Virtual Set FAQ

Everything you always wanted to know about Virtual Sets, but were afraid to ask.


How do Virtual Sets get created?
A Virtual Set is a departure from traditional production methodologies in set building. Instead of planning to build with hammer and nails, you either hire a CG company or choose royalty-free assets from one of the many web-based repositories for geometries. You can buy royalty-free Virtual Sets that far exceed the production value that you’d typically build into practical sets.

How much do Virtual Sets cost?
Say, for example, you’re looking for a living room set. As budgets get tighter, that living room gets smaller, less detailed. But for hundreds, not thousands, of dollars, you can buy a detailed virtual living room set with expansive views out to other rooms. If you buy a couple of these geometries, then you can easily put a set together. Keep in mind that what you’re buying is editable in terms of scale, texture, color, and lighting.  What you’re buying is a geometry—a skinned wireframe. So, you can cut and paste elements, scale them, and relight them. A virtual set living room that’s brightly lit could just as easily be lit for nighttime.

Virtual Sets are typically far less expensive than comparable practical sets. Instead of working with your traditional designers, carpenters, and construction grips, you’re working with a single CG artist to create the set. You can go to a small boutique company, a high-end company, or a freelance CG artist. These artists are plentiful and they’re all able to work photo-realistically. It doesn’t require multi-million dollar computer support.

One project we hosted required three kitchens, but the budget wasn’t sufficient to cover practical sets. The client opted to use our Virtual Backlot to build virtual kitchens, eliminating the need for the traditional steps in practical set building, such as design, construction, propping, rentals, scenic art, lighting, and more. Remember, with practical sets, everything also needs to be picked up, installed, dismantled, and returned or even thrown away :/ Virtual Sets are a smart solution for easing your set’s impact on the planet and your budget. Not to mention, the decision to use Virtual Set by this particular  ad agency saved the client $50,000… Everyone likes to come out a hero, don’t you??

How do you make changes to Virtual Sets?
The Editable Transform function allows you to move and remove elements, even after you’re finished building your Virtual Set. Say your DP wants to get a long-lens shot of people at a conference table. Through Editable Transforms, you can remove a wall so the real camera can back up in space. If you need a high shot, you can remove the ceiling to get a higher perspective. Virtual Set geometry is infinitely customizable… The camera positions are only  limited by the space where you are shooting live-action.

What happens once I pick a Virtual Set?
The next step is figuring out which components need to be practical. If your Virtual Set conference room is fully furnished with views to other offices and a wall of windows, you can remove the table and chairs with Editable Transforms and set your actors up with a practical table and chairs. If someone in the meeting uses a whiteboard, you can remove the Virtual whiteboard and hang up a real one.

How do green screens work with Virtual Sets?
With Virtual Sets, you don’t need to have the entire world painted green on your practical studio set-up. You only have to cover what is directly behind your actors. So, if you have a very wide shot with two people sitting on a couch, the green screen can be a 10 x 20 piece of green, just enough to cover the live-action. The rest of it can be quickly “Garbage Matted” out. (A Garbage Matte is used to identify regions of an image that should be ignored.)

How to create a Virtual Set, step by step.
First, create your background either from custom-made objects or ready-made geometries.

Second, figure out which elements are going to be practical.

Third, shoot your scene.

Fourth, take your rough composite out of our system and use it to do your offline edit.

Fifth, color correct your CG asset to match your live-action footage.

Sixth, do a high-res render of select CG scenes.

And lastly, clean up your matte and composite your live-action element with your CG.

How do Virtual Set technologies differ?
Some technologies, such as Unreal Engine Virtual Sets, demand the presence of a”Genius Bar” or “Brain Bench” of post-production masters, onsite. This path can be risky because post-production people are not used to working on set and under-pressure. If they pause for some reason, then shooting also grinds to a halt.

We’ve kept our system simple, relegating this work to the post-production pipeline for efficiency and affordability, because it saves valuable time in production. (Since the onset of the pandemic, a table with five laptops side-by-side is less practical than ever. The value of Virtual Sets has been enhanced by helping our clients minimize the number of people on set.)

