To look at the swooshy new spot for cycling gear brand Le Col’s collaboration with McLaren, you’d probably assume it was shot in some sort of massive tunnel with a cyclist really moving through it. It’s convincing.
In fact, it uses virtual production technology at Bild Studios, using Unreal Engine to shoot the commercials with a stationary cyclist that looks like he’s moving really swiftly.
LBB’s Alex Reeves asked director Jay Brasier-Creagh and director of photography James Medcraft about how it worked and what they learned from the project.
LBB> How did you come to make the spot for Le Col x McLaren?
Jay> I've directed all of Le Col’s commercials since they started and they approached us with this two years ago before Covid. They partnered with a World Tour cycling team, Bahrain-Merida. McLaren decided they were going to sponsor some cycling teams. They've had a little presence before. They partnered with this race team and we did a couple of commercials for them. They wanted to do something bigger. But then Covid happened and the floor fell out of the cycling industry and the World Tour stopped, McLaren pulled out but then they still wanted to do this last collaboration with them. So Le Col McLaren decided they were going to design and engineer some cycling kit that's really fast using Formula One and they made a really slippery skin suit. And they needed a commercial for it.
LBB> What was the original idea and how did it end up becoming a virtual production shoot?
Jay> Originally they wanted to show it's fast, and every little microsecond counts. They wanted to do this crossing the line thing and we'd have someone riding down this corridor. Finding a location was really difficult and we were like, "How do we light a stretch of tunnel that's 500 metres long?" They wanted all of these really specific lighting elements to be involved, these laser gates to go through to measure progress. The build of that is really expensive, really complicated and then filming it is really difficult. You'd have to sync everything up completely and when you're working with cyclists it's quite hard for them to measure their speed exactly. You can't put everything on motion controls when you're in that big a space. You can't afford it.
It got shelved for a while, we went back to the drawing board. Then we came up with the idea of doing it using projections and that that seemed fun, rigging up these big V-shaped projection screens and projecting some environment on the back, having a cyclist go through that and then move the environments using projection mapping as a sort of joust to the cyclist. Then shoot it from a certain angle so you don't see the road surface.
They were really struggling with the idea, wanting to see the wheels, to really emphasise that sense of speed. And wanted it to fit within this whole world that McLaren is very famous for. They kept sending us all these McLaren commercials and they're all 3D renders. "Can you hire out an aircraft hangar with a wind turbine in it and then can we build this one kilometre lighting tunnel and then have these measuring laser gates every 10 metres and then can we track them with two vehicles whilst we do that?" I mean you could. Do you have two million pounds?
Phil [Tidy, Squire owner and executive producer ] and James were shooting this thing with a video game company, at the Bild space and we looked at that thought it’s not being properly utilised on a commercial level. It's a way that you can build a 3D world for our cyclist to live in and have him actually move through it, have the camera react to it naturally and get all of that really organic sense of motion in without suddenly coming into a whole world of post-production bullshit. We had a really tight budget and a really small turnaround time to get that over the line. And we found this gap in Bild productions’ [schedule]. Suddenly we've got this Saturday to do something and we have to do everything there.
LBB> What did you come to as the solution to bringing the idea to life on the Bild screens?
Jay> We didn't really have any time to do any testing or build any big Unreal environments for the cyclist to move through or test the cyclists within it. We got an Unreal specialist, who is an expert in doing live music visuals and stuff like that, to build us a spline. We found some assets from Unreal libraries, made some mood boards of what we wanted - this brutalist concrete storm drain for the cyclist to move through that we could change dynamically and have it react how we wanted. We built this spline in Unreal that would just go on forever. And we could generate little elements in it like the laser gates.
We arrived on the day and had one evening of testing, trying to get the physical lighting to match up with the lighting coming off the screens - because the screens light everything but they're diffused light sources and there were points in this where we needed the cyclist to pass through these physical lights.
LBB> James, as DOP is that a good point for you to add some of your expertise?
