The experience of cinematographer Pierre Gill on Disney series ‘Percy Jackson’ showed that lighting for an extensive shoot in a Volume is still work in progress, writes Adrian Pennington.
New Disney+ series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, is about a 12-year-old boy who learns he is a demigod and subsequently has to avoid being captured by minotaurs. However, the tone demanded by the producers was one of realism.
“We’re not doing Avengers or some superhero style – this is a road movie about a young boy on a journey,” explained Pierre Gill, ASC, CSC who shot the pilot episode and the last three episodes of the eight-part series.
The show is based on Rick Riordan’s best-selling book and follows Percy (Walker Scobell) on his quest to prevent war among the Olympian gods. Producers Dan Shotz and Jonathan E. Steinberg planned for at least a third of the show to be shot in Virtual Production before Gill joined. They were apparently impressed by Gill’s work lensing Denis Villeneuve’s 2009 drama Polytechnique about a real-life high school massacre - a subject for a film about as far removed from Disney and CGI as you can get. He had about four months to get up to speed before photography commenced.
Behind the Scenes: Percy Jackson and the Olympians – Volume Challenges
“I’ve never shot in a Volume so I did ask ‘Why call me?’ They just laughed and said ‘None of us has done either’. It’s been a huge part of the success of The Mandalorian and Bobba Fett so we had all the expertise of ILM at our disposal. I learned a lot from the best in the world.”
It also “takes a lot of money” to produce a project like Percy using ILM StageCraft, the highest spec LED Volume around.
He began by asking “20,000 questions” of ILM but only began to appreciate the issues when he was presented with assets the VFX shop had created as backgrounds for the show.
These included exteriors and interiors of the MET art museum in New York City. A team had photographed the MET in 360-degrees (a task that didn’t require the time and expense of permissions to close streets) and in sun and cloud conditions.
“The museum scene is entirely shot in a Volume with almost no touch up – it is almost pure Volume. This is the real deal. But getting there was quite an achievement to be honest with you because the light sources in the background, the bulbs illuminating the museum artwork are virtual. Based on the initial photographed assets it would not work at all. So with ILM we had to relight it again as if we were there in the actual location.
Gill continued: “I understood that as the DP it’s my job to guide the asset team and to do that I first needed to know what is possible such as how much time it takes to swap out lights or colours or objects in the background assets.”
ILM’s Volume featured a LED ceiling which Gill felt was a distraction. Were he to be involved in the show again he would prefer this to be removed while making the LED Walls higher.
“A ceiling is great for lighting car exteriors and perfect for a show like Mandalorian where your central character is clad in a shiny suit and you absolutely want to bring that to life with realistic reflections but the world of Percy Jackson didn’t need this. It was bugging me to light properly and became very complex to do exteriors.”
A conventional shoot on location at the MET, for example, would have the filmmakers shoot in one direction during the morning and then the reverse in the afternoon to accommodate the change in sun position. The virtual assets of the MET were only captured when the sun was positioned in one direction.
“So we recreated the other directions of the sun as a 3D model in Unreal Engine. I made it as subtle as possible. I wanted to shoot this scene in cloud but the producer wanted it to be sunny because it’s the show’s opening sequence. Shooting for sun in a volume is 50% more difficult than shooting for a cloudy day.”
Since the Volume is designed to track CG backgrounds to one camera Percy Jackson is largely a single camera show. As the camera pans, a portion of the highest resolution image is rendered in sync with its field of view [the fustrum] but this makes another simultaneous camera angle much harder to perfect.
“I had tricks and I did use multicam quite a few times by shooting inside the fustrum and in a way that the viewer doesn’t see that the perspective no longer works.”
Crucially, unlike Disney’s Star Wars spin-offs and other shows like Star Trek Discovery shot partially or wholly in a Volume, the world of Percy Jackson is set in the present day with characters that are meant to actually inhabit New York or St Louis streets and apartments or forests (albeit occasionally populated by minotaurs, centaurs and other mythical creatures). The distinction between fantasy and realism was a “monumental” one for lighting, says Gill.