How many people does it take to shoot with Virtual Sets?
With one good consultative conversation, we can guide anyone through the process. Our Virtual Backlot offers a streamlined process, so all we need is a pair of technicians. That’s one programming technician and another technician to handle the hardware component. We don’t require a Virtual Set director or a Virtual Set DP or anything like that.

When people read about “The Mandalorian,” with real-time processes happening while actors wait for technicians to push pixels around, it makes Virtual Sets seem more complicated and expensive than they have to be. For most productions, it’s costly and impractical. The trick is to use the technology and your time wisely.

How fast is Virtual Reality Film Production?
Once a CG asset is tested, we can boot up our system in under ten minutes, and we can load multiple scenes. Again, there’s a team of two people: one person is responsible for the software and taking direction from the director, while the other person makes sure that all of the hardware is connected and functioning properly.

What kind of post-production work and costs do Virtual Set backgrounds add?
People always say, “Okay, I love these inexpensive royalty-free assets, and now I understand how to shoot it and why it’s better for the planet and shooting in a pandemic. But what are the hidden costs in the end, and what’s the post-production process?” Here’s the answer: Cleaning up the matte and compositing is hardly much of a special effect these days, since it’s being done most of the time. So the only added step is the rendering of the CG background.

We work with a low-res FBX file, so it’s malleable, quick, and easy. Once you have your offline edit locked, you take your CG file, you take the jump drive that we provide with the Move Metadata, and you render out that scene at the resolution you need, depending on your deliverable. That’s the only additional step in working with Virtual Sets.

How do you match live-action to realistic Virtual Sets?
We advise you to make sure you’re happy with your CG environment’s lighting, then to recreate that mood and feeling in your live-action. That’s often done by doing a still render of your CG environment in the lighting style you want, then having the DP on your live-action set match the render.

Imagine how much simpler it is than shooting with a green screen without a Virtual Set and just guessing how your live-action image will relate to the set! Seeing a live composite facilitates composition and lighting for a photorealistic match between your Virtual Set and live-action elements. And that’s where the artistry and fun come in because you can get much closer to matching your environment.

What’s the difference between working with green screens and Virtual Sets?
Green screen, or chroma keying, is a technique that enables you to separate your subject matter from a background, cutting that person or object out to place them in another environment. Chromatic keying means taking a color that’s absent in the live-action—typically green—and eliminating it from your raw footage electronically. The actors or objects are then isolated and, if desired, they can be placed into a Virtual Set.

Virtual Sets, on the other hand, are a sophisticated, pre-visualization technology. They incorporate green screen or chroma keying to cut and paste your subject into a 3D environment, allowing for camera movement. In the green screen model, it’s a locked-off camera, and you’d be rendering one frame: the background. But if you’re following someone down the CG corridor, you’ll render out multiple frames to match whatever the camera is doing throughout the scene. Virtual Sets enable this kind of live-action to appear in a Virtual world while the camera is moving.

How do Virtual Sets make productions more flexible?
Your set doesn’t even need to be finished to begin shooting. All you need to do is build enough of the set so that your director knows where the doors and windows will be, so the Director of Photography can plan the lighting. Everything else can happen afterward. The pressure to build something ahead of the shoot doesn’t exist, so if a better idea comes up, you’re wedded only to the practical props you’ve selected.

Not being locked into anything gives creators maximum flexibility to make adjustments at any point until the picture is locked. Working in commercials, it’s a massive benefit because everything hinges on client approvals, and changes of heart are standard.

What do Virtual Sets mean for traditional set design?
Set designers have always modernized their craft—there was a time when all set designers drafted and drew their sets by hand. For years now, those beautiful handmade set drawings have been replaced with designs created with 3D software. Just about every set designer we know works in LightWave, SketchUp, or some other 3D software. They can visualize the set from different angles, communicate their ideas, and even do rough camera moves to show what the camera would see if it were moving through the set.

Virtual Sets are a game-changer, but they’re also an incremental improvement on the way things were already evolving. In a few years, practical sets will be rare, and set creation will happen in a comfy chair. We’ve been doing this for more than a decade, so it’s not a huge leap. There are enough specialists out there that it’s easy to find the support you need to build 3D Virtual Sets.