James> I've had a really odd movement into being director of photography. I studied graphic design. I've always been a photographer, and I used to work with the company that basically formed MARS [the tech created by Bild Studios]. So I've worked with LEDs a lot in the past and I've got a bit of 3D knowledge. Lots of the technical projects I do involve a high amount of pre-vis.
The LED screens were designed for the previous video game job. It's three screens. You've got your back screen and then two side screens which act as a lighting environment, like big LED lighting panels, which are not only great for lighting matte subjects and surfaces, but also if you've got shiny objects like the guy's helmet you get all of the real-time reflections of that environment.
LBB> What did you do in pre-visualisation before you got to the virtual production studio at Bild?
James> We ended up doing pre prep on the shoot to plan our shots to see what was physically possible. We worked out what were going to be the good angles. There are many shots where you see we actually had to put the cyclist to the side, shooting profile onto the screen.
I think from a cinematographer's point of view, with virtual production cinematographers have to have a mild knowledge, at least, of 3D modelling nowadays, just so they can pre plan shots that work on a technical level with the screen environment that they have to shoot in. There's so much you need to consider now. You're no longer on these projects shooting a physical set, you're actually shooting basically three big televisions. And with that, you've got so many new things you need to consider like frame rates and phase offsets, and I can't get too close to the screen because I'll see moiré patterns.
It also gives you a huge amount of confidence when you're on set if you go, "I know that lens works from that angle", and you can show people. There were many incarnations of the set before we came to the idea of using the LED screens. We were looking at projector screens and other things. But this for me is the way I plan stuff.
LBB> What did you find most interesting about working in this way?
James> It was a really fascinating shoot to be able to embed real people and objects within environments that don't exist and have them be lit realistically is really exciting. It opens up whole new possibilities of what's possible visually. You don't need to go and find that amazing location; you can do it in a studio. You don't need to go and rent a crazy expensive wind tunnel; you can build the wind tunnel that's perfect for your campaign and your product, the perfect environment for your campaign. And then shoot it and it will look real.
Jay> One of the exciting things about this technology is that if you're doing a really post-heavy job, everything has to be so meticulously planned. And on the day, the shots that actually worked best for us were the ones that were quite experimental and we didn't really think that we were going to do.
We ended up doing this sort of jousting motion with the cyclist coming towards us and the dolly going towards that and they passed, then and then doing the reverse of that, which we didn't really plan. We wanted to do this kind of contrazoom and some other bits. We started doing it and it just arrived and we're like, "wow that's wicked! That looks good, so realistic. You're completely sold on the speed".
We ended up basing a lot of the commercial around those shots that we didn't really prevision. We knew roughly what we were going to get, but we didn't think it was going to go exactly that way.
When you're in a really post-heavy environment, everything has to be so mapped out, so thought about. Everything's got to be pre done and all your tracking maps have to be right. You don't have as much latitude to explore that space organically.
From a client's perspective, being able to have these fantastical or perfect environments that they can then go to the monitor, you can play it back and they can see it and it's there, it's done. It's just there in camera, it's done and that's what you see. It does mean you have to be way more prepped pre-emptively, you've got to have lumped all the post production and in the pre production.
James> Because all of this content is rendered in real time, it gives you the ability to explore a virtual environment with the flexibility that you would have on location. So you can go "what if we quickly look over there?" It reacts to the way you move around the camera
One of the most interesting bits in those shots Jay talked about - the jousting shots - is there is one moment when we go past, and it was a bump on the dolly because the floor we were shooting on was really flexible. But that little bump as we went past the cyclist just added that extra nuance of realism.
Jay> It feels like a tracking vehicle hitting a bump in the road. It sells it completely. Once you've added a bit of camera shake on there and done all your post production it's so different to what we could have done otherwise. Any other option could never have gotten us the result. If we shot that for real, we wouldn't have been able to work in an environment like that and get those shots.
