To promote this year's British Arrows awards, a collection of experts from agencies, production companies, post houses, production services and even accountancy firms were beckoned to ARRI's virtual production stage in Uxbridge to offer their views on the state of the industry.

However, despite having representatives from 750mph, No.8, The Mill, Clearcast, ETC, MKS, Eleanor, and 24/7 x RK, providing notable insights and insider bon-mots, there was one clear star of the show: ARRI Stage London itself.

Operating as an all-encompassing backdrop for the series of interviews, the stage, ably guided by DOP and ARRI Stage London consultant Robert Payton and Arrows Creative Director Michael Lenz, transformed between locations and time-of-day to create an overwhelming in-camera, and in-person, sense-tricking metamorphosis.

For those not keeping up, here's the boffin stuff: The ‘in camera LED wall’ is Ruby 2.3mm; the ceiling, which has recently been upgraded is made up of BP 2.8mm; and the reflection wall and siege engines are CB5. There is a 24-camera Vicon camera tracking rig and the playback engines they operate are Pixera and Unreal Engines. Got all that? Good.

Amazed by the technicalities involved in a shoot like this, we brought together the gang behind the project - DOP Robert Payton, and Head of Film and Entertainment at Creative Technology Connie Glover representing ARRI Stage London; Creative Director Michael Lenz, MD Lisa Lavender, and Head of Partnerships Sophie Cantopher from British Arrows - to find out how the magic was made.

British Arrows – Perspectives....with The Mill

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Above: The first of the Arrow's Perspectives films, with one being released on the awards' social media platforms every day until the night of the show.

What did you want to achieve with this year’s Arrows social films? Why was ARRI Stage London the right venue?

Sophie Cantopher: The British Arrows celebrates the best in moving-image advertising content, and for the first time last year we produced our own moving-image content, a series of social films for the Young Arrows called Access All Arrows which was highly received. 

For this year we really wanted to utilize our new partnership with ARRI Stage London and were completely taken aback by the scale and exciting possibilities of their virtual stage based in Uxbridge, which got the creative cogs turning…

Lisa Lavender: The entire advertising industry is having to adapt and be open to new technologies, especially with the proliferation of AI, so it made sense for us to experiment with virtual production and be at the forefront of this technology. 

The entire advertising industry is having to adapt and be open to new technologies.

Part event, part content production, we wanted our social films this year to be an innovative opportunity for us, and for our sponsor companies, to better understand virtual production and showcase that to the wider industry. 

Michael Lenz: We wanted to use the volume in a new way too which was exciting for us and something different for ARRI so our landscapes included procedural animations of arrowheads that added a layer of dynamism and continuity across the series and linked the content directly back to the British Arrows brand.

Above: Arrow's Jury Heads, Ana Balarin and Rick Russell, kick off proceedings with a trip to the 'beach'.

Let’s talk ARRI. How long has the stage been in operation? What’s the importance of facilities like this?

Robert Payton: ARRI and Creative Technology have been working together since mid-2020 – the studio as you see it now has been in operation since May 2021 but is continually evolving as technology changes. I guess you can say we were early adopters of the technology. 

Connie Glover: ARRI Stage London is a permanent facility that comes fully equipped with all the tools you need for shooting in VP. This provides a huge benefit for any client/company coming into the stage. Having all the equipment and technology set up in one space helps reduce the overall carbon footprint and massively improves the speed in which we can turn shoots around.

RP: I think facilities like these are important, as Connie mentioned, because there are pressures from clients and agencies to reduce our production carbon footprint. We are all morally bound to shoot sustainably; studios like this offer a real solution. 

Virtual production is not a silver bullet to end all production challenges

Virtual production is not a silver bullet to end all production challenges, but facilities like this offer another option in the filmmakers’ toolkit. With the increase in trained crew members and the burgeoning availability of content, virtual production studios will be key players alongside locations and conventional studios when deciding where to shoot.

