On Location: Stargate Studios takes virtual production to Germany
With offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Mumbai and Malta, Pasadena-based visual effects producer Stargate Studios is now expanding the reach of its virtual stage technology to Europe by opening new facilities near Berlin.
The production company, started in 1989 by visual effects supervisor and cinematographer Sam Nicholson, uses green screen technology — a technique in which actors perform in front of a blank screen that is later replaced by a separately filmed background — as a cost-effective substitute to location filming. Clients include television shows ABC’s “Pan Am” (set in New York, London and Paris), AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (set in Georgia) and Fox’s “Touch” (set in locales across the globe).
"We've been using our virtual technology here in the States for many years and it's been so successful,'' Nicholson said. "Now, European producers are eager to employ the same virtual back lot technology. They can use it to greatly increase the creative scope and look of their shows, without increasing the budget."
The new facilities, located at Studio Babelsberg — one of the world’s oldest major film studios — include three green screen stages measuring 150 feet by 100 feet, as well as a 100-foot-long exterior rolling screen. Producers, technical supervisors and trained compositors — all German hires — make up a staff of 15 that is supported by the approximately 200 Stargate employees based here in the L.A. area.
The estimated cost of the new studio so far is estimated at $1.3 million and is the first step in a larger investment that Nicholson expects to reach $13 million.
In return for employing Germans and using new technologies, Stargate is receiving support from the German government in the form of a financial package that covers 10% to 30% of costs associated with new equipment purchases and local hires.
Stargate Germany’s first production — 240 episodes of “Road to Happiness,” a new German daily drama series — began filming last month and is one of several projects the company is working on in partnership with Grundy UFA, Europe’s largest television series producer. Other Grundy UFA pilot series planned to film at the facility include “Mr. and Mrs. Murder” and “All My Girls.”
Virtual technology “will give us the possibility of shooting cheaper than before, if we use it correctly,” said Guido Reinhardt, chief creative officer for Grundy UFA.
Stargate's technology is appealing for more than its cost efficiency. The creative advantages of being able to set a script anywhere, during any time period, opened the world of storytelling for his creative team, said Reinhardt.
“Road to Happiness” takes place in a seaside setting in North Germany. “But there is no sea in the North,” said Reinhardt. “You have stories taking place at a harbor, conversations happening at the top of a lighthouse.”
Despite Stargate’s foray into yet another foreign region, Nicholson said the company remains firmly planted in Pasadena. But Nicholson has seen an increase in the number of clients choosing to leave L.A. in order to receive tax credits for filming elsewhere. “The Walking Dead” shoots in Georgia and ABC’s upcoming series “Missing” films in Prague. “The workhorse of the industry is the television series, and we’ve lost it to incentives,” he said.
Under California’s film incentive program, filmmakers can receive a tax credit equivalent to 20% to 25% of qualified production expenses, but the program has an annual cap of $100 million and has struggled to compete with more generous programs in states like Louisiana and New York, both of which enjoyed record levels of production last year.
“This technology can be the key to runaway production,” Nicholson said. The relatively lower cost and flexibility of shooting on a virtual stage helped to keep TNT’s upcoming Frank Darabont series “L.A. Noir” in town, he added.
In the meantime, the new German studio is another way to keep Stargate’s Pasadena employees busy. “We can work overseas," Nicholson said. "At the same time, we can control cost and help productions to stay in L.A."
— Dima Alzayat
Photo: One of Stargate Germany's new green-screen stages located at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, Germany. Credit: Stargate Studios.