Final Pixel. Virtual sets, real impact.

In the burgeoning field of virtual production, Final Pixel stands as a beacon of innovation and adaptability. Spearheaded by CEO and co-founder Michael McKenna, the company has rapidly ascended as a trailblazer, especially noted for its agility during the challenging pandemic period. Their commitment to making production accessible, sustainable, and diversified has not only reshaped the creative landscape but also demonstrated the transformative power of virtual production.

 

The studios’ global footprint is marked by its versatile studios and its focus on cutting-edge research and development, and their approach prioritizes workflow and talent over mere equipment, enabling the creation of tailored virtual environments for any production need. This bespoke strategy has attracted a diverse clientele, including major studios and streaming giants, all seeking to leverage Final Pixel’s unique capability to bring stories to life through immersive virtual worlds.

In recent projects, Final Pixel has showcased its prowess in virtual production, from bringing an embargoed Formula One car to a virtual U.S. road trip to crafting immersive experiences for movie premieres. These ventures highlight the company’s end-to-end production capabilities and its adeptness in managing complex, technologically demanding projects. With a future-focused outlook, Final Pixel is poised to further democratize virtual production, making it an integral part of storytelling and content creation for creatives worldwide. TM Broadcast International presents this interview with Michael McKenna, CEO and Co-Founder of Final Pixel, to explore the key contributions that the studio is poised to make in advancing the content creation industry.

 

How and when did Final Pixel start its path?

Final Pixel was founded during the pandemic and found early success helping clients who were unable to do live action production during lockdown.  As a creative production company specialising in virtual production, we were able to create high-end commercials and short form for clients across the globe who were otherwise unable to film.

Our ethos is all about making production more accessible, sustainable and with enhanced diversity and social mobility.  We see virtual production as a way of filmmaking which is not only more powerful for creatives and producers alike, but can also improve the nature of production and make it a better place to be.

Having become experts in workflow and producing through doing multiple shoots like this, we have honed our expertise in applied production technology and worldbuilding to bring virtual production to a broad range of clients, including Warner Bros Discovery, BBC, Sky and Netflix.

 

Final Pixel counts with three studios in three different locations. Which characteristics and technological equipment has each one? Are any of them specialized in any way?

Final Pixel has production teams in the US and UK, with labs for R&D and smaller shoots. We decided early on to invest more in workflows and talent than kit, as our clients want to shoot all over the world in various sizes of studio with differing needs per production.  We have lots of experience now in building pop-up LED volumes, tailored to the script and creative, in any location to bring the virtual production technology to the project.  We also have a network of trusted stage partners in select locations.  This allows us to find the perfect fit of technology, equipment and resources for each client’s specific needs (and budget).

A common studio setup will have a 2.3-to-2.8-pixel pitch LED wall, 12m to 18m wide, 5m to 6m tall and on a shallow curve or sometimes flat.  We often opt for ROE tiles on Brompton processing, but are seeing some strong challenge now in the VP LED market from Absen, Unilumin and notably Sony.  Megapixel is also causing waves, in particular with the possibilities of ghostframe.  For smaller tabletop shoots we would prefer a finer pixel pitch.  Our stages run mainly on nDisplay native or Disguise.  More recently we have been adopting specific playback tools for the job, such as Assimilate or even Da Vinci resolve.  We are also increasingly integrating the studio elements more and more, for example we have spec’d the Kino Flo MIMIKs on a few shoots now.

 

What are the main projects and works that Final Pixel has been involved in and how have they showcased your capabilities in virtual production?

Recent projects for the team have included the launch of the RB19 for Oracle Red Bull’s Formula One Racing team – which allowed us to shoot with an embargoed car without having to take it out on public roads. We were able to take the super-secret new F1 car on a US road trip without ever leaving the studio in Wakefield, UK.  This project started at the concepting stage and we handled all the way to final post and delivery.  This showcased how we can maximize production value when taking an end-to-end approach with production technologies.  We weave real-time throughout the whole process, and this helps to put the creative control back in the hands of filmmakers at incredible speed and efficiency for production. Using the technology, we were able to deliver this piece as a carbon net zero production, reinforcing the sustainable benefits of virtual production.

Also, in the UK we recently created a live activation event around the premiere of the Netflix movie Rebel Moon where influencers and VIPs were able to immerse themselves in the locations from the movie – by the magic of virtual production.  This shows how we can extend a brand’s IP into in-person events using the same environments from the main show or commercial.  This is an exciting new area of transmedia which brands are incredibly interested in, and with our workflows and the efficiency of real-time and virtual production it has become more accessible now than ever.

We also produced the launch of Warner Brothers Discovery’s MAX streaming service, live from the historic WB studios in Los Angeles.  This involved popping up a large LED wall, with a bespoke design, and running a live show with all the same underpinning technologies we use in our VP shoots for commercials or film/TV.  This shows that we are able to put together the biggest projects anywhere in the world and have the teams that excel to the highest standards under pressure.  Producing a VP shoot often feels like running a live event!

 

Could you name one project that has pushed Final Pixel to improve or to have a breakthrough in terms of workflows or even tech utilized?

The project that gave us the biggest breakthrough was the Red Bull Formula One shoot. On this shoot we had such a collection of talented VP technicians, along with colorists, unreal engine artists and traditional film crew that we were able to make real-time creative decisions and execute them in a way that would never have been possible with traditional film production. To decide on set that you are going to shoot at night, instead of daytime —and then within the hour be ready to shoot— brings a completely liberating approach to filmmaking. Things that were impossible before now have become extremely do-able.

With most of our shoots it’s the combination of technologies, the incremental improvements across the component hardware, software and workflows, which build to be greater than the sum of their parts. That’s the very nature of filmmaking!

