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All hands on deck: creating an immersive experience for 1899


Set on a migrant steamship, Netflix's mystery series 1899 tells the stories of a multicultural cast in search of new lives in the US, whose journey quickly becomes a nightmare. The show's innovative use of virtual production aimed to immerse viewers entirely in the drama. Collaboration between creative, technical, and production partners would be key to its success.

ARRI was already a long-term partner, having supported showrunners Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar on Dark through rental and postproduction services. ARRI Solutions, ARRI's dedicated team for designing and engineering high-end production studios, took responsibility for the planning, commissioning, and technical integration of the 1899 project. Cinematographer Nik Summerer takes us behind the scenes of this fascinating shoot.

Copyright Netflix

Cinematographer Nik Summerer captured 1899 in a virtual production environment

What were the main properties of the stage and how did they influence the shooting process?

To have a close-to-perfectly lit and naturalistic looking environment, you want to surround yourself with as much screen real estate as possible. That's why volume studios are built in a half-circle or elliptical shape. A perfect studio would most likely be a full circle, but you can't really do that because you need a large opening to bring in the physical sets and film equipment. So, the remaining opening-think of it as a light gap-you close with either additional movable screens or supplementary lighting. I chose to work with the latter for flexibility reasons.

All of our ship set builds were elevated, so that most of our framing angles would never see the real stage floor, which removed the need for replacement in post. Our most innovative element was a revolving turntable built into the stage floor. It was very important for our director that the volume did not restrict his way of filming a scene. This meant after the wide shots, you move into closer shots and then turn around for the reverse angle. However, if you have a fixed foreground set that only allows filming in one direction, the reverse can only be achieved if you basically flip the whole set 180 degrees. That's a very time-consuming process, and you risk losing the chemistry in the scene. With the turntable, which turns a full circle in about three minutes, we could quickly set up for the reverse shot, with the main lights and crane base already in position.

Copyright Netflix

An innovative revolving turntable in the stage floor was an integral part of the virtual production design

Lighting also plays a huge part in creating authenticity in virtual production-can you tell us more about the approach for 1899 ?

Overall, lighting is a critical element in a volume, because how well you can match the foreground to the background determines how successful the final picture will be. Certain elements within the backdrop asset can be shifted around, but it's the careful marriage of the foreground to the background scene that creates the illusion of one cohesive world that you're immersing your characters into. There are many different workarounds, and I'm hearing DPs trying different approaches, but what worked well for me is having a combination of professional luminaires that augment and complement the lighting source established on the volume screens.

In our testing phase, we found that replicating skin tones within the volume would be very challenging. There is a vast range of different skin tones in our cast that we had to consider, from pale, porcelain skin and red hair to brown and black skin tones, to characters with a lot of facial hair, like our captain for example. The light and color quality coming from the LED wall provided brightness, but not the distinct natural colors we needed. Mixing with another wider spectrum light source like the ARRI SkyPanel gave me higher-quality skin color rendering and a much better base to work from in the grade.

Copyright Netflix

Wider spectrum light sources such as ARRI SkyPanel fixtures ensured higher-quality rendering for skin tones and fine details

The series is incredibly atmospheric-how important was the lighting to the overall effect?

The lighting was critical. There's a lot of water in the series, naturally, but weather also played a huge part, with cloud rushes, fog, storms, rain, and lightning creating an atmospheric backdrop. Our volume stage was rigged with a large toplight, containing nine individual softboxes filled with a large amount of ARRI SkyPanels. This setup gave me the control I needed to enhance the drama of the atmospheric details in the environment we wanted to create.

What were your camera choices, and were these influenced by the volume shoot?

When filming in a volume, you want to avoid having the LED screens in focus, which led us to a large format camera-the ALEXA Mini LF. The camera gave me the immersive large-format look that I really like and could be fed with a genlock signal to communicate directly with the LED wall. The director and I wanted to work with anamorphic lenses to wrap the story in a certain characteristic look and feel. Additionally, the anamorphic lenses helped us soften the screens in the background even further. To get that specific lens look, I collaborated with Christoph Hoffsten at ARRI Rental. We experimented and ultimately customized a series of ALFA lenses with bespoke elements to give me the balance of bokeh, highlight flare, and enhanced focus fall-off that I was after for our storytelling.

Copyright Netflix

Shooting with the ALEXA Mini LF and customized ALFA lenses gave an immersive large format look that DP Nik Summerer wanted to capture within the LED volume

Did your approach to scene composition change when working within the LED volume?

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