Rowan film professor reaches new HIGH through virtual production

Rowan film professor reaches new HIGH through virtual production

Virtual HIGH: cell tower scenes simulated in Hollywood studio

The narrative could hardly be more topical: Set on a cell tower 300 feet above ground, a crew builds infrastructure for the latest mobile technology, but the sting of recent catastrophe hangs over them.

As the team works aboard the platform, a film crew captures all the high-wire action laden with danger. There’s no net, no green screen for special effects, no special insurance covering the actors and filmmakers.

And there doesn’t need to be. That’s because there’s no real danger to the cast and crew and, in fact, no real platform 300 feet in the air.

The platform is just three feet off the floor of a high-tech Hollywood studio and the stunningly realistic scenes atop a cell tower result from dynamic new technology – virtual production – that was previously used mostly in video game creation, but which Rowan University professor Jonathan Mason is helping expand to the big screen.

Though virtual production techniques have been used to some extent outside of gaming, as in the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, Mason believes that applying them to film has the potential to dramatically change the art form.

“HIGH is a drama about a telecom tower climber, his crew and his family and it’s serving as a bit of a case study for virtual production applications in the indie space outside of sci-fi/fantasy,” said Mason, who's co-directing the film with his writing partner, Tisha Robinson-Daly. “The development of our project was first supported by the Sundance Institute, Stowe Story Labs and Tribeca Film Festival and this year HIGH received a competitive Epic Games MegaGrant, which helped to support our shoot of a proof of concept.”

Mason, a professor of Radio, Television & Film in the Ric Edelman College of Communication & Creative Arts, said proofs of concept – short versions of films made to raise funding to complete full productions – are common in the industry.

“We shot the proof in L.A. with a stellar team that included crew from The Mandalorian, Boba Fett and Avatar who were all drawn to our project because of the script and the opportunity to experiment with something more photorealistic,” Mason said.

Christmas rush

“Our film is about this climber and his crew and the rush to get 5G set up by Christmas so Verizon and other companies can sell more phones,” he continued. “There’s an accident on the tower and someone gets killed… For me, it’s the idea of commodity industries (like cell phones) that we take for granted. We live by this thing 24/7, but there are humans with lives of their own who are doing this job so we can have them.”

Mason said shooting on an actual cell tower would be prohibitively costly and dangerous, but making it with traditional effects, like green screen technologies, would not look as realistic as creating a partially virtual environment because of a lack of parallax – the movement of objects in the background in relation to the camera.

By creating environments using photogrammetry from Google Earth as stand-ins for real locations, and then tweaking them in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine game design software, filmmakers can stretch the limits of visual storytelling in a manner that’s safer and more cost effective, Mason said.

He said the developing form of hybrid filmmaking, which he’s writing about in articles for Filmmaker Magazine and American Cinematographer, is changing the industry, especially for independent movie makers like himself.

At Rowan, students will soon be able to use virtual environments to previsualize and test location lighting scenarios, camera movements, and composition – preparation they’ll be able to then replicate on a physical set, and soon, a virtual stage.

“When you’re an indie filmmaker, a large part of the challenge is problem solving,” Mason said. “Because you have no (studio) money and limited resources… there’s an inventiveness that's part of the rush.”


Watch the HIGH proof of concept teaser now! (Stay tuned for the end to see virtual production techniques in action.)