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The Social Experiment to be one of the first virtual productions in Germany


- First-time director Pascal Schröder has been shooting his feature in a newly opened LED studio in Hamburg

The Social Experiment to be one of the first virtual productions in Germany
On the set of The Social Experiment by Pascal Schröder (© Detlev Klockow)

In one of the first virtual productions in Germany, Hamburg-based first-time director Pascal Schröder, producer Andreas Schlieter and DoP Daniel Schua have been exploring the opportunities of virtual production. Inspired by Disney’s The Mandalorian series, they have been shooting their first feature, The Social Experiment, in a newly opened LED studio in Hamburg. “The great advantage of this technology is that there are no limits,” says Schröder. “It is possible to put any set that you can imagine on screen.” Together with scriptwriter Raffaela Kraus, he developed the idea for a story about an escape game, as it gave them utter freedom in terms of style.

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During the lockdown, many LED screens remained unused because big events couldn’t take place any more. “Virtual production brings the film industry together with the event sector as well as the games industry,” says producer Schlieter, co-founder of Hamburg-based outfit Gipfelstürmer Filmproduktion. The Social Experiment was shot over six days in the studio, where sets for the Moon, the desert and an icy landscape were created. The backgrounds are based on Unreal Engine templates, which were then adapted. “The challenge is to create a seamless transition between the digital LED screen and the analogue foreground,” explains DoP Schua. “For the scenes on the Moon, we managed to create a smooth transition between digital and analogue through our light design.” Indeed, the LED screen emitted so much light that it was used as an additional source of illumination.

By operating the camera on a Technocrane, the camera team didn’t leave any footprints in the sand or the snow, so there was no need for this to be fixed in post-production later on. Instead, virtual production requires careful planning at an early stage. One challenge was that the virtually generated sand had to look like the real thing on the studio floor. This hurdle was overcome through colour matching.

“We wanted to tell a story with the tools of virtual production and test the boundaries,” says the director. “If you never try, you will never know.” In the film script, there was a car-chase scene with action-packed stunts, which couldn’t be achieved against a virtual background in the studio. “We only had a radius of nine metres in which the actors could move.”

Whether virtual production makes sense for a production depends on the story. “The advantage is that we can shoot more efficiently in a studio environment and don’t have any travel costs,” concludes Schröder. “In the morning, we can shoot in China and in the afternoon in the USA.”

The size of the LED screen used for the virtual background and the studio also dictate the limits on what kinds of shots can be achieved. A virtual production stage with the largest LED “volume” of its kind in Europe has been built at Studio Babelsberg. Backed by Netflix, Dark creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar are shooting the new mystery series 1899 [+see also:
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on the virtual production stage there (see the news). The new, cutting-edge LED technology enables filmmakers to capture complex visual-effect shots in camera through virtual sets and locations created with game-engine technology.

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