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Virtual production, mocap, movie sets: meet Dark Matters!

This article is available in: French

Above: Handicap International campaign – behind the scenes

A big studio complex, LED walls for virtual production, motion capture: the launch of Dark Matters, next to Paris, France, did not go unnoticed. We recently caught up with co-founder and chairman Romain Cheminade. We discussed with him the latest projects of the company, their take on the virtual production market, their R&D, motion capture, as well as a partnership with French VFX studio The Yard (Indiana Jones 5, John Wick 4, The Gray Man…)

3DVF: Hello Dark Matters! Your integrated film studio complex outside of Paris, France, garnered a lot of attention at launch: with 15,000 square meters of studios, 6 stages, LED walls, and motion capture, it’s safe to say the project is ambitious. Whhat happened since then?

Romain Cheminade – co-founder & supervisor: Last year, we focused on operational setup, with a lot of construction work, although we did manage to host the production of Dogman by Luc Besson. With 200 people and around a hundred dogs, this shoot allowed us to put our facilities to the test.

Basically, the production complex has been fully operational since January 2023. So, we are now truly in the commercial launch phase, which has required the establishment of a dedicated team to promote us within the industry.

3DVF: Which productions used your facilities this year?

In projects that we can mention publicly, there’s the new advertising campaign for Handicap International. The team was very pleasant, and it’s for a good cause, so it’s really a beautiful project. French VFX studio Digital District was also involved in this campaign.

Above: the ad
Below: behind the scenes

Another recent project was the music video for Travis Scott’s song Modern Jam. An interesting experience, working with a creative American artist, with Gaspar Noé directing! We were able to collaborate closely with him and his team.

It was especially interesting because Gaspar had already had a challenging experience with virtual production in the past, and he had some reservations about it. This time, everything went well with us.

Modern Jam – Travis Scott (music video)

Another notable project was a commercial for Paco Rabanne’s Phantom perfume. We also have various advertising projects coming up at the end of the year or in early 2024, but I can’t discuss them at this stage.

3DVF: You worked on various movie projects: we know that you can’t say too much at this stage, but are these French projects, European, American?

Many of our projects are local or from Western Europe in general.

We’ve worked on interesting projects, including in the advertising sector. For instance, one project required an 8000 square meter footprint! Simply because they had the same scheduling constraints as in the film industry, with the brand’s ambassador availability being the primary concern. So, they used the shoot to create multiple campaigns simultaneously, as well as web content, photos, and more.

Since we have many European projects, the recent writers’ strike didn’t affect us much, except for projects scheduled for 2024 that were put on hold.

Behind the scenes – Phantom by Paco Rabanne ad

3DVF : What are your customers looking for? What are their needs?

For productions originating in France and Western Europe, we receive a lot of requests for 2D and 2.5D work. Full CG backgrounds are not as common.

Clients often ask us to replicate a captured environment, involving work on plates, 360° environments, live compositing in 2.5D… Our customers are quite fond of these approaches because they are already familiar with them.
It was a bit surprising for me, coming from a cinema background, as I was used to more CGI work, but at the same time it makes perfect sense.

Our largest CG project to date, in terms of the number of environments and complexity, actually is the Handicap International campaign! Three environments in Unreal, one for each country, with various disasters.

3DVF: Can you tell us about the interactions your team and you have with teams coming at Dark Matters to shoot a film or an ad? Are there concerns, for example, that virtual production might have a negative impact on their job, or people afraid of these new techniques?

We are no longer seen as outsiders; the people involved in the projects are interested and want to participate in meetings. There is a real sense of cohesion.

Even better, we are beginning to have our constraints heard, and there is a real evolution in this regard.

3DVF: This is very interesting because in the past, we’ve heard mixed feedback. Some professions like directors and cinematographers, for example, used to have fears about virtual production, concerns about their jobs, and hesitations about how to approach it…

My experience as a supervisor has kept me focused on uniting the teams, and it helps a lot. In our current projects, the exchanges with the art department, DIT (Digital Imaging Technician), DOP (Director of Photography), and the production management teams are really enriching. My feeling is that the more ambitious the project, the quicker the cohesion develops.

3DVF: At last year’s SATIS (a French trade show for the media & entertainement industry), some virtual production specialists explained they were getting tired of repetitive tasks like what we call “rouling” in France (sequences of people inside cars that are supposed to be moving, with a backdrop displayed behind them).

I don’t complain about it; it’s something that we know how to do really well, and there aren’t many issues on this kind of project. It’s a very good first approach for teams who have never used virtual production, whether it’s for in-car dialogue sequences or stunts.

This last point is important to me: France has a strong tradition of car stunts in movies, and virtual production allows us to redo shots or tie scenes together, which makes a lot of sense. I’m working heavily on these topics right now.

Dark Matters - virtual production

3DVF: Overall, in which direction is the market headed?

The technology is becoming more accessible, with more people being trained or becoming aware of this approach.

In the advertising sector, it’s almost become a reflex: clients, even if they come to us to rent traditional film studios, spontaneously think about virtual production. They ask us if certain sequences would make sense with LED screens.

More than an artistic mindset, this evolution stems from scheduling constraints: virtual production saves time and avoids constraints like outdoor weather, etc.