“Disney made the Volume for fantasy and sci-fi and it’s brilliant but when you introduce realism your brain won’t accept what your eyes are looking at if you don’t get it right. That’s why I am so happy when people say they cannot tell the difference between what was shot virtually or real.”
A ‘Tunnel of Love’ sequence in a deserted amusement park was one of the easiest “and most beautiful scenes” to shoot because it is a fantastical environment for which Gill was able to shoot everything including interactive lighting and timed animations in-camera.
“Forest or beach sequences are lot more challenging to do with realism,” he said.
Part of the solution was to make “hundreds” of lens tests at Canadian rental house William F White to eventually arrive at a mix of Sony Venice 2 with Cooke Anamorphic/i S35s.
That said, not everything on Percy Jackson was achieved with the Volume. A number of scenes were composed of real locations, VFX, studio and Volume.
“We built Camp Half-Blood in the countryside, but then some locations are inside a studio, some locations are inside the Volume. You have to link all these pieces of the puzzle for the audience just to follow it and stay in the same world all the time.”
Behind the Scenes: Percy Jackson and the Olympians – Underwater
The in-camera realism extended to a number of underwater scenes. “These were completely real, no fake water,” he said. “We didn’t want to have CGI wet hair. So we built a tank in a studio 40ft wide x 16ft high with blue screen around it. Walker was filmed with divers underwater. He had to learn to hold his breath and talk without bubbles. He was pretty amazing actually. He had scenes every day and always knew his lines.”
For mood, Gill brought five movie posters to illustrate his thoughts to the showrunners. They include E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Lord of the Rings and Blade Runner for obvious reasons of youth wonder, epic scale and gritty world building. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon “for the lyrical fights” were also chosen but the producer’s raised an eyebrow at The Green Mile. Frank Darabont’s 1999 follow-up to The Shawshank Redemption is a fine movie but not one that jumps to mind for a young adult fantasy drama.
“For me The Green Mile is a deep character movie about two characters distinguished by in race and size and social place which also has a supernatural element and I felt that Percy Jackson needed to be like that- that it should stay as a character driven show not be driven by superhero VFX.”
Gill prefers to colour grade live rather than shoot with a baked-in LUT and employed this workflow on Percy. “I created a LUT for Percy but on top of it I like to have a CDL (colour decision list) file. This means I can use two cameras and match them properly. It is also because I like the director and producer to see a great image on set.”
Every shot went through a live grade before going to post and back to the DP. “It is a lot of work but I’m so used to it, it’s actually fast and easy. If you just have a LUT you cannot change it too much, whereas if I wish, I can tweak it live which makes for very precise imagery and keeps my vision where I want it to be.”
Behind the Scenes: Percy Jackson and the Olympians – Being in Control
Gill began his career in the late 1980s shooting 16mm and 35mm long before digital and said he would love to work in virtual production again.
“For a start it is fun to shoot. You have the flexibility to be able to shoot scenes in cloud or sun or whichever lighting you want, when you want. That means your shoot schedule can fit normal hours. It may sound trivial but it’s a big deal to be able to plan days that aren’t going to overrun.
“When you are working with kids that is doubly important because there are restrictions on their time and only so many hours you can shoot. Basically, with a Volume you have control.
“That’s not to say the challenge isn’t huge. If I were to work on a second series, then I would want to be part of the discussion about constructing the Volume.
“I’d advise any DP to try the space but also to appreciate how much they need to get involved in every aspect of it. The guys at ILM are extremely skilled and will help you learn but if you want to see your vision on screen you need to make the effort.”
He makes the point that the designers of virtual assets will most likely have come from video games where there’s a different approach to filming scenes.
“A scene in a video game will typically open on a wide and stay there because that is the first-person view required of a game but as a DP I’m aware that that wide lens might hold for 10 seconds of a 60 second scene before moving to a closeup and a longer lens. If you do that in a Volume you may find the virtual asset is not suitable because your background may now be out of focus. In prep you can work this through, as we did on Percy by guiding the Unreal designers to create, for instance, more spaces between trees in our virtual forest, adding a layer of mist, making the pine trees taller. In essence you want to create depth.”
Gill’s most recent project is Dune spin-off Dune: Prophecy for HBO.
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