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.”