Pan Am: retro green screen world

Pan Am is one of ABC’s newly commissioned TV series, airing in late September. For the pilot episode, the production utilized Stargate Studios’ virtual set technology to re-create the iconic 1960s Pan Am terminal and other locations in the show.

Stargate Studios visual effects supervisor Sam Nicholson considers the Pan Am pilot to feature one of the largest virtual sets ever created. To cater for the show, the terminal features walls, furniture, glass, steel, a spiral staircase, along with planes, vehicles and people populating the backgrounds. Other locations too, including extreme close-ups to planes, used the virtual set approach.

“I think the discussions about building a real set probably lasted about five minutes – probably shorter than that,” recalls Nicholson. “It was just too big a scale and would have cost a lot to build for real.”

Instead, a large stage at Grumman Studios in New York with a working area of 150 square feet was surrounded in greenscreen and used for filming. Stargate employed its proprietary VB Live real-time compositing system – a prevision setup that required the studio to pre-build the virtual sets and assets, but that would then allow the actors and crew to see an almost finished scene via monitors on set.

Stargate based its virtual set on historical photographs to more or less exactly match the Pam Am terminal of the day. “We built the entire set digitally in conjunction with the production designer,” explains Nicholson. “Then we optimize it. It may have 20 million polygons, so you need to cut it down so that it can be pushed through a real-time system at 24 frames per second.”

The pilot was shot on ARRI Alexa cameras by the DP, John Lindley. Stargate’s VB Live system requires some initial calibration to create the virtual space and tracking data, but once that had occurred people on set could see a real-time composite of the scenes.

That also went for dailies. “We recorded to the S2 decks as our high quality master, and we were also recording on board,” says Nicholson. “We also recorded a third output from the composite on the Cinedeck using the CineForm codec. And that’s what was sent as precomp’d dailies to the studios. They never had to see any greenscreen material.”

The VB Live system records the necessary camera data such as yaw, pitch, roll, zoom and focus. “It’s effectively eight streams of data at 24 frames per second on each camera,” says Nicholson. “All that data has to be rippled to the edit, extracted and transcoded into Maya, After Effects and all the compositing tools.”

Back at Stargate, little or no camera tracking was required and the compositors had something very close to a final comp. Still, they were able to change lighting where necessary and deal with glass reflections and other textures from the complicated set. In addition, Stargate produced a whole fleet of Pan Am and competitor 707s, airport vehicles, tow trucks, baggage cars, digital extras and even a Pan Am helicopter to fill out the scenes, with these assets and the virtual set turned over to production for the series.

Being a pilot episode, Stargate had only 10 days from a locked edit to turnaround approximately 300 visual effects shots, made easier by the pre-rendered virtual set and data acquired while shooting. “I think the most interesting part of the production,” notes Nicholson, “was that on set everyone at the beginning would look at the green monitors, but then after about only three hours they were all gravitating to the composite monitors which were basically the finished product.”

35 thoughts on “Pan Am: retro green screen world”

  1. That is some of the worst greenscreen setup ever. They should FIRE the vfx set supervisor right now.. those shots are probably 90% roto. It you are shooting the show there.. build a hard cyc and light it properly.

    1. These are good screens. I’ve been comping with them. They pull really well. The tracking markers show up in Syntheyes fine with hipass turned on.

      I’m pretty impressed with the quality of production of this show. I think it will look great.

    2. You probabily havent been in bussines for long. This is how raw scanned film looks like. But with all this digital cameras we tend to forget that Dont worry there is enough info in dpx files to pull perfect key from this. 😀

  2. P.S sorry to offend vfx set supervisor… But everyone should strive to create a zero roto show!

    1. Then they probably shouldn’t put plants on the greenscreen. But on the bright side, they are easy to roto and make it look like its not a greenscreen shot because there’s green in the FG.

      1. Cool Info James! I love hearing from the people directly involved.. much appreciated… These little thumbnails made it look like there was 150 “greens” in there….When I saw the spot for Pan Am on ABC, I could see that these were mainly lockoffs….which would make that roto way easier. I am sorry if I ruffled feathers with my comments… I am a vfx generalist that specializes in putting lots of various things together for FINAL… which makes me hope/want the best and easiest solutions to help speed up the process. The pictures here just looked like those “demo” reels where they show green backdrops and make it look like they push a button and make fake backdrops… there are always skilled artists behind the details.. and its really hard work to make nothing into something… I really appreciate you commenting here.. THX

