, and make sure that the frame rate runs correctly with the LED and the camera, so there is no problem with pixels and moiré artifacts,” says Borys.

The objective of such intimate work serves many uses on many levels, most importantly that is to have everything “shoot ready” the day everyone comes together on set. “No one is wasting time waiting on media files to load the day of the shoot,” points out Kerry Keenan, the Atlanta PRG project manager who worked with the Tupac movie production crew.

PRG has more than 172 patents and 70 trademarks (and counting), which are used across the entertainment spectrum from Broadway to Hollywood. PRG’s innovation is driven by gaps they see in technology on the market to client-specific requests. “As a technical production company, PRG’s mission is to support creative producers in integrating the technology necessary to accomplish their visual or creative goals for the production,” said Edwards.

Obviously PRG OverDrive was much needed in the film and TV industry, saving time, cost and post-production effort as well as allowing for more creativity for actors, directors and cinematographers.

For more information on PRG OverDrive, go to www.plsn.me/PRG-OD.

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