Virtual set designs for The Sun FC – Behind the scenes

jim_mann_Sun_FC_2

My company’s website has just been updated with a set of images for my latest project, the virtual sets for the Sun FC show on Sun+. This was one of my most comprehensive designs so far and makes use of the Sun’s dedicated studio space fitted with a full lighting rig, remotely controlled cameras, Reflecmedia chroma keying and RT Software’s tOG-VR virtual studio system.

The initial brief was to design a desk and virtual studio for a show based around a single presenter and up to three guests. Working within a budget, I made as much use of the tOG-VR system as possible by designing a truck-able, physical desk back at which the presenter and guests would sit. Filming of the pilots was fast approaching and time was limited, but over the course of one day I sketched designs for seven desk concepts. The clear favourite turned out to be the first design which featured a curved plan layout dominated by an LED mid-body section. The LED’s would provide the client with the flexibility to update and modify the display to suit different shows and features.

SunFC_desk_design_sketch

Once the concept was approved, I drew on my experience as an architect working on interiors and fit-outs to sketch the layout and detail for the desk and enable costs and shop drawings to be prepared by Scott Fleary. The physical desk was delivered on schedule on the morning before filming of the pilots was due to begin.

Sun_FC_desk_by_lightwell

On camera, the desk back and its structure, along with the legs of the occupants are cloaked by the virtual desk front. This hybrid real/virtual desk then sits within a virtual studio designed and lit to simulate a space within the concrete under-croft of a football stadium and overlooking a football pitch.

Sun_FC_virtual_set_design_lightwell

As powerful as VR systems are, I always try and pre-bake/pre-render the lighting in a scene as much as possible. On this project, the studio space and stadium are all pre-rendered whereas the desk is lit in realtime by the tOG-VR system. This combination produced the best quality results, appropriate to each element and its surface properties.

Pre-lit texture panels featured within the final version of the virtual set design.

The stadium takes inspiration from a variety of modern stadiums, but is ultimately an original design. I designed it from the pitch up, using correct sight lines and recognised building regulations (most of the time) to arrive at a credibly functional looking design that would complement and enhance both the wide and the mid-shots that were being proposed at the time.

As the pilots and rehearsals progressed, the shows format and presentation styles evolved from one that was predominantly seated, to one that is entirely standing at the time of its launch. The set design was modified to suit this change and the desk designs remain parked for the time being.

The Sun FC launched in August 2013 and can be viewed at http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/sport/ (Sun+ subscription required)

ian_wright_virtual_set_by_lightwell

BBC Ten O’Clock News studio backdrops – A quick review before they’re gone.

BBC News output underwent a comprehensive re-brand by Lambie Nairn in the spring of 2008. My contributions to this were the animated studio backdrops that played out in the Barco screens along three sides of the two studios. Working on the designs through my company, Lightwell and in collaboration with Jago Design (now BDA Set Design), we developed a digital environment comprising a newsroom backed by offices, galleries, control rooms and various ancillary spaces. The scene, along with animated characters, lifts and monitors was delivered in kit form and assembled by BBC News Graphics who applied the final blur effect along with the etched glass graphic effect.

BBC Ten O'Clock News - The left side corner of Studio N6
BBC Ten O’Clock News – The left side corner of Studio N6

The space depicted in the backdrops is almost entirely self-enclosed apart from views through to small exterior courtyard and atrium spaces on each of the three sides. We had planned to use similar lighting for both the day and night-time versions of the scene. Different times of day would be indicated by changes to the lighting in those exterior zones and by switching off lighting in parts of the interior. Studio tests immediately revealed that this only produced dark patches from certain camera angles within the studio. We also soon realised (though it seems blatantly obvious with hindsight) that our scene could never go darker than the material surface of the screens, which in turn were being hit by quantities of diffuse spill light from the ceiling light boxes and lighting grid that resulted in a grey tone in place of blacks. I was stuck for ideas and with the re-launch fast approaching, set about experimenting with different lighting levels and different coloured lighting. Nothing was working as we had planned.

By late February 2008, we were short of time and in need of inspiration when, one morning during the school half term holiday my son started watching Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers. I walked into the room just as the scenes of the night battle were beginning. There on the screen was the solution I had been searching for.

The Two Towers Battle of Helms Deep Scene
The Two Towers scene featuring the night-time Battle of Helms Deep.

Studying this particular scene revealed a tightly controlled, silver-blue monochrome palette. The only exceptions to this came from the yellow/gold accents of the flaming torches. Borrowing this idea, I applied a similar lighting palette to the newsroom backdrops – it worked. We achieved a sufficiently well-lit interior, maintained similar levels of detail and texture to the daytime scene, but described a night-time condition throughout. Studio tests resulted in a sequence of refinements to the hue and contrast levels, but ultimately we had arrived at the final solution for our lighting design through a chance viewing of a scene from a movie being watched by a kid on his school holidays. I am a huge fan of serendipity.

The final night-time version of this digital set is below. The blue hue acquired a shade more red, whilst being slightly more saturated. The yellow/gold accents are similarly more saturated and bold.

BBC_News_ten_key
BBC Ten O’clock News – Centre Panel

The designs I prepared were only ever expected to last a couple of years and were to be superseded, not by an updated design, but by a whole new building, studios and headquarters at Broadcasting House in central London. In the event, this stop-gap design has, in various incarnations been in use for five years. Reports on the web suggest that on Monday 18th March,  all BBC News will come from the new studios at Broadcasting House.

Lucky for me that it has lasted this long, it meant that I got a design on-screen in a James Bond film as some BBC news footage appears in a scene from Skyfall! I wrote a little more on this in an earlier post, BBC News makes an appearance in a Bond film

BBC TenO'clock News backdrops appear in Skyfall
BBC Ten O’clock News backdrops as they appear in a scene from Skyfall

For more information, visit my company’s website – lightwell

BBC News makes an appearance in a Bond film.

BBC News backdrops appearing in a scene from Skyfall
BBC News backdrops appearing in a scene from Skyfall

Whilst watching Skyfall at the cinema last Autumn, I smiled when I saw (oh so briefly) my backdrops for the BBC News appear in one of the scenes. The whole BBC News set, including these digital sets are due to be retired later this month so it is nice for them to have acquired a snippet of an extended life within a Bond film.

The Ten O’clock News is always shot in studio N6, but in these grabs it appears they shot into the right side corner of TC7 instead. Both studios are located at Television Centre, but TC7 was only usually used for the six o’clock news bulletins and so this is most probably a daytime version of the backdrop passing itself off as a night time version. Aside from the screens in TC7 not being as well calibrated as those in N6, this incarnation of the daytime version was never as rich as the night version in my opinion, so it doesn’t look quite as good as it might have done, but I can live with that.

BBC TenO'clock News backdrops appear in Skyfall
BBC Ten O’Clock News (but with Six O’Clock News backdrops) appears in Skyfall

For more information on these digital backdrops, visit my company’s website – lightwell