Bringing the virtual to life
Bringing the virtual to life
Istanbul’s MGX Film has been going to great lengths since the beginning of the pandemic to evolve the world of virtual production
In the space of just 24 months, the peripheral technologies of extended reality (XR) and virtual production (VP) have gone from relative obscurity to occupy centre stage in the world of video production. This seismic shift is illustrated particularly well by Istanbul’s MGX Studio.
Rewind to the start of the pandemic and MGX Studio was but a figment of MGX Film owner Müsvik Guluzade’s imagination. The Mandalorian had recently debuted on Disney+ on living room screens, redefining the process of filmmaking and setting a new bar for not only what was possible but for what viewers would quickly come to demand.
“ILM [Industrial Light & Magic]’s The Mandalorian project was a lesson for the whole world,” recalls Mete Mümtaz, MGX’s VP specialist. “After seeing how quickly VP technology was developing and gaining a huge place in the sector, we realised that some great projects could be made with this technology in Turkey. After a lot of market research, the necessary equipment – LED displays, processors, render computers – began to be purchased and the foundations of the studio started to take shape. Being the first VP studio in Turkey is both revolutionary in this respect and innovative in terms of being a studio that advances the largest production companies in the global arena.”
On-set VP, also known as virtual studio or sometimes XR, is increasingly being used in television, commercials and film production, using LED panels as a backdrop against which video or computer-generated imagery can be displayed. MGX’s virtualised setup allows it to create environments of any type, at any time – creating potentially huge cost savings. “Time control is the biggest benefit that excites both us and our customers,” shares Fatih Eke, CTO and studio manager at MGX Studio. “We don’t have to wait for the sun to come out, or for it to set so that we can shoot night scenes. Directors don’t have to skip shots or scenes because the weather changes. You have full control of the environment, which means no more wasting time because the conditions are not perfect.
“Budgeting is also a major benefit,” he adds. “VP is a much cheaper process than regular filming. Reducing the number of locations needed by filming using an LED volume in a studio saves on having to pay hefty booking fees at multiple locations or pay for travel between each location.”
Prior to laying the foundations of MGX, the team closely followed many VP and XR projects currently taking place. “At the same time, we established a wide network and communication with suppliers who could provide all the equipment needed to build the studio,” explains Mümtaz. “We examined software and hardware that could be useful to us in XR and VP technology and included the most optimised ones in our studio’s workflow.”
The technology behind the game-changing process that allows productions to be filmed in an immersive setting continues to see new developments each month. When MGX opened its doors in early 2021, it officially became Turkey’s first VP house. However, it also rivals some of the best technical setups to be found anywhere in the world. Its expertise in this regard has been developed organically from within. “The pandemic was at its peak, which had a profound effect on the film industry – but one that could be mitigated thanks to the advantages of VP,” adds Mümtaz. “However there were also disadvantages. During the installation process, the companies from which we purchased the equipment could not come to our studio. We had to build and learn every piece of equipment ourselves from scratch. Although this was a big challenge for us, it means that we now have a thorough experience of building everything properly, which will aid us greatly in the long run.”
The idea was that once MGX had taken its first steps in achieving the “know-how” of this new technology, it could serve as a partner to guide and help steer the technology and industry forwards. “While the advantages and convenience the technology provided was what fascinated us when we first set up,” continues Mümtaz, “our long-term vision is to bring VP technology to Turkey – to make projects with an innovative perspective and to introduce this technology to traditional film production teams. We want to show that we can do things that are normally difficult quite easily with this technology, and to show the advantages it provides to the production teams in terms of budget.”
The studio installation was completed within a five-month period, with the equipment that would power it centring around a 100m2 curved LED wall measuring 15.92m x 4m (WxH) and constructed from LDSISP02.6XR Ledeca LED panels. Additionally, 125m2 of Ledeca LED panels form the ceiling, which is used for lighting and reflections. The walls are driven by Brompton Technology Tessera SX40 4K LED processors together with Tessera XD data distribution units. The entire system is powered by the disguise XR workflow, which consists of vx and rx media servers and is used for both broadcasting and real-time rendering.
“Our high-tech LED screen has a 9600x1536 pixel resolution and is constructed in a 50 x 8 panel configuration,” explains Mümtaz. “We are also using three Brompton Tessera SX40 processors and five Tessera XD 10G data distribution units to provide a 10-bit colour depth image and Unreal Engine to create and publish 3D content. According to the incoming project, we create 3D scenes using Unreal Engine and pass them through a certain process to optimise them in the disguise workflow. During this process, we create the scenes together with the director and director of production in order to make them look cinematic and aesthetic. Likewise, the art director is also involved in this process to understand the texture of the 3D scene we have created and to create props and décors suitable for it. After the rendering is complete, we test on the LED screen. We make it suitable for shooting with a cinema camera, we do our rehearsals and we are ready for shooting.”
Aside from the technical benefits, this workflow greatly streamlines the entire production process as the team is able to work closely with scriptwriters and other talent throughout. “Because we are trying to create the projects that come to us in a way that is suitable for VP while we are still at the stage of scriptwriting, we’re able to introduce this technology at the initial stages,” explains Mümtaz. “The advantages it provides for budget and time management can determine the fate of the project and affect its course. We adapt the incoming projects and the films and series we will shoot ourselves to the VP workflow. In this way, the advantages of this technology are also decisive in the completion of the projects.”
With an initial project deadline already fast approaching, the installation and studio construction process was completed at speed. “We had a project with a very close start date while the installations were not yet complete,” recalls Mümtaz. “So we had to complete everything in a short time without any errors. I’m glad to say that we succeeded.”
While the installation and construction were fully completed in late 2021, the pipeline process, which was created for the acquisition of know-how and which determines the workflow and the management of large projects, continues to develop all the time. “The new dynamics brought by this technology deeply affect the film and video production industry and will continue to – the perspective and conveniences it provides attract the attention of all manufacturers,” says Mümtaz. “As it is a technology and concept that continues to evolve and change, I think we will see it grow even more in a few years. Based on my observations on completed projects within our studio, all departments have enjoyed working here and want to experience it again. It seems obvious to me that the industry will further adapt to this concept and wants to take advantage of it. The diversity of dynamics and technological equipment used evokes an instinct of learning and orientation in all teams, and this is something we want. Art directors, directors, DoPs [directors of photography], camera crews and all other on-set crews know that while experiencing VP technology, they can create an unlimited number of worlds within a studio and use their creativity and horizons to infinite potential.”
MGX’s story begs the question: how much longer will “traditional” filming and production continue to be commonplace? When VP allows for better control of all aspects of the filming environment and the benefit of completing productions for increasingly less money, why produce content any other way?