The Savannah College of Art and Design has opened its second extended reality (XR) stage in Atlanta, becoming the first university to have not one, but two XR stages for students to use.
An extended reality (XR) stage – or LED Volume, as it’s also called – creates a sort of virtual image that surrounds actors as they perform, allowing them to live in the virtual space more than they would be able to do in front of a green screen. SCAD already had one LED Volume, and opened this most recent one in September of this year at its SCAD Digital Media Center.
According to Jud Estes – the associate dean for the SCAD’s School of Animation and Motion, School of Creative Technology, and School of Film and Acting – the LED volume in Atlanta is roughly 40 feet wide, 20 feet deep, and almost 18 feet tall. The walls and the ceiling are made up of almost 600 LED panels. A gaming system called Unreal Engine is used to create images on the panels, while a practical set is built on the floor.
“What you’re really looking at when you’re looking at this wall is basically an environment that’s built and rendered in real time, like if you were playing a video game,” Estes said. “But it’s photo real.”
LED volumes have recently been used in numerous film and television productions. Industrial Light & Magic – a visual effects company founded by George Lucas as he began production on the first “Star Wars” film – created “The Volume,” which has been used for Star Wars shows such as “The Mandalorian” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi.” An LED Volume was also used in the production of 2022’s “The Batman,” creating Gotham City on an immersive soundstage. But SCAD is the first university where students will be able to take classes where they can learn how to use this technology.
“We are, right now, the first school in the country where students can actually enroll in classes where they’re learning to create content for this new technology,” Estes said. “That’s great news for the students here in Georgia. They will be, hopefully, some of the first students that will be getting jobs on these.”
Estes said the use of LED volumes saw a spike in popularity after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Film and television crews couldn’t travel, and XR stages emerged as a way to continue to be able to shoot.
“We don’t really see it going back the other way too quickly, if at all,” Estes said. “It’s kind of an unstoppable economic force.”
Estes said the use of LED volumes as opposed to green screens is preferable in many ways, for both the actors and the rest of the crew as a whole. The actor doesn’t have to imagine their environment in front of a green screen, and the process of finishing a shot is simplified.
“How we would do it before, you would shoot your characters in front of a green screen stage,” Estes said. “Then you would take that footage and send that off to a visual effects house.
Once the visual effects artist had the footage, they would take all the different digital materials used and composite them all together to create what looks like one cohesive image. But with the XR stage, SCAD is able to cut down that step.
“You’ve got film directors, game designers, immersive reality creators, actors, all working on one stage at one time to get the shot they need, and then you’re done with it,” he said. “You don’t have to then send that off to a visual effects house.”
Estes also said the XR stage gives students almost unlimited freedom as to what they can create.
“We’re to the point where it’s up to their imaginations where our limits are,” Estes said. “It’s pretty amazing stuff.”