Rob, as a consultant for ARRI Stage London, you must know some tips and tricks. What are some techniques you can employ to get things looking more realistic?

RP: Ah – so you want me to give all my secrets away! Don't get bogged down by the technology; the volume is a location and, like any other location, it comes with its unique set of challenges. Filmmakers quickly find it is a very creative and adaptable space where achieving a blend between real foreground and digital backgrounds requires a lot of attention. 

Rather than just cameras and lighting, my gear lists now tend to include wind machines and treadmills!

Above: The scale of ARRI Stage London, incorporating an ‘in camera' LED wall, an animated ceiling, and a reflection wall.

Are there particular lenses/cameras needed for shooting on the stage? How does it differ from a more conventional shoot?

RP: I have seen a vast array of cameras used on LED volumes – Robbie Ryan shot all the volume scenes on Poor Things on film. Large sensor cameras like the ALEXA Mini LF lend themselves to LED walls. Some DPs want to use anamorphic lenses; some choose spherical glass. 

Personally, I feel that using an LED volume should not restrict the director’s or cinematographer’s choice of camera or lenses too much, so I work with them to achieve that.

Lighting seemed to be a particular focus on the day of the Arrows shoot. How do you coordinate with the team running the backdrop to create an immersive experience?

RP: Communication is key. We have Unreal artists running the Brain Bar working alongside gaffers and DPs. ARRI Stage London is probably the easiest stage I work at. It has an integrated approach where fixtures replicate the immersive lighting from the wall. 

Using an LED volume should not restrict the director’s or cinematographer’s choice of camera or lenses

Cameras like the ALEXA 35 and ALEXA Mini LF talk seamlessly with the Brain Bar, manipulating content parallax and depth of field. The studio team handle the tech seamlessly in the background. 

This approach makes it very easy for conventional filmmakers to transition to immersive VP.

Let’s get technical: who is involved in the smooth running of the stage and what software/hardware does it use?

CG: ARRI Stage London is staffed full-time by both ARRI and Creative Technology. Creative Technology has two permanent employees: Callum Smith-Halvorsen and Anette Moreno. Callum is the systems guy, he works maintaining operating systems, prepping for shoots, running client demos and being a general hero from the video side. Anette is the VP Production Coordinator and works closely with the ARRI team to manage bookings, book crew and deal with content ingestion management.

They are supported by me [Connie Glover], Head of Film and Entertainment at Creative Technology.

Alongside the Creative Technology team, there is the ARRI team. This consists of Stage Manager Sean Ryan. Sean deals with quoting, management of the stage booking system, planning for shoots with the production teams that come in, logistics of the stage and generally overseeing the quality of delivery on all shoots and demos are up to standard. 

Michael Apostolou is the assistant stage manager and deals with the day-to-day running of the stage along with operating the fully integrated rigging and lighting rig.

Above: The stage's Brain Bar.

Arrows, who did you draft in to help with the films? How was the concept brought together?

LL: We’re a small team so very early on we knew that we were going to need help! The vision was developed by our Creative Director, Michael Lenz, who’s been working with Unreal Engine and Realtime for a number of years now. 

ML: Creatively the films are about PERSPECTIVE - principally reflecting on the industry. We created five natural and beautiful vistas inspired by the locations around the British Isles - from an Estuary at low tide to the top of a Scottish Munro - where our sponsors and Jury Chairs could have a moment of calm and serenity to have their reflective conversations.

Given that the brief included flying arrows in the background, the intention was never for photorealism.

The main technical priority was to make the content performant in realtime and to have enough overhead to be able to frameloc back to a reliable 25fps. Some of the five environments built in Unreal Engine also include water and wind materials and therefore needed to be deterministic across nodes and screens to be believable and not break the illusion due to tearing.