Because of the development of Unreal Engine, we found ourselves able to render photo realistic clips directly from UE and straight into our edit, further supporting the narrative.

 

According to your point of view, which would be the main technological development that boosted virtual production capabilities?

The greatest advance, as we see it, has been the development of photorealistic real-time rendering in game engines. This recent development kick-started the virtual production industry and has been a paradigm shift for filmmakers – both those working with traditional VFX, and those more traditional filmmakers who have suddenly realised the incredible potential that virtual production brings to the creative process and the realisation of their vision.

 

Sound and illumination are often unappreciated but these technics play an important role in filming. What are the special features that virtual production requires regarding lighting and audio production?

Virtual production requires very close attention to cinematography, lighting and particularly the resolution and color space of the LED tiles used to create the live, in-camera composite. The light shed by the LED tiles is different in nature from the reflected light we would see from a real-world physical location, so we need skilled technicians who can correctly calibrate the lighting and cameras to create a believable, photorealistic, immersive world in the studio.

Sound plays just as an important role in virtual production as any other filmmaking approach, carrying the narrative —it plays the role in VP of further reinforcing reality.

 

What is Simtrav and how does it work? What applications could this development have in filming production, letting apart motor ads?

Simtrav (or simulated travel), otherwise termed as car process, allows us to shoot car process work that is leaps and bounds beyond the traditional green screen and back projection techniques. We can bring a vehicle into a studio and shoot it from all angles, with a completely convincing scene playing on the LED wall in the background – making for a totally believable composite. The technique works with all sorts of vehicles, from cars to trains to planes.  We showed how this can be utilised to good effect on a recent project for Apple+, where our team worked on the LED volume doing car shots for the new series Criminal Record.

This workflow has become a bit of a no-brainer for vehicle process work, as it cuts out long days on a low-loader, brings much more control to creative and production, and also allows the directors greater focus on performances with the talent.  We are often being asked to provide virtual production technology and workflows for this type of shoot for TV and Film and can provide them into most studios. We can provide the plates and even create bespoke plates, as we did for a ‘Dancing with the Stars x Hyundai’ project with SPS, in Unreal to exactly match the desired background and movement.

 

Can you explain what the Final Pixel Academy is and its role in the broader industry?

When we started Final Pixel we found it almost impossible to hire the kinds of technicians we needed, so the only choice we had was to start training people en masse. Over the last three years the Academy has become one of the biggest virtual production training organizations in the world. The Academy has helped clients get their staff up to speed, helped educational institutions kick-start their virtual production teaching programs and helped thousands of students develop their virtual production skills, opening new doors for countless people.

 

What is the ‘Content Factory’, and what was the inspiration behind its creation?

The Content Factory was designed to help brands get started in virtual production quickly, without having to invest large sums of money in LED wall equipment and technology. The idea is that brands have access to a streamlined setup of a small LED studio and a set of 3D environments. In this space they can produce countless hours of content without having the long-winded set up of a traditional shoot. There is no need to travel, yet content can be shot in locations all over the world —all with the magic of virtual production.

 

How does ‘Worldbuilders’ enhance the storytelling and creative process in virtual production?

Worldbuilders allows creatives to have a vision for the place they want to shoot in, and see that vision fully realized —even if there is no actual physical location which matches their imaginary desire. Additional Worldbuilders can create a fully 3D environment that is specially optimized for virtual production, ensuring that once it is projected on the LED wall the environment looks just as good through the film camera as it does on the PC.

 

What is the process of creating a virtual environment using Worldbuilders?

Like most projects, the process usually begins with storyboards and a script. After an extensive process of collecting references with the client, an environment sketch is drawn to show how the environment should look when it is finished. The client is then involved at every stage as the sketch is transformed first into a ‘’white card’’ or “grey box” outline of the final environment, and then in each successive stage of adding texture, landscape, architecture, furniture etc. Once the environment is fully designed, it is handed over the cinematographer to light and prepare for the on-set shooting days. During the pre-light days on set the environment is further tweaked, the lighting adjusted, and even furniture moved around until it is just right for the shoot.

 

How do you see the field of virtual production evolving in the next few years, and what role will Final Pixel play in this evolution?

Once filmmakers see the creative possibilities, they are hooked. Final Pixel is committed to democratising the technology and getting it in the hands of as many filmmakers as possible. As the technology and tools improve, the bar to entry will become lower and lower. Our mission is to accelerate this process as much as we can.

 

What are some emerging trends in virtual production that Final Pixel is particularly excited about?

Manufacturers designing specific hardware and software for VP uses, for example anti-glare coating for LEDs to help DoPs light without spill on the screen are particularly exciting.  Sony looks to have developed a very interesting product with its Verona.  Also the rise of RGBW and RGBWW LED for use in VP will enhance the representation of skin tone and really open up more integration options with Unreal environments and moving scenes. Gen AI for 3D will also be an area to watch..

 

What future developments can we expect to see from Final Pixel in the realm of virtual production?

As one of the first companies to emerge in this marketplace, Final Pixel has a reputation for innovation and being at the leading edge of the industry. We pioneered real-time mocap performance, use of AI and have developed countless new ways of working. Our goal is to keep pushing the boundaries of the technology and allow filmmakers to expand their creative capabilities beyond what they ever thought possible.

 

About Final Pixel

With headquarters in US and UK, Final Pixel is an award-winning global Creative Virtual Production and Innovation Works with expertise in creative producing, world-building technology development and education.

Final Pixel is defining the immersive, engaging and sustainable future for Film, Episodic and Advertising through its own virtual production workflows, techniques and real-time virtual art world-building technologies, and is leading a global virtual production education, training and career-building initiative led by its own team of experts and delivered through the Final Pixel Academy.

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