  3. I am sorry Matt- but if you think those are the worst green screens ever – then you havent been comping much lately !!!
    Look in all seriousness I was not on set – but the stats are really impressive 300 shots in 10 days. And the work I have seen is excellent. Of course your opinion is fine to express, we welcome healthy debate, but dont be too harsh – even from these stills I would say these green screens are not close to the worse I have seen even this week ! 🙂

  4. On the wide shot #1 .. single uniform green shade for the ground all the way to above the highest on set actoprs head.. after that.. no green whatsoever is required. On the railing shot.. no fore railing should be there… just creating a major roto hairball.. for no reason.. taht fore railing could have been CG. On the girls looking back shot.. why green stairs? And wrinkles in the green.. just forget it.. its a roto job there if there are wrinkles in the green screen

  5. Are those really production stills? The first ones seem so washed out- is it really possible to pull a quality key off of them? Obviously they’re upping the saturation a great deal for the final comp, but it just seems incredible murky to begin with. Mike or Ian do you have any insight into this? Do you think they knew in advance that they’d be going for an over saturated look in the final or is there some technical reason to shoot with such muted tones to start with? Overall, those are some pretty impressive virtual sets- may have to catch this show based on that merit alone.

    1. Log Colour Space. allows more colour information within the 10bit file (DPX). The images look fine after they add a Screen RGB or Rec 709 correction.

  6. Those stats are WAY off. I know people who worked on this show and they spent a hell of a lot longer than 10 days on it. Sam Nicholson’s a salesman, though, and that number *sounds* impressive.

    The technology they’re using is cool, though. Not having to track your stuff later saves a great deal of time. Nice to be able to shoot against a green wall and actually properly line up a shot with a proper background.

  7. Greg,
    They said they were using the Alexa camera…The footage I’ve seen come from that camera always has that milky look (pre-color), but it has so much latitude in it so, they may be able to pull a good key off that. Also, the (green) shot matches up perfectly with the comps. I’m impressed.

    1. Ah thanks Michael. I wasn’t familiar with LogC images before. Interesting to see what they look like pre-color.

  8. I keep seeing these green-screen shots on fxguide and they always remind me of nightmare jobs I’ve done in the past. It’s not my bread-and-butter work but I’d love to see a really detailed tutorial of how to approach a shot like one of these, as I’m sure I’m missing something! What keyer tools do they use?

    1. I think the reality is you just get in there and do it one bit at a time with multiple keys, painted/rotoscoped or added together. I remember a serious of nuke tutorials with their fancy keyers, but the ‘advanced keying technique’ was the same old story: roto/paint, and painting back in motion blur details.

      Although I do love the ibk, just a shame you can’t export out a matte – you kind of need to comp with it to get the same results.

  9. If you copy the jpegs to your computer and pull them into Nuke etc. you can see that the “before” is a log image. Just using the Cineon LUT pushes it into the same sort of colour range as the “after” (before despill obviously).

    A-B-ing between the the two images shows some places where Stargate have cut corners intelligently. These are really effective comps but they haven’t been pixel-f**ked to death.

    Stargate may well be exaggerating just how fast and easy their system is, but the system isn’t just the technology, it’s the working practices that maximize the result possible for the time and money available.

  10. I just got to say kuddos to the artisanship at work here. Set extensions with good color matching and clean mattes are still at the heart of my love for VFX. Stunning.

  11. A few points: I have been to Stargate Digital – Sam is a really good guy, honest and very clever. Sure he sells his company but would you want to work for a company where the owners did NOT sell your company well… ? I mean really I have worked at places with less than stellar senior management and having them lose work because they could not build any excitement is much much worse. I am not that close to Stargate – I have no personal close links – I just respect them, seriously respect them, for the work they do. I have done this sort of work myself (- heck we got Emmy noms on that show – and this work is hard and short turn around).
    The ten days comment was ten days from lock off… clearly the shots started being working on them BEFORE they were even being shot…
    Also you are right about the jpeg ‘before’ shots. It is very common and very desirable to have them shot in say Log C so that you can have maximum grading later. If I saw before shots that were crunched and saturated I would be suspicious 🙂
    All good… Oh and finally the company that does the pilot many times does not do the series – that is completely common – I dont know but I would not read much into that.


  12. Hey Matt,
    These are clearly Log-C images…that’s why it seems so washed out. Sheesh.
    Also, the greenscreen set up is really impressive. It requires a tremendous amount of forethought and inter-departmental planning to properly execute greenscreen shots of this magnitude. Especially on a television shooting schedule. Did you look at the finals, too? Pretty impressive, if you ask me.

    Ian/Mike – question: Are these all nodal pans and lock offs? Or do they move the camera?

