Each year, the Set Extension Workshop brings together students from the fields of animation/visual effects, camera and production design: In just three months, the interdisciplinary team creates a VFX short film - from brainstorming all the way to post-production. Under the guidance of lecturers David Maas (Production Management), Tonio Freitag (VFX, R&D), Thomas Stammer (Production Design) and Thomas Merker (Camera), 15 students got started in October. This year the workshop focused clearly on the integration of technological innovation, as the visual effects were realized with an LED wall instead of green screen technology.
Read on to find out what challenges the team had to face.
Production: Jiayan Chen, Saskia Stirn
Animation/Visual Effects: Yasmin Wetzel, Dominik Girod, Vincent Maurer, Caroline Keulertz
Cinematography: Konstantin Pape, Bo-Christian Riedel-Petzold, Paul Nungeßer, Nikolaus Schreiber
Production Design: Ann-Kathrin Eberhard, Lea Karina Winkler, Anna Vehres, Nora Balmer
A young feisty woman breaks into a gigantic, mystical library full of floating books, the final level of a video game she is playing. Looking back into her past, she has a last task to solve by overcoming the rigid rules of this world.
The use of high-definition LED screens on just launched a small revolution in the film industry. Instead of shooting in front of a green screen and adding backgrounds in post-production, digital imagery is brought directly on set with the help of large display technologies. This makes shooting more flexible and precise, and opens up new creative scope in many areas (The LED Screen Revolution). "Already being able to try out Virtual Production, which is still in its infancy, was fantastic. As Director of Photography, it allowed completely new ways of designing in terms of lighting, cadrage and camera movement," states camera student Paul Nungeßer.
In addition to new possibilities for image design, the innovative technology also brings new workflows. Tonio Freitag explains, "Shooting with the LED wall shifts a lot of the usual post-production work before the shoot, so all decisions concerning the digital background had to be made much earlier and had to be well communicated. Production design and camera had to have their concepts worked out as early as possible so that the VFX students could start creating the assets. The time pressure before the shoot was therefore much higher than in a classic green screen production."
On top of that, the team's lack of experience with LED technology meant that techniques and procedures had to be learned quickly and tried-and-true processes had to be adapted over and over again. Producer Jiayan Chen says, "New technologies can often simplify production with accelerated workflows, reduced labor and high-quality output. But they can also be a challenge to integrate and plan with. During the intensive production process, it quickly became clear that we needed to develop an iterative workflow to solve unexpected technical issues within a short period of time. You need enough time to test solutions, evaluate test results, and then refine and adjust the production plan. This was very challenging. On the one hand, keeping close communication going between departments, and on the other hand, implementing changes and decisions quickly and effectively."
Animationsinstitut's Research and Development department initiated the use of the LED wall, implemented it technically, and also helped oversee it during the Set Extension Workshop. Different technologies came to use, such as motion capture to track camera movement or the VPET toolset developed at the institute to interact with digital assets on set.
Adapting to the digital set, the production design department also faced special challenges. "Since the LED wall is rigid, our set had to be very flexible. It wasn't easy to adapt a set to an LED studio in such a short time," notes production designer Ann-Kathrin Eberhard. VFX Supervisor Vincent Maurer also struggled with the tight schedule: "The VFX had to be finished in the short time frame from pre-production to shooting and run in real time in the Unreal Engine. I developed a control panel for on-set control in addition to the classic VFX work, which was another challenge on its own."
Although shooting in the LED studio was new territory for all workshop participants, the students look back proudly on their learning experience. Director Dominik Griod appreciated the good cooperation between the different disciplines and the opportunity to take on project-based and at the same time challenging roles. "One should not underestimate one's own ability to quickly learn a new software under time pressure." For Paul Nungeßer, too, the team's supposed inexperience turned out to be a huge opportunity: "To the question 'How can we implement this?" the answer was often 'Let's figure it out.' Many of the solutions implemented on set I couldn't have dreamed of at first: From tablet control of the Unreal scene, to virtual depth of field with Loled Virtual, to DMX programming of all the LED lighting units. Thanks to our head lighting designer Konstantin Pape and DMX operator Steffen Lechner, we had numerous innovative tools that made our work easier. And with all these challenges, we were able to rely on the strong support of the staff of Animationsinstitut and Filmakademie, especially Tonio Freitag, who, despite the difficult Covid conditions, worked indispensably to make the workshop."
The Set Extension Workshop is an integral part of the curriculum at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg and takes place in the first three months of each winter semester. The interdisciplinary teamwork enables students to benefit from the diversity of artistic positions and competencies within Filmakademie and to learn from each other. Team building and, above all, the personal development of each student are the main focus of the workshop. The final film of this year's production will be presented during the semester presentations in March.