‘I get to think as a graphic designer, a compositional artist, cinematographer and director’

Why Neville Page turned to virtual production for his short, ‘Coalescence’.

Concept and creature designer Neville Page is well-known for his efforts on projects such as Avatar and Star Trek.

His more recent adventures are in directing a virtual production-made World War I short called Coalescence, while at the same time writing a feature film version of the story.

Page collaborated with Orbital Virtual Studios on the short, which tells the story of the two warring sides teaming up to face a new alien-esque enemy.

Filming on Orbital’s LED volume would involve building a partial trench set and mixing in with virtual ones, plus a ton of digital atmospherics.

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Here, Page, and Orbital co-founder AJ Wedding weigh in for befores & afters on the benefits virtual production brought in crafting what is essentially a proof of concept for a feature. This is an excerpt from issue #12 of befores & afters magazine.

b&a: Neville, how did Coalescence come to be a project you directed?

Neville Page: It was born out of frustration, to be honest, with getting stuff made. Obviously, I’ve worked on productions and they’re being made and that’s why I’m even in the industry. But I entered the industry in the hopes of telling stories. Whether this was delusional or not, I wanted to write, direct and create IP.

So I’ve been chipping away at the dream, and I’m very close to some wonderful people who have been supportive, especially to some big name directors and producers. And that proximity kind of gave me the impression that I could simply just go, ‘Hey, here’s a script, here’s an idea, here’s a thing.’ I’ve been able to do that and I have done that. My delusion and my immaturity in the industry was that something could come of that fairly quickly.

I was working on another piece which wasn’t virtual production about a man lost at sea. My producer helped put together a team of like minds, one of which was AJ. The experience was magnificent. AJ now has Orbital. He said, ‘Let’s see what we can do together utilizing the facility and utilizing the technology.’ I came back with five proposals, one of which was a simple Paris cafe scene, and one was a WWI trench movie. The reason I thought of that one was all about the predicted affordability and ease of producing. I thought, a WWI trench is so cheap! And easy to build. You’re also below the horizon line so we don’t have to contend with a landscape. We both liked what that could mean, but we had no story.

I tend to listen to music when I’m thinking of ideas, whether I’m thinking of a creature I’m designing for a film, or I’m working on a story idea. I have a ton of music, a lot of scores. I stumbled across a particular bit of music that felt very epic for a World War I film. I went to Home Depot–I was probably getting a can of paint for the house–and I’m listening to this music as I’m pulling into the parking lot and stuff is starting to germinate. The wheels are turning. I parked the car and for 45 minutes, I’m sitting in the car writing a text to AJ. It just was all kind of coming together.

It was a simple idea of the two opposing sides fighting each other, but another warring party has come into the game and is now decimating both sides equally, and they are forced to come together and deal with this new group. They’re trying to evaluate. Is this the Swiss? Is this a neutral party that’s been waiting for a prime opportunity to come in? And they suddenly realize that it’s an alien entity. They still think it’s some group of people that have real advanced technology.

From all of that, we agreed upon the basic story premise. And then I started writing the short knowing what the film could be. I storyboarded it out, built some foam core models of the trench, did some lipstick camera moves inside of it. And all of that led to a two-and-a-half-day shoot.

b&a: That sounds like a fun way to become part of a Neville Page film, AJ?

AJ Wedding: Yes, I think the whole reason for bringing Neville in to begin with was we love all of our filmmaker friends. And when you look at any kind of technology that’s going to invade production, the first people that are going to want to throw it out are the people that are already making things. ‘It’s this new thing, I don’t want to learn it. I don’t understand it. I’d rather out be in France in a trench.’

So what we wanted to do was say, let’s figure out how to break it. Let’s figure out how far can we push it. And I’d rather do that with filmmakers than with technologists. Everybody involved at Orbital has got decades of production experience. I think that’s probably what sets us apart is we looked at this tool as something really amazing, but it is still just a tool. And we’re like, people say you can’t do this. People say you can’t do that. Let’s figure out how to do those things and remove them from the list. So this project was a great chance for us to say, ‘Okay, number one, how much can we really blend the digital and the real assets together in both in a visual way, but also as part of the process of building it?’

What was interesting about that is we had Emir Cerman, who is the head of ROTU, who does all of the VAD (virtual art department) work. He would be talking to Neville, and Neville would show him designs, and then of course he would go build something in Unreal, and then Neville would see it and go, ‘I want the real wall to be a little more detailed.’ So then he’d build more of the real wall and then we’d scan the wall and that would go into the VAD.

This great back and forth was happening, and that was so much fun because I think the previs part of virtual production is really where the magic is. It’s the time where you’re really able to play and figure these things out so that when you show up on the day of production, you’re just mimicking the thing you’ve been doing for the last couple of months. And I think that was great. I think we had a good experience with that.

