Garden Studios, towards virtual production and beyond
Garden Studios is an example of this need for production space. It is also an example of the need to embrace technology in order to face the changes that multimedia content production is undergoing. We spoke with Rich Philips, who is in charge of the studios’ technology area, and he showed us how they have designed the place to take into account the needs of such a demanding world as the one we are talking about. But he also showed us how Garden Studios is changing ways and means through virtual production.
How Garden Studios was born and what is its history?
Garden Studios’ origin started with trying to find a new home for the Metropolitan Film School, which is a business that is also owned by our founder and CEO, Thomas Hoegh.
In the course of the planning around that, we’d discovered the Park Royal area. We realized how well-suited that was with other film-related companies. We encountered a couple of buildings that were really ideally suited for conversion into film production studios. And then we decided to make our home there in Park Royal.
Why this area? What makes it so good?
Because there are studios such as Shepperton and Pinewood on that side of London, a good support infrastructure has been built in the corridor to those facilities. There are all sorts of props companies, machine shops, and lighting and camera rental providers. Film is one of the major industries in Park Royal, actually.
It is also populated with some industrial buildings that, I assume, were originally built for logistical purposes. Many of them are quite well suited to conversion.
We have been in the area for some time and are now buying land to build extra facilities. We are doing this because we have experienced an increasing demand for more space. Aside from customers asking for more space, there is also a critical mass of space to accommodate a major Hollywood production. In fact, right now we are tracking something like 18 or 19 additional properties in the area for a future expansion.
Speaking of which, we would like to call attention to the fact that many new studios are being built in the U.K. Why is this happening?
You are right, there are a lot of new studio products and studio expansion projects in the UK at the moment. The reasons for this, in my view, are as follows: there is an underlying demand that is mainly driven by the generous tax breaks from the UK government; we also have to take into account the availability of skilled personnel, which is second to none in the UK, and in particular around London; and we also have to take into account the cultural adjacency between the English and Americans, the American producers also come because we speak the same language.
In addition, demand has skyrocketed further with the explosion of streaming providers and their insatiable need for high quality content. This was aggravated during the pandemic. Shutdowns, delayed productions and the public’s consumption of a lot of content all contributed to its growth. They needed, and still need, to maintain activity on their channels to avoid a drop in subscribers and keep them on their platform.
What are your facilities like? Could you give us an overview?
Sure. The cores of our facilities are three high-quality buildings that we have converted into sound stages. The largest of those is 23,000 square feet. We built the supporting facilities around them, the green rooms, the hair and makeup facilities, the meeting rooms, the production offices, all of that. Then, clustered around those, is a number of other buildings that either provide production spaces, or workshops, rehearsal spaces, and car parking
We also built a virtual production LED stage. In fact, it was the first facility we opened to our customers. It’s something we perceive as one of our main activities going forward. In the last ten months, since it went open, we have received a steady amount of work through that facility.
Speaking of this great revolution, do you think it will replace the traditional modes of production?
I think “replace” is too strong. There will always be projects for which you have to go out on location or for which it makes more sense to shoot in a physical production space in the studio. However, many film production jobs can be much more efficient and much more sustainable with virtual production workflows. We are very excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.
Going back to the studios, what equipment such as cameras, lighting, rigging, can we find in them?
The traditional studio model is a dry-rental model. We rent the space, but we let our clients choose who they want to use for lighting, for camera, for rigging, for whatever they want to do.
That isn’t always the case for studios. Some of the studios in the UK have exclusive deals with providers. That is something we try to avoid. We believe it is more important to give our clients the possibility to choose and let them work with whom they want to work with.
In addition to the equipment, our technical infrastructure is based on a large amount of energy, the structures that are the trusses, and an IP network.
When we build the stages, we gave them enormous power. We have megawatts of power on each of the sound stages. It is way more than a regular production needs. But we did it because we already had an eye on the virtual production and you can’t even imagine what the LED walls and ceilings can consume.
We built additional steel and aluminum structures on the sound stages to support the lighting and sets. One of the things you have to take into account when retrofitting an existing industrial building is that the structure of that building was not designed to support a large amount of weight, so you have to put in additional engineering to counteract that.
Apart from that, we have also invested in a fairly substantial IP network. All the facilities are linked together. We provide WiFi throughout the venue and the ability to wire network devices wherever necessary.
Can you specify a little more about your IP network?
We have taken a slightly different approach than some studio operators, because I think the most common way to handle this is to contract with a service provider, but we don’t want to force our clients to use the same service providers that we use. It’s the same idea we try to maintain when we talk about technology.
We have invested in building our own network, which we manage ourselves. Right now we have a gigabit with a diverse backup line that is Internet capacity, but we have linked all the buildings with fiber or wireless links. We can share that Internet capacity throughout the campus, but we can also configure it as we need to meet the needs of the customers. We offer free WiFi, a standard these days, and we have a member of staff who is a great network engineer, and we can set up private networks and do whatever the client needs on that backbone.
We are looking to the future in this regard, and I believe that next year we will be ready to offer a ten-gigabit infrastructure. And we are making it happen because we expect IP networks to be an important pillar of other technology offerings that we develop over time.
We’ve also been experimenting with the cloud. We’ve been working with Amazon Web Services and Unreal to see what parts of that workflow can be offloaded to the cloud to improve performance. Things like light management that can be put in the cloud and run on many parallel machines to take some of the latency out of that process.
Don’t you have equipment for hire?
No, we are not renting equipment at the moment. It’s something we’re looking into. Virtual production is different, of course, because it’s not a dry rental. It’s a package because it includes all the equipment, and also a qualified team to operate it.
