Amazon unveils big virtual production stage in Culver City

On Monday night, filmmakers, directors and special effects artists ate shrimp cocktails and miso salmon while touring Amazon Studios’ new 34,000-square-foot virtual production stage in Culver City.

Among them is director Reggie Hudlin, whose holiday comedy Candy Cane Lane, starring Eddie Murphy, will be the first feature film to be shot on stage. He cut a red ribbon with oversized scissors to officially open the studio on Monday.

Stage 15, built in 1940 and once the setting for films like It’s a Wonderful Life and RoboCop, has been transformed into the largest virtual production stage in Los Angeles.

The redesigned stage features a wall of more than 3,000 LED panels and motion-capture cameras that recreate the outside world indoors, allowing the actors to interact with the environment instead of pretending in front of a green screen.

the stage is Connected to the Amazon Web Services cloud ecosystem so creative teams can access footage filmed there in real time from multiple locations.

“All these technical breakthroughs just allow for different ways of storytelling that you couldn’t do before, maybe you couldn’t afford to go to that place, or maybe it’s technically impossible. But now you can do it and it looks and feels real,” Hudlin said in an interview. He starts filming Candy Cane Lane next week and expects to hit the stage in February or March. “It means a lot to be able to work at home and have the world here in a studio. I can go anywhere in the world or to other planets.”

With Stage 15, Amazon combines its technology and entertainment businesses and expands its commercial footprint in Southern California.

Powered by the latest gaming technology, these stages allow filmmakers to cut costs by reducing stage remodeling and giving them the flexibility to film from anywhere with continuous daylight – regardless of the time of day.

“This whole investment that we’re making is consistent with who Amazon is,” Prime Video US vice president Albert Cheng said in an interview. “We invest in new technologies and try to figure out how we can use new technologies to innovate around production.”

Amazon declined to disclose the cost of the stage, which is run by a 20-strong production team.

Planning for the project began back in the summer of 2020 as Hollywood struggled with production shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The short-term challenge was how to shoot safely and create content with limited travel, rather than a desire to shoot in multiple locations,” he said
Chris del Conte, Global Head of VFX at Amazon Studios. “The long term challenge has been how does Amazon’s VFX department support our filmmakers and provide them with the latest innovative technology to create a world within shows that goes beyond the traditional green screen post process? Virtual production has ticked boxes for both of these challenges and we have started to use them.”

The studio began using virtual techniques on productions such as the sci-fi series Solos, starring Helen Mirren; and the Chris Pine film All the Old Knives, which had much of the shooting centered around a sunset dinner.

Virtual production technology leverages advances in gaming software and goes beyond the use of green screens. Instead of performing in front of a static, blank screen, a virtual production stage allows actors and crew to interact in real-time in a three-dimensional environment projected onto LED screens.

Walt Disney’s tale of an intergalactic bounty hunger, The Mandalorian, represents one of the most well-known and inclusive uses of virtual production. About half of the first season of the hit Disney+ series was filmed in front of a 20-foot-tall, 270-degree, semi-circular LED video wall at Manhattan Beach Studios.

The ability to reduce location costs and recreate scenes from anywhere has made the technology more popular with filmmakers.

Streaming services have also helped boost virtual production as they seek to expand their content libraries, particularly as adventure, action, sci-fi and fantasy are popular with viewers, according to a report by Deloitte.

Last year Netflix bought Scanline VFX, a visual effects company in Vancouver. Netflix shows that have used virtual stages of production include drama 1899 in Berlin and sci-fi film The Midnight Sky in the UK. The streamer also used virtual production in LA for some of the driving sequences in the Blonde film.

Amazon’s virtual stage also deepens its ties to Southern California.

Since announcing it would be moving its headquarters to Culver City in 2017, Amazon Studios has expanded its on-site presence by about 630,000 square feet in the city, according to CoStar, which tracks real estate data. Amazon has also diversified the type of content it distributes, becoming the home of “Thursday Night Football” and making big bets on original shows like The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power to encourage consumers to buy Prime memberships.

Earlier this year, Amazon completed an $8.5 billion deal to buy MGM, including its library of content from movies including the James Bond franchise.

There are more than 200 million Prime subscribers worldwide, and more customers are signing up because of video content, Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy said at a New York Times DealBook summit discussion last week.

“I think that over time we have opportunities to grow our Prime Video business into a standalone business with very attractive commercials,” Jassy said.

Amazon Studios’ success could also benefit Culver City, where it’s one of the largest employers with around 2,700 employees, according to the city.

“More content, more investment will benefit the city in the long run,” Mayor Daniel Lee said.

“Amazon’s investment in virtual manufacturing has promise as it takes off and Amazon becomes a leader in this space,” said Ryan Patap, senior director of market analytics at CoStar Group. If it’s successful, he added, “it’s likely to attract more business to Culver City.” Amazon unveils big virtual production stage in Culver City

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