April 20, 2023
At the height of the pandemic the Los Angeles Department of Health put a moratorium on all student filming. While updates to LADH safety guidelines and training sessions from CSUN’s Covid operations office over succeeding weeks allowed a handful of production classes to briefly resume on campus—with students rigorously adhering to safety rules to preserve access to studios and equipment—Covid numbers continued to rise in those pre-vaccine days, and the hope of making full thesis productions vanished for most students.
Around that same time the Directors Guild of America (DGA) held its annual Digital Day online, discussing the latest tools in virtual production, VFX, and other cutting-edge innovations. Then–CTVA chair Dianah Wynter, a DGA member, was very impressed by a presentation from Halon Entertainment CEO Dan Gregoire (Ad Astra, World War Z, Avatar, Hunger Games). In hopes of finding some way to help students fulfill their thesis production goals, Wynter reached out to him by email. He responded almost immediately, initiating a strong bond between Halon and the Department of Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA). The first thing Gregoire did was to reach out to Epic Games to set up a live virtual three-hour session on Epic Games and Unreal Engine, the primary digital technologies for virtual production. Students new to this technology eagerly downloaded the software in preparation for their seminar. When CTVA professors Elizabeth Leister and Alessandro Jacchia identified a need for hands-on practice, Wynter reached out to John Brennan III (Lion King, Black Panther), who arranged two days of workshops on Unreal Engine workflow for television thesis students. A new vista was opening up for CTVA, not only among Emerging Media majors but all production students. As understandings of new advancements in VFX and virtual production grew, the CTVA department set its sights on integrating these new technologies into existing curriculum. When CSUN offered opportunities to apply for pandemic recovery grants funded by Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds, CTVA saw its moonshot moment to land a grant large enough to build an LED virtual production wall—referred to within the industry as a “volume.”
With grant in hand, Wynter again reached out to Dan Gregoire at Halon to share the good news. By Hollywood standards, Gregoire knew the grant would not be enough to cover all expenses for the project and took it upon himself to enlist VFX consulting company Lux Machina’s founder and president, Phil Galler, to negotiate deals with ROE Visual and StYpe Tracking on behalf of CTVA. Halon and Lux generously gifted all consulting fees and sent crews to erect the wall over several days last semester.
LED walls allow real-time in-camera VFX (ICVFX), in contrast to green-screen techniques in use for decades. With green-screen, bright green backdrops are used on film stages for sci-fi, adventure, or period movies such as The Martian, Indiana Jones, or Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby; during the editing process, the bright green color is digitally selected and swapped for simulated vistas of the galaxy, the pyramids, or 1920s New York, respectively.
Today, those vistas can be vividly projected on giant LED walls on film stages such that the galaxies, pyramids, or period-specific city streets are captured on camera in real time with actors’ live performances. The director and team can see exactly what it looks like the moment they shoot it, not weeks later when changes and reshoots become cost prohibitive. With Wynter’s efforts and generous support from corporate partners, our students now have this technology in their curriculum and filmmaking arsenal.
Virtual world-building tools such as Unity 3-D and Unreal Engine are taught in Animation courses helmed by professors Mark Farquhar and Caleb Owens, as well as in CTVA’s Emerging Media Production track, headed by Professor Leister. Animation and Emerging Media students came in clutch as the students most familiar with Unreal and Unity elements and capacities. They put their experience to work demonstrating the potential of this cutting-edge tool for CTVA students at large. Matching industry standard equipment like with LED production wall with talented students studying Animation, VFX, Game Design, and CTVA production options across the Mike Curb College places us among the most forward-thinking and innovative films schools.
For their part in this Cinderella story, Dan Gregoire and Phil Galler received the Rising Sun ICON Awards for Education and Innovation at the CTVA Television Showcase. They have certainly earned the everlasting gratitude of CSUN students, faculty, and staff.