Do you have facilities ready for live television production?
It is curious because there are not many television facilities left in London. Those that were there have either been renovated elsewhere or no longer exist. It’s something we’re keeping an eye on precisely because of that, because there’s not much supply left and there’s still demand. In the past, some clients have done live production supported with Outside Broadcast vehicles, so the need is there.
What makes your studio special?
I’ll start with the location. We are as close to Central London as any studio can be, really. We’re 20 minutes away from Soho by public transport.
The name is Garden Studios. That name has its origin in the green field that I talked about earlier. We’ve taken that theme to Park Royal. We want to make a place that’s really attractive to the staff. We don’t want it to be a jumble of sheds in an industrial wasteland. We want it to be a place where people feel connected and happy to work. We are fortunate to be located in a quiet location adjacent to the Grand Union Canal.
We are also embracing technology. We see it as an important part of our future. Most studios are facilities that rent space or equipment. We are looking at how we can use technology to offer added value to our clients. Obviously, virtual production is an important part of this. We are also looking at motion capture, 3D asset capture or 3D environment creation, data workflows and image pipelines. We’re trying to bring all of that together.
Last but not least, we try to ensure that our ecological values are reflected in the studio itself. The film industry is very polluting. Our studios, which receive part of their energy from the sun, and which select waste, have to be an example of that change in the industry. In fact, we also have to take into account virtual production, which is more eco-friendly, as it avoids the waste of fuel in the travel and construction of stages.
What is you virtual production stage like?
It is a relatively modest one. It’s not the size of the stage that they shoot The Mandalorian on. It is a 12 meter wide wall, four meters high. We wanted to build something that could democratize virtual production.
This matter, until quite recently, has been the domain of the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. They build the volume specifically for that project and rent the equipment to do it. This is very expensive, but their budgets can support it.
Our virtual production stage offers possibilities all the way down the industry chain. Whether for episodic television work, music promos, commercials or independent films, we believe we have built something affordable for these tighter budgets.
I led that project. We were fortunate to come in contact with a partner called Quite Brilliant, who comes from the advertising world, and who was already very interested in virtual production. They helped us understand how to design the space, how to use it and how to do business with it. Other than that, we looked at what others were doing, and talked to experts, either manufacturers or cinematographers who had some experience with this. We compiled all that information and came up with a design that, in our opinion, fit the needs and was affordable, both for construction and for rental for the clients.
You mentioned the Met Film School earlier, are students also involved in virtual production?
The School has a long-term agreement with us to sublease part of our space. They have also moved the technology, visual effects and post production courses to Garden Studios. We encourage them to learn about virtual production with us. We have taught a couple of virtual production courses for them at our facility, and we are building a virtual production training facility for their use and for broader industry use.
Really, this is one of the bottlenecks at the moment. There is a lack of people with the right experience and expertise to understand and work with virtual production. So we participated in that collaboration because we saw that education is really important to overcome this problem.
What are the most outstanding projects you have hosted in your studio?
Since we got up and running last year, we’ve had a lot of projects that have been interesting in their own way. I guess the biggest one so far has been a feature film by Matthew Vaughn that was shot on all three sound stages and took up a lot of the rest of the company’s facilities.
We’ve done other things. The BBC comedy series Toast of Tinseltown was shot at Garden Studios last year. It was a lot of fun. We did a live event for YouTuber and rapper KSI.
Coming soon, and during the first half of this year, our studios will be occupied by a major streamer for one of the big Hollywood studio streaming channels. I can’t talk about what it is, but it’s an exciting and significant project for us.
In terms of virtual production, we’ve done a lot of things like music and advertising, but I think the highlight was an event we did in collaboration with Epic and The Mill. We had 150 people in stadium seats around the edge of the stage and did a live demo. It was very entertaining and engaging, and it showed the confidence we have in the technology.
What are your actual plans?
Last year was focused on building the facilities and establishing a line of work through those facilities. Coming out of that period of company evolution, this year we are going to start investing more in research and development. We are looking at what is available in terms of R&D funding, so if we want to make technology a cornerstone of the business, we have to invest in it.
Could you advance some of those ways of development that you mention?
Right now we are looking at a few things. We’re looking at high-speed capture. It’s something that has come up as a requirement from our advertising clients for slow motion work. We know it’s already a challenge to get a virtual production LED screen to play back in real time at 24 or 25 frames per second. Even more challenging is getting it to run at 100 or 200 frames per second. That’s an area of research we want to advance.
We’re also looking at the human-machine interface and how it relates. At the moment, the way it works is that a cinematographer comes in and instructs the Unreal Engine operators to modify the look of the scene, move things around or change the direction of the lighting, for example. We would like to be able to offer our customers the opportunity to participate directly in that process and through some intuitive way. It would mean that, without having to understand the Unreal user interface, they can take control and scale an environment or move things themselves. We are working on that.
We are also looking at workflows related to asset reuse, because we think it’s a big opportunity. Virtual production already offers great potential in terms of sustainability compared to traditional production. If someone has created a particular environment for virtual production, will they be willing to share it with the community, perhaps in exchange for a contribution to the cost of creating it? What are the systems and mechanisms that are needed to be able to track usage and build it and share the costs? How do you make it available to the wider community? How do you protect it? This also needs to be worked on. And it does not only concern environments, it also applies to 3D objects, virtual props. For example, we have recently been capturing props with photogrammetry and translating them into 3D virtual environments. This research can have very interesting applications.