Company Town

The business behind the show

« Previous Post | Company Town Home | Next Post »

Universal Studios puts real money into virtual stage

December 7, 2010 |  2:07 pm

Virtual reality is settling in at Universal Studios.

No, Universal is not opening a new theme park attraction.

Instead, the 98-year-old studio is taking a big leap into the future with a giant “virtual stage,” its latest effort to lure more production and postproduction business to its back lot in Universal City and help keep filming in Los Angeles.

In May, Universal reopened its New York street sets that had burned down more than two years ago. This fall the studio opened a color-correction facility on the lot operated by Efilm, a subsidiary of Deluxe Entertainment.

And last week Universal unveiled its $4.5-million virtual stage. The 6,800-square-foot Universal Virtual Stage includes a 40-by-80-foot "green screen," one of the largest of its kind in Hollywood. Since it's just opened, there are no bookings yet, but Universal says it's in talks with producers of two feature films.

The technology, which allows actors to perform in front of a blank screen (typically green or blue) that can be substituted for various digitally created backgrounds, has been around for years but was used mostly for feature films. The advent of low-cost digital cameras and higher-powered computers, however, has opened up the process for TV programs as well, increasing demand for the technology.

Universal bills its facility, which includes a suite of editing bays and production office space, as a kind of one-stop shop that is fully rigged and calibrated so clients can walk onstage and begin shooting. The studio declined to disclose its rental rates.

“We’re offering more services and options to filmmakers," said Dave Beanes, a senior vice president of production services at Universal. “It’s a way to bring the world to the stage, instead of having to travel around the world to shoot.”

The 180-degree screen operates with two cameras mounted on a 24-foot crane that allows directors to see the actual movements of actors in their virtual backgrounds in real time. It’s also equipped to handle motion capture, a technique that has become increasingly popular since the success of “Avatar” and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Planning began two years ago, when Universal invested $200 million to rebuild its "New York Street" and "King Kong" attraction and began thinking of ways to create a kind of virtual extension of the refurbished physical sets.

“I wanted to create a digital replica of "New York Street" so that filmmakers could have the flexibility to change the texture, color and faces of the buildings if they wanted to," said Jeff Berry, executive director of Universal Studios Virtual Effects & Production Services.

The 13-block "New York Street" features a number of familiar locations from the Big Apple, including a version of the Trump Tower, the Macy's building and Radio City Music Hall.

Since the new sets reopened, Universal has attracted about 40 film, TV, commercial and photography shoots as well as playing host to the popular TV shows “CSI," “Desperate Housewives” and “Parenthood." Recent films shot there include the studio’s forthcoming summer release “Cowboys & Aliens” and the fourth installment of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.

-- Richard Verrier

Photo: Virtual Stage at Universal Studios. Credit: NBC/Universal