A Window into the Future of Film: ‘9 Windows’ and Studio V1: Virtual Production  

A modernization of Hitchcock’s Rear Window was the first movie filmed in Full Sail’s Studio V1 — and it gave students a look at how virtual production is changing the film industry.

Crew members work on a dolly-mounted camera. A virtual production LED screen displays the interior of an airplane hangar

Diana Garle and William Forsythe’s characters were arguing about the seriousness of an onscreen crime when director Lou Simón yelled, “Cut!” The scene’s proportions were off: The actors needed to be closer to the back of the room. Instead of shifting the actors, crew, props, cameras, and lights, Full Sail Game Art Director Chad Kendall and a student got to work on a nearby computer. With a few keystrokes, the living room set for 9 Windows zoomed closer to the cameras and the actors shifted seamlessly into the next take.

Cast members sit down between takes in front of the '9 Windows' living room backdrop.

Actors Diana Garle and William Forsythe on the set of 9 Windows.

Adjustments on set that used to eat up precious time, money, and energy only take a few seconds in a virtual production studio. Major players like HBO and Netflix have already built large studios and released virtually produced series like The Mandalorian, while smaller commercial studios are cropping up throughout the country. Industry pros are saying that these studios are the future of filmmaking — and Full Sail University’s recently opened Studio V1: Virtual Production is bringing that future to students.

9 Windows, a modernization of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window, was the studio’s first production. The project is a case study in professional-level virtual production, and it’s the first of many films that students will work on to prepare for the next generation of on-set tech.

Enhancing Realism with Virtual Production Technology

Virtual production blows prior special effects technology out of the water. Instead of placing actors in front of a green screen and filling in the world behind them in post-production, filmmakers work with game artists in pre-production to construct a set in a video game engine. Any environment imaginable, from an office to a post-apocalyptic city on Mars, is displayed behind the actors on a sweeping LED screen, putting them “on location” from a sound stage. Filmmakers bring in props and furniture for the foreground, but all of the background elements are digital, three dimensional, and so realistic that it’s impossible for audiences to discern a film’s physical elements from the LED backdrop.

Two of the virtual production components that create this striking realism are the parallax effect and built-in LED lighting. You’ve probably noticed the parallax effect when you’ve been a passenger in a car: As you’re driving, objects just outside the window move quicker than the faraway landscape. Filmmakers used to struggle to recreate parallax — running a camera across a two-dimensional digital background forces both near and far objects to move at the same rate, creating a flat effect. With virtual production, the camera within the game engine syncs up with on-set cameras, creating the same shift in perspective that you’d notice in a three-dimensional world. The result is a realistic live scene that’s captured in a single shot, giving everyone on set a real-time look at the film’s final appearance and saving time and money in post-production.

An actor sits in a Victorian-era virtual production backdrop while crew members work on computers.

Crew members get a realistic panning shot with the parallax effect in Studio V1.

Virtual production is also changing the lighting game on movie sets. The panels on the LED screen have built-in lighting that emits a more realistic glow than lighting that is added or changed in post-production. The panels also prevent color spill, which occurs when on-set lights bounce off green or blue screen backdrops and create tinted glares that have to be removed later. In addition, directors can use the game engine to change the mood of a scene by adding or removing warmth, shifting a light’s focus, or taking outdoor scenes from midday to dusk in seconds.

Green and blue screens and post-production effects will have a place in movies for a long time to come, but the industry is headed towards the next generation of special effects — and Full Sail is meeting those demands with a $3-million investment in its students’ futures.

Upgrading Film Education with Studio V1

Building an on-campus virtual production studio was the logical next step for a university that prides itself on prepping students to work on the post-graduation projects of their dreams. In this case, Full Sail is giving students real-world experience in creating imaginary worlds for their student films as well as any commercial and creative projects that come Full Sail’s way.