What was fun was how fast we turned it around as well. It was fairly exceptional I think because we were just fitting in a space in quite some time and I think we'd much rather have more pre production to plan a little while. But it was still really exciting to be so dynamic with those spaces.
LBB> What are important things to bear in mind for filmmaking this way?
James> With virtual production, there are so many things that you need to consider that I've learned with practice, practice, practice. Intricacies of light and reflections and the correct lenses that work well with the mapping of the graphics on the background.
It's a big learning curve but it's a really exciting thing for the industry I think. And it's just going to get more advanced and more creative. As the technology becomes more accessible, new ideas and new methods of storytelling are going to come across from using this technology.
Jay> It's going to turn the whole world on its head where you've got the shoot, post production is now pre production and then all you've got at the end is the grade. As long as the industry gets used to this new workflow, when you're doing a virtual production project, I think it's way more interesting for clients and directors on set because it means that literally what you see is what you get, in camera. And it means you can play more experimentally with it.
You get all of those subtle nuances of serendipity of being on location because you can explore things which you didn't anticipate to look good. If you're doing something that's all going to be comped in CGI, you generally don't take any risks because you know exactly what you need to achieve.
LBB> What would you like to test the potential of more with this tech?
Jay> When it really starts working is when you blend the real with the unreal as well. If you have a good art department and you can build your set within that. If you look at the Mandalorian, which is why everyone raves about this kind of technology, it's about having a space that you can find some really smooth transitions between your fake environment and your real environment, having physical objects in it, haze and physical lighting that gives you a bit of something in the foreground, and then letting the background and the side lighting do all the work.
Also go fucking the mental with all your reflections. It looks so good!
James> I think it makes the production designer's job even more important on set because having physical objects and virtual objects, to blend those two worlds together is really important. If you've designed an unrealistic world, you need to make sure that your physical props match in some way the style, texture and material qualities of virtual so that they mat together. It's not like having your green screen plate and then you basically match your CGI scene to what's shot. Now they need to match in camera.
There are lots of little tricks to make it all look correct in camera, but all of those require quite a lot pre preparation and therefore, pre shoots, camera test days and stuff like that.
LBB> What sort of jobs would you consider using virtual production on in the future?
James> It's not quite suited as yet for every kind of job, but it is especially for long form things. For a single day shoot it's unaffordable, but if you're shooting over a week, say, shooting 20 motorbikes over 13 countries, that's when it becomes really, really exciting and warranted.
LBB> What other technologies could be particularly exciting paired with these kinds of studios?
James> I know the Bild team were talking a lot about the implications of LIDAR scanning. You can potentially bring the location to you. So if you are shooting in 13 locations around the world, you can go, scan those locations, bring them into 3D, do the pre production, and just stick them in the studio. If the kind of production warrants that kind of movement in it and the LIDAR scanning, it's like, you know you're playing at a scene in those places, it can work so well.
Essentially it gives you access to some locations that you just wouldn't be allowed to shoot or wouldn't facilitate having big camera crews there or you wouldn't be able to route power to them easily without being quite destructive. Now I can work in quite sensitive locations. All I have to do is send a small team, give it a LIDAR scan, bring it back. And I'm in this site of special scientific interest with loads of birds or like this house that's completely falling to bits, but I don't have to go and fuck it up or build a new one physically.
LBB> How do you see this getting used by different kinds of specialists out there too?
James> There's a whole generation of more technologically versed filmmakers out there that are good at 3D and they've got all of these worlds in their head that they can actually now start creating quite feasibly for not crazy amounts of money. It'll be really exciting to see who gets hold of it and what comes out of it in the next, five or 10 years.
If you're a videogame designer you can start going into like feature film production design. This technology is also being used in theatre. The Royal Opera House used it a couple of years ago on a few big productions. So if you're a theatre stage designer, or even a choreographer, you can work within film. Talking about how our worlds will integrate between video game and filmic technologies with products, all of these new technologies are blending into one. 10 years ago would have been: in the video games industry, within film, or in the theatre. it's all vortexing together in many ways.