Motion picture technology company Magicbox has created a complete volume studio onboard a 42-foot semi-trailer.
Virtual production studios are popping up across the globe as the latest solution for safe and cost/time-effective TV and movie production. This method replaces on location shooting and, by utilizing all-encompassing LED walls (often called “volumes”), is fundamentally changing the way motion pictures are produced.
For major TV series productions like the Star Wars-themed “The Mandalorian” (Disney+) and “Our Flag Means Death” (HBO Max) these virtual production studios have proven invaluable in creating stunning backdrops and immersive environments for live action motion picture productions. The virtual production process involves creating photorealistic 3D environments, then displaying them on the walls of these LED volumes. Then the actors perform inside the volume in front of the LED walls, and the footage the camera captures looks like it has been shot in that location.
However, as Brian Nowac, Founder and CEO of San Francisco-based motion picture technology company Magicbox found out, these increasingly popular virtual production studios can cost tens of millions to build and require a suitably large space with extremely heavy power capabilities to build them. He started Magicbox with the intent of building studios like this but quickly had second thoughts.
Virtual Production Hits The Road
Taking cues from technology companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, Magicbox decided to miniaturize and mobilize the LED volume to make it more cost effective to build and eliminate the need for a location. Twelve months later they launched a 42-foot “Mobile Virtual Production Superstudio™”—a semi-trailer that transforms into a LED volume in less than ten minutes to enable crews and actors to utilize virtual production wherever and whenever they want “one-hundred times faster and at about a 10th of the cost of a fixed LED volume of the same size.”
“By the time I realized the costs and time required to build a giant LED volume it didn’t make business sense,” said Nowac. “But I wanted to make this technology available to every level of production, so, I came upon the idea of a mobile studio. If I miniaturized the LED volume, I could build it cheaper. And if I put it inside a truck, I didn’t need a building. So, I solved both of my problems with the building of a virtual production studio on wheels.”
This mobile virtual production studio could also make it easier for productions to use this technology. Magicbox would just bring the LED volume to the production company wherever they were. The prototype Magicbox Mobile Superstudio™ was finally assembled in April of 2022, when it was delivered to Stargate Studios in Pasadena, Calif. There Nowac worked with Stargate Studios Founder and CEO Sam Nicholson ASC (a virtual production pioneer) to test, and experiment with it to gain an understanding of what motion picture producers working inside and LED volume needed in a solution. Nicholson worked on the original Star Tek movie, in which virtual production was used extensively, and more recently served as Virtual Production Designer for the HBO MX TV series “Our Flag Means Death.”
“I wanted Sam to test out Magicbox,” said Nowac. “With he and his team’s feedback, I’d modify the prototype every week, adding new elements to make it work better and easier for the customer. Over the summer I developed a rich understanding of what the market was looking for in terms of a virtual production solution. We see Magicbox as the next evolutionary step in virtual production capability.”
The volume inside the 42-foot semi-trailer features 1.3 pixel pitch Unilumin LED panels and is broken up into four flat LED surfaces that are configured to create a box shape, unlike the curved walls the larger virtual production studios have.
“We learned that a curved wall in a small volume does not work,” he said. “It actually bends the image too dramatically and your lines appear curved instead of straight. So we flattened out the walls. We call it a forced perspective production environment because you always shoot against the main [back] wall.”
All The Comforts Of Creative Freedom
The LED volume inside Magicbox consists of an LED ceiling, and three LED walls —a main display wall and two side articulating walls that can be moved to reshape the volume to individual requirements. The company simply drives the Magicbox to the desired locations and, Nowac said, it takes less than 10-minutes to open the truck and get it ready for production.
“Magicbox is the only virtual production system that I have worked with that can set up, shoot, and strike in a 12-hour day," said Stargate’s Nicholson.
The Magicbox also includes agnostic camera motion tracking. Camera integration takes about five minutes to configure. The tracking system allows them to “keep the tracking system’s configuration even though we are transforming the shape of the truck. We can then connect just about any camera on the market to track its motion within the volume almost instantly.”
The mobile studio also features a custom-built supercomputer for the massive amount of rendering and compositing that is required. Silverdraft is the company that’s building the compute stack, which is powered by Nvidia RTX A6000 graphics processors. They are also using AMD Threadripper processors. Threadripper is among the highest-performance desktop processors, with up to 16 cores and 32 threads.
The software running on the system includes Epic Games Unreal Engine, Pixera for real-time image mapping to the walls, Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve, and the full suite of Adobe creative tools.
Full Connectivity To The Cloud
Magicbox also includes its own 5G connectivity allowing users to send data in near real-time to and from the cloud and for collaborating with other people located anywhere in the world. This wireless connection also enables the truck to be remotely operated from anywhere if required.
Nowac said he thinks the prototype design will ultimately be embraced more by event production companies and used as a stage for performances, music festivals, and other live events. But the second generation Magicbox being revealed this April at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) trade show in Las Vegas will be designed for exclusive use by the motion picture and video production industries.
“We’re accessible to just about any production budget,” He said. “Because of our price point, our ease of use, and the suite of services we’re providing, you’re going to see a lot of adoption from customer segments who could not afford virtual production until now.”
See It At NAB
Since September 2022, the prototype Magicbox, now known as the “Gen 1.0,” has been making the rounds demonstrating virtual production for Hollywood studios and big tech companies in Silicon Valley, and they like what they’ve seen. The company’s first client will the NAB Show in Las Vegas, where the Gen 1.0 will be used as the Inspiration Zone event stage at the heart of the Central Hall. At the opposite corner of the Central Hall the Magicbox Gen 2.0 mobile studio will be revealed in booth C8938, in what Nowac says will be “a marvel of modern virtual production.”
The Magicbox “Gen 2”, is larger at nearly 52-feet and can handle more complex virtual productions. All of the insight gained at Stargate Studios last summer has now been incorporated into this new model, which Nowac said was heavily designed around capturing “Car process” shots, that is shooting scenes for commercials, TV and movies that take place inside moving cars.
Magicbox’s new mobile volume stage has appeared at several gatherings in California, this one on the Paramount Studios lot, and will be on display at the upcoming NAB Show in Las Vegas.
Virtual Production Is The Future
“I believe that we’re going to see a lot of traction with shows that need “car process,” he said, adding that he is now talking to several shows that produce a lot of shots inside cars for TV shows and movies. “So, the Gen 2 truck has several features designed specifically around car process, because that’s where we can offer the most value to motion picture producers. Magicbox is a safe, reliable, fast, and cost-effective solution for car process shots.”
Reflecting on why virtual production is so popular, Nowac said potential cost savings and ease of use are certainly motivators to adoption, but those are not what is going to make the technology stick with big time producers.
“Virtual production in some form has been around for 100 years,” he said. “It’s not a new idea, it’s just a new way to do it. I think what going to make the use of the LED wall stand out as a prominent method of doing virtual production for decades is not the acceleration of production time, or the reduction of cost, but I believe it’s the ability to expand creativity almost infinitely. Anything you can imagine you can digitally create and put up inside that LED volume, and instantly have a live action production take place in that location.
“That kind of power is tremendous for everyone involved,” Nowac said. “This unrestricted creativity is what’s going to keep the LED volume in the production toolkit for a long time, and we’ll be there to deliver it straight to their doorsteps.”
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