The studio’s specs are impressive: Top-of-the-line Brompton LED processors convey images from Unreal Engine onto the studio’s 40-foot wide and 16-foot high LED wall. Five hundred hyper-pixel LED tiles (with 410 tiles on the ground and 90 tiles across the ceiling) create crisp imagery for sets. All of this combines to make Studio V1 among the most technologically advanced on-campus studios in the country.

Students in film and television-focused degrees will obviously have opportunities to work in the studio, but peers in other programs will also gain experience from Studio V1. Game Art students will help build the virtual sets in Unreal Engine, Art & Design students can give input on the look and feel of the 3D environments, and students in Full Sail’s Technology programs will interact with the latest in entertainment tech. The result is an interdisciplinary, hands-on training experience that prepares students from a variety of backgrounds to work in movies, television, commercials, and more.

Studio V1 has gotten plenty of use since its ribbon-cutting ceremony in early March: Students already put their skills to work on the studio’s first feature film, the 98% virtual 9 Windows.

9 Windows

9 Windows is an homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Liza (played by Diana Garle) is a car crash survivor who watches nine continuously livestreaming videos as she learns how to walk again. Sparks fly during her home appointments with Jeff (Christopher Millan), her physical therapist, while Stella, an Alexa-inspired smart home device, acts as a digital nurse. Detective Boyle (William Forsythe of Raising Arizona and Dick Tracy) and FBI agent Larry Thurgood (Michael Paré of Streets of Fire and The Philadelphia Experiment) work with Liza to find a masked killer (Jason Hignite) who uses serial killer-inspired pseudonyms as he livestreams his murders.

Crew members set up cameras and make adjustments to a virtual living room backdrop between scenes.

Members of the 9 Windows cast and crew reset a shot in Studio V1.

9 Windows touched on all of the elements of virtual production, making it a stellar choice for the studio’s first film. The opening driving sequence gave students a firsthand look at creating the parallax effect in process shots for realistic car scenes. Students learned how to make “sunlight” from the LED tiles look natural as it streamed through Liza’s windows, with virtual leaves fluttering softly in a virtual breeze. Scenes in the killer’s basement taught students about the unique set dressing needs of virtual productions: Items had to be strategically placed to mimic the depth of a physical environment through the virtual and on-set cameras.

Crew members work in front of a computer displaying the Unreal Engine view of the '9 Windows' set.

Visual Arts Education Director Rick Ramsey works with a student to tweak the 9 Windows virtual set.

More than a dozen students from Full Sail’s Film program worked on set for 9 Windows, with additional Game Art students aiding in the Unreal Engine development of Liza’s home, her family’s car, and the murderer’s eerie basement. But student experiences in Studio V1 didn’t end with the movie’s final shots. Student projects will start filming later in 2022, and Full Sail is ready to send those graduates into professional virtual production careers.

Real-World Careers in Virtual Production

Students who work on their final projects or outside productions in Studio V1 will have plenty of help as they look for jobs at virtual production studios. Rick Ramsey, Full Sail’s Visual Arts Education Director, says that the school is already developing relationships with professional studios in a number of states.

“We partner with Vū Studios, who has spaces in Tampa. They're building a new one here in Orlando and a sister stage on our campus. They have a space in Vegas, and they're building a space in Austin, Texas, that will be part of the Vū family. We are really partnering with them to fill all those spaces with our students. There's plenty of opportunities out there.”

Outside projects will also give students the chance to spread their virtual production wings and gain experience working with clients. A few days after 9 Windows wrapped, students helped out with a spaceship scene for Space Pups, then worked on a documentary about Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole later in the week.

“We definitely want to take advantage of giving our students real-world access by having clients come in with feature films, or shorts, or commercials, and [having students] work those as well,” Rick says. “The opportunities would definitely not be, and shouldn't be, limited to the classroom at all.”

Audiences will find out if Liza defeats both a killer and her own demons when 9 Windows is released in the fall of 2022. But until then, a world of possibilities will find a place in Studio V1.