    1. Brendan,

      I appreciate the comments… I watched a mini season promo of this show.. and yes.. extremely well done comps! and LOTS of them… My initial responses were aimed at what appeared to be a slight disconnect between on set production and vfx TD’s capabilities… with all the money going to this show.. it would only conceivably take another $10k to work out pulling the green cloth taught.. eliminating wrinkles… and basically striving for the cleanest boundaries as possible between real set and green areas. It just looked like there are people thinking anything green gets wiped out just because there is green cloth on it… I am guessing that in the long-run, that extra time to get a smooth green field behind the set would save more $$ than having a specialist work the hell out of the shot(keying/roto) for a week.

      1. I think it’s really easy to say why didn’t they spend a few more minutes or $ doing X and then there are the realities of production. The pressure on set and cost per second of the crew standing around can make game time decisions that when viewed by those uninvolved seem crazy. I have been on both sides of the equation and actually a roto artist is often lots cheaper. I recall asking a vfx supe once why they had done something on a green screen and he proceeded to list off all the things he had gotten addressed that would have been far worse and he knew that while it was going to be tedious to fix it was a trade off he had to make.

  13. Backing Mike Seymore on this one. I can’t even remember the last time I had a shot with, what I would call a good green screen. You can’t always get in the way of production to get screens perfectly lit, with tracking markers out of the way, no wrinkles, coved at the bottom and the proper distance from talent. Stargate is very good at what they do. They consistently deliver quality work on large numbers of shots for episodic and pilots even with time and budget restraints. This is a testament to the amount of work they put into their pipeline and the teamwork atmosphere you get at a smaller vfx house, where artists and production know each others strengths and weaknesses. great work guys ..

  14. Hope no one from the show was ticked at my comments… It is a little funny how Mike counterpointed my criticism of the green screen tech by making a point of how much worse most other greenscreen work is out there. It’s green background people… stretch the cloth tight.. light it flat and keep it away from the setpieces and actors to avoid spill… tracking markers should be a separate (keyable) green scatter plot.. nothing uniform…and laid out so actors avoid crossing in front of them… and only green where you replace with CG. Anyway.. they were probably a little sloppy because it sounds like they had Moco data from the rig to use for any roto mattes.. I just think it would bring piece of mind to vfx sups if the greenscreen plates were stellar quality – hell , maybe they could charge the same rate and have the thing done in a day, rather than a week.

    1. All supervisors know how to shoot a greenscreen and what the perfect conditions are. The reality is, things don’t work out as planned. Greenscreen doesn’t ever drape the way you want it to and there is never enough time to stretch it out perfectly. Perhaps stretching it out perfectly would have meant getting in a lift and spending 2 hours of valuable production time to get it tight. In the end, a good supervisor can weigh the costs and benefits of fixing something in production and fixing it in post.
      If the supervisor had taken 3 hours out of the production’s day, the network would have most definitely fired him or her.

  15. Hey Brendan. Great comments. To give you guys (Matt) an idea of why the GS stage was not perfect – we convinced Sony about two weeks before the shoot that we had to do all the comps live on set and capture the tracking data or we would not be able to deliver the show on schedule. We flew four 30’x100′ green screens to NYC with two Previson compositing systems, 75 ceiling targets and two complete camera packages. Our two TD’s flew in from California before the shoot and we had four days to completely turn an empty warehouse into a real time virtual shooting stage with a minimal crew. That involves hanging 400′ of green, securing 75 4’x4′ targets into the ceiling, laser surveying and calibrating 450 individually ID’d images on the targets, calibrating all the production lenses (both zooms and primes), registering the virtual sets to the physical sets and setting up the workflow to record both composited and non-composite images during the shoot. We did all this for a two day shoot – then struck the set back to an empty warehouse – that is why there are some wrinkles in the green screen. But you will notice there are no tracking marks. 98% of our final shots bypassed post motion tracking. X,Y,Z, Yaw, Pitch, Roll, Focus and Zoom translated seamlessly into our 3D group allowing for final uprezed renders to start right after picture lock – for a 10 day compositing turnaround. In pre-production the virtual World Port terminal, interior and exterior took a team of eight 3D artists 6 weeks to build.
    We have now given all our CG assets to Zoic for the series. I wish them luck in that the studio as cut the episodic. budget to 1/10th what we did the pilot for.
    If you want to see the before and afters in better resolution, check out our website at
    Thanks for watching.

      1. Ah man, should have been quiet here. Thx Sam for the BTS! Having the on set cams’ data recorded with precision really would help any production -that is nifty tech! Sounds like that show was handled as best as possible with good people. Maybe I just have an aversion to green screen filmmaking?

  16. Hello Mike,

    I think you should refer in your article to Lightcraft Technology’s Prevision system. It made possible all virtual production.



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