Some of the things that we’ve put into these volumes that we have from a technology standpoint do allow you to do some things that you just can’t do other places. So for one thing, you can actually rack focus to the wall. And so we were able to really hide the line between the real and the unreal because we were able to move between them.

The first question people ask me is, where’s the wall? That’s my favorite question to get because this should not be something people market like, ‘Oh, look at my virtual production movie.’ No, no, this is a trick. We want you to think about the story.

Neville Page: It was almost disorienting, the enabling that this provided. One of the parallels that I can make was the experience on Avatar with James Cameron when he had set up his virtual production at the Howard Hughes stage in Marina del Ray. And there was an experience there where we were looking at a giant screen in the Volume. You look at the screen and it’s the Pandora landscape of the floating mountains and a helicopter and a banshee, and we have proxy models, but physical ones with X, Y, Z sensors on them. So as you move it, you can watch it move.

Here at Orbital and having that same epiphany with the paradigm shift of how you can be collaborative, because that’s the real big takeaway here is that because you’re seeing it for real and you’re getting to go on set and walk around and scout it, you get to see shots that you hadn’t imagined because you’re walking around this world. You get to ask, ‘Can we move the sun over there? Can we move that giant tank over there?’ I get to think as a graphic designer, a compositional artist, cinematographer and director. You get to just keep swapping these hats around. Also, a huge part of the success in any virtual production is the creation of the virtual assists. ROTU has been instrumental in that.

Of course, the final product is the result of numerous talents. But I want to point out the value in the VFX team headed up by VFX supervisor, Jason Zimmerman. He and his team were there from concept, to the shoot, and throughout all the post work.

AJ Wedding: That playground with all of the key creatives in the process is something that is one of the best parts of virtual production. Unfortunately, a lot of bigger productions are not getting that out of it. What’s happening very often is the pipeline is more of a visual effects pipeline than a virtual production one. So you’ll get this sort of early gray boxing look at what this thing is going to be, and then it goes into a black box for however long it takes for them to hire artists to build it, and probably building it and other things and then bringing it back into Unreal, which causes all kinds of other problems. Whereas a pipeline that starts and ends in Unreal is just faster. And there’s never a time when Neville can’t come in and look at it or get online or put on a headset.

Those are the things that I’m really trying to push. We’re working with Narwhal Studios and with Mirror and ROTU as well to try to build a pipeline for virtual production that we can tell all of the industry about and say, ‘Look, this is how we do it.’ Hopefully everybody else will start doing the same kind of thing because that really is where the money savings is. The days are very expensive, but if you think about how much more together you are as a group of creatives, if you’re doing all of this in this space together, you have this one document where everybody’s looking at the dragon and we all see the same colors, well, it seems obvious. It’s more collaborative and faster shoot, even.

Neville Page: Another big motivation to do this proof of concept was to showcase the financial value and the creative value in the process. In terms of the technical value, we know that if it’s apples-to-apples, the final image looks as good as greenscreen, for example, then why do it?, would be a question.

But the savings financially combined with the creative leveraging of being able to conceive new ways, new images, new shots, new angles. It means we got to prove that we could do a big movie, a big ‘looking’ movie that costs a fraction of the price. And if you’re not a decisive producer or decisive director, this may not be your cup of tea.

A lot of producers and directors are not decisive. And that’s not a disparaging thing to say, because I come from a visual background. It’s not just a combination of saying yes and no. It’s about not being precious, knowing that the clock is ticking, you’re running out of time and you might not be able to do that shot or something isn’t working out and you have to adapt in the moment. It’s that kind of decisiveness.

The shots that we shot at Orbital with the screen in frame, they were done and finished when we shot them. The shots where we turn the camera the other way and there’s a greenscreen, I am still dealing with today. So, I wish that everything was virtual production on our shoot. We just didn’t have the time to change the set, break it down and do those things. But I’m confident to say, visually speaking, we have quite a number of shots that feel and match what Spielberg did in War Horse. They match what you feel in All Quiet on the Western Front.

There was this one shot where it was my personal goal inspired by a shot from War Horse where I thought, man, that is such a beautiful shot, elevated, looking down into the trench. Could we even do that? Is it possible? That’s where I would go to AJ and say, ‘Here’s an image I would love. Is this conceivable? Can we do this? Can we execute it?’ And we felt we could, and we did. We knew that we did on the day, not waiting for it in post. It was like, goddamn, we did it!

In terms of how we did use the volume, I chose to stay away from doing certain things that ultimately I would want to do in the feature because it just wasn’t worth proving that concept. For example, rain, I would like rain at some point. I would like fire at some point. It didn’t need that. The proof of concept was something else, but fog and that atmosphere, oh, we needed that and I just didn’t know if that was possible.

Read the FULL interview in issue #12 of the print magazine.

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