In the end, first assistant directors have become my best friends!

3DVF: Before moving on to another of your skills, motion capture, let’s talk a bit about ecology and R&D. Is the lower carbon footprint aspect of virtual production (compared to traditional on-location shoots) of interest to your clients? Perhaps in view of the CNC’s (National Center for Cinema and the Moving Image, a French organism that provides subsidies for movies) requirements starting in 2024 to qualify for production subsidies?

This is a fairly new topic for our clients, and they have different approaches.

We have data that we can easily provide them upon request, and we’re also working on reducing our energy consumption, both for LED panels and processors. It’s an R&D project that will be completed in mid to late 2024. We expect to save 20% of electricity while maintaining visual quality. On a 400-ampere installation, that’s significant.

Another optimization we’re working on is for the rigging and structure systems to streamline assembly/disassembly since we frequently change configurations. Improving this aspect can also reduce the carbon footprint, as the goal is to decrease the number of personnel and the time required to reconfigure the system.

3DVF: Are there other R&D projects underway at Dark Matters?

Yes, in addition to the two topics I just mentioned, we’re also working on the issue of framerates, aiming for sufficiently high frequencies to achieve true motion blur, which the camera will capture as in a traditional scene. This is a subject I’ve been passionate about for years, and we hope to reach 96 frames per second or even 128. This approach was used in the movie “Maverick.”

We’re also developing internal solutions for media playback because traditional media servers are quite general-purpose and not fully optimized for our use. We should have something to showcase in the first quarter of 2024!

Dark Matters - virtual production

3DVF: Regarding the framerate question, one possibility with high framerates is to display a green screen every other frame, potentially allowing both virtual production and green screen plates… Is this something you consider doing?

No, I’ve put that idea aside. It’s not something clients ask for spontaneously because they don’t know it’s possible, so it would be up to us to propose it. On paper, it’s a good idea, but it’s not comfortable for actors. Like with traditional green screens, after a few hours, some people can’t handle it and experience a sort of “green screen sickness.” So, for me, this technique would only make sense if it doesn’t make actors uncomfortable.

However, it does happen regularly, especially for motion control shots, that we are asked to redo a second take with a green screen camera view. Just as a reminder, in virtual production, the LED screen displays the global environment, with an area in front of the camera that takes into account its position and parallax; this is the camera view.

3DVF: Regarding motion capture, have you had any interesting projects?

Yes… But we can’t talk about them too much yet!

However, I can say that in this market, there are two major clients: animation and video games. On the gaming side, we mainly work on AA titles, not yet on AAA (Note: AAA games are big-budget blockbusters, while AA titles typically have smaller budgets).

This aligns well with the French industry, as our studios develop many narrative games that require mocap shoots.

Dark Matters - motion capture
The motion capture studio
Structure Area: 19 x 19 x 5 m (62 x 62 x 16 ft), 60 Vicon cameras, up to 8 people simultaneously, full performance capture (body, hand, facial expressions).
Dark Matters - motion capture

3DVF: A few words about Unreal Engine, since you use this engine for virtual production?

We have a very good relationship with Epic Games. We rely much less on their support now because, with the developments of the past 2 or 3 years, everything works well for our purposes.

I’d also like to mention the issue of pricing because some wonder if a new pricing structure will be implemented, potentially affecting more studios that would have to pay for using this tool, when they don’t have to at the moment. I wouldn’t find it shocking; it’s perfectly normal to support development, especially after many years of very generous pricing policies.

I must say however that Epic Games’ communication poses some challenges for us: the company emphasizes the ease of use in virtual production and the engine’s power. As a result, we sometimes have clients who arrive with only two weeks of experience using Unreal, without taking the time to truly learn the tool. Or decision-makers appointing inexperienced individuals to handle complex scenes with clouds, which need to be shot at 50 frames per second. As a result, either the scene looks bad, or it runs at 12 frames per second… Yes, it really did happen! And, of course, it’s not easy for these inexperienced individuals to manage such projects.

Unreal remains a very complex tool, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly, like any tool in our industry.

3DVF: Finally, can you tell us about the partnership between Dark Matters and French VFX studio The Yard?

We know Laurens Ehrmann (Editor’s Note: founder and VFX supervisor – The Yard) very well; he’s a friend, and we share similar values.

The Yard – showreel

The idea is to conduct tests and establish best practices since we frequently ingest CG environments from external companies. Dealing with scenes that are not optimized at all, volumetric databases with 8 billion particles, candles with 2 million polygons even though they are in the background…

In short, we want to implement methods for optimization, data ingestion, and data ingestion testing.

We are also looking to establish data wrangling processes on set at our level to send relevant data to the VFX teams. For example, what nomenclature to use to ensure that camera data is usable. Another example, our automatic color calibration process for cameras allows us to obtain distortion grids, which can be useful in VFX.

The ultimate goal is to gain expertise and provide the community with feedback on our tests, to share our results. That’s really the main objective.

We are also working with other studios, Fix Studio and Digital District, on the same issues.

3DVF: Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer our questions. We will share the results of these experiments on 3DVF when the time comes.

For more information about Dark Matters

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