Magazine article American Cinematographer

Creating a Virtual New York for 24

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Creating a Virtual New York for 24

Article excerpt

Season eight of the series 24 features a United Nations peacekeeping crisis and a nuclear terrorism threat hanging over New York City. The show isn't shot in New York, nor has the production traveled aaoss the continent to film typical establishing shots, but that is the real U.N. headquarters visible in the background behind the CounterTerrorism Unit's office. Thanks to Stargate Studios' digital chicanery, 24's director of photography, Rodney Charters, ASC, CSC1 is able to exploit virtual New York sets without ever leaving LA. "This idea of texture-wrapping reality into a virtual space and then reshooting it, motion-tracking it and slaving it to real camera movement is what we're into," says Stargate founder Sam Nicholson, ASC.

Virtual sets are not new, but the most photo-realistic ones are usually seen in big-budget projects courtesy of VistaVision or high-end datacine cameras. That idea was turned on its head with the introduction of Canon's EOS 5D Mark Il digital SLR, which is capable of high-definition-video recording. The camera has an 18-megapixel sensor and costs $3,000-$4,000 fully outfitted. "A standard HD sensor is down in the 6-, 8- or 12-megapixel range," says Nicholson.

Still-photo plate elements as well as high-definition moving elements are shot in High Dynamic Range, which enables Nicholson's team to "access a lot of color depth and range, " he says. "A standard HD frame is about 6MB uncompressed in DPX, whereas any one of our Virtual Backlot frames is running at 1 00-200MB. They are massive, but I can zoom in 800 percent and the resolution holds up."

If you composite a foreground element into a 2-D HDR background, the resulting image will look flat and fake, and 24's handheld shooting style complicates matters. "The plates have to be what we call 'dimensionalized' - texture-mapped onto three-dimensional surfaces," explains Nicholson. "When you move handheld on your foreground subject, your background retains all the proper parallax so that it doesn't appear to be flat. The midground is really what this is about: The further out you go toward infinity, the flatter things become, so the background can be flat while the midground is dimensionalized and the foreground is live action. …

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