SC: Head of Production, Gemma Priggen, and Senior Production Assistant, Heza Jalloh, from Academy, both helped to produce the shoot with support from ARRI’s Marketing Manager, Katie Colledge. A small crew were booked to help on the day including DOP, Rob Payton, Lighting Crew, Sound Technicians, two Unreal Engine Tech Artists, Camera Operators, and Runners. Creative Technology and ARRI Rental kindly provided the kit and we had Jamie Madge on site running the Q&A. Final Cut and Machine provided post, edit and sound support - they’ve all done an incredible job in a really short space of time. 

Obviously, there would have been no content without the willingness of our sponsor companies to take the plunge and appear on camera - not behind it - sharing their professional and personal perspectives on challenges, innovations, surprises and hopes from the last year and future.

What were the peculiarities of this job? What were your goals?

RP: Given that the brief included flying arrows in the background, the intention was never for photorealism – it was about providing an environment that intimated different parts of the UK at different times of day in an intriguing and hopefully playful way. 

Michael Lenz did a great job of building the Unreal scenes and animating the arrows – he really embraced the technology. There was a huge pressure of time. We scheduled ten interviews in a nine-hour day: each with a 30-minute slot utilising both day and night and five different locations across the UK.

There was no opportunity to redress sets and art department, so it was very challenging, but it is scenarios like this where virtual production comes into its own.

Click image to enlarge
Above: The team created five vistas inspired by the locations around the British Isles - from an Estuary at low tide to the top of a Scottish Munro.

What’s been the most surprising thing about the running of the stage thus far? Who has impressed you with their imagination?

RP: The sheer variety of work that ARRI Stage London has attracted is the standout surprise for me; every time I get called in, there is a creative team using the space differently. HETV features, commercials, promos, even corporate keynotes. 

Outsider Films’ Dom&Nic have really embraced the space and the technology. Their work for the Chemical Brothers and Amazon pushed the boundaries of what this tech can do.

What are some of the worries you hear from directors/DPs?

RP: No two jobs are the same; sometimes a director is looking for photorealism, and sometimes they want a very graphic and stylised look. Some use the space almost like a theatre with scene changes and content changing in shot. 

No two jobs are the same.

Some commercial directors express concern that they are too tied into decision-making early on in the process. DPs want to shoot at very high frame rates, which is currently challenging.

Are projects like the Arrows interviews the norm for the facility? What sort of work would you like to see more of?

RP: I want to see more content that is written specifically for the wall rather than adapted for the wall. This excites me the most. 

When agencies and creative teams see what can be achieved, the writing is quite literally on the wall.

Above: shots' own Jamie Madge, looking like he knows what he's doing (he didn't).

Using the stage is pretty nifty - what are you doing for next year’s?

SC: How do we up the ante after this?! Perhaps British Arrows goes global to the Las Vegas sphere, perhaps we go intergalactic? We have an exciting partnership with the Outernet which is London’s leading contemporary live events space with state-of-the-art AV technology, we’re developing ideas with them. 

We want to re-launch our Access All Arrows series with all our new Young Arrows sponsors later this Summer. 

Lots in the pipeline… and did we mention the British Arrows turn 50 in 2026?! 

Dream scenario: you have time to spend on the ARRI stage in a vista of your choosing. What’s the location?

SC: Sunset, beach, cocktail…I think it’s got to be Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro or the gorgeous little beach of San Agustinillo in Mexico. Lisa and Michael agree with me!

If you can imagine it, you can be there.

RP: Monaco - I keep asking if they will put the Formula 1 Grand Prix on there each Sunday, but it would be an expensive way to watch my favourite sport! 

In all seriousness, I think that to specify a single location is doing a disservice to what can be achieved here. The fact you can be anywhere in the world easily means I don’t have to make that choice. 

For advertising, this technology is a godsend - if you can imagine it, you can be there.

A new Perspectives film will be released every day in the two-week countdown to the British Arrows Awards 2024.

Check them out on the British Arrows socials: LinkedIn, Instagram, and X, or across the news part of their website here.