TAMPA — The area’s newest production studio is as rare as Star Wars’ tiny green Jedi.
Only three of those aliens are known in that cinematic universe — Yoda the Jedi master, the female Yaddle seen briefly in The Phantom Menace, and Grogu, the star of The Mandalorian series better known as pop culture sensation Baby Yoda.
There are also only three known production studios in North America with LED Volume wraparound screens measuring over 100 feet long, Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said.
HBO has one in Toronto. Lucasfilm has the another in Southern California. It is being used to create the worlds Baby Yoda visits in The Mandalorian.
On Wednesday, the third was unveiled inside the former University Mall, now Rithm at Uptown, where commercial production company Diamond View Studios constructed a new 10,000-square foot production studio named Vū.
“They are extremely rare,” said Martinolich, who estimates there are another dozen LED Volume screens measuring under 100 feet in North America.
LED Volume screens are a new way to create virtual locations.
An image cast in real time onto a background screen with a projector has a low resolution, so it looks dull and obviously fake on TV and the big screen.
So most studios place a blank screen — usually colored green — in the background of a shot. Editors then digitally remove the screen and replace it with a virtual backdrop.
LED Volume screens digitize the virtual image in high resolution in real time as the scene is shot, allowing the actors and crew to interact with the environment as though it is authentic.
The background can also move with the camera rather than remaining static.
“Instead of going in and imagining what the background is, you do hyper realistic, photorealistic backgrounds so that when you shoot on camera, it looks like you’re there,” Diamond View CEO and founder Tim Moore said. “Backgrounds are fully immersive, fully interactive. What you see is what you get.”
Diamond View’s 100-foot curved screen extends 20 feet high, is made up of 360 panels and weighs 13,000 pounds, Moore said.
They are still adding to it. A ceiling screen is currently being installed and Diamond View plans to extend the wall length to 240 feet, which could make it the largest in North America, Moore said. There is no timeline on when it will be complete.
Lucasfilm’s is 180 feet, Moore estimates. HBO has not announced the size of their screen, but Moore has heard it measures around 200 feet.
Diamond View — whose clients include the Atlanta Braves and the University of Florida — is currently headquartered in a 10,000-square foot facility at 1616 E. Bearss Ave. in Lutz, but will move all operations to their Vū studio early next year.
The LED Volume screen is already in use. Last week, a Mercedes Benz spot was shot in the Vū studio.
Moore expects it will be frequently used for Super Bowl spots when the big game arrives in Tampa in February. He also foresees big budget movies and episodic television shows using it.
Martinolich agrees the screen means big things for the Tampa Bay area productions scene.
Big budget films and commercials typically shoot in markets outside of Hollywood that provide the largest tax incentives, such as Georgia.
Hillsborough and Pinellas counties offer incentives large enough to lure productions with seven-figure budgets, but Florida lacks a state program offering the big bucks.
“But, if a film needs the LED Volume screen technology, they have to go where it’s at” rather than where there are incentives, Martinolich said. “It is that rare. That means nothing is off the table as far as potential projects, no matter the budget size.”
Until the pandemic is over, the LED Volume screen also provides a safer way to shoot large productions.
“Instead of having a crew of 100 people building sets and creating walls, we do it all digitally,” said Moore, whose company also has a robotic camera operated via remote control from an adjoining room, so there’s no crew on set with the actors.
Moore predicts that even once people get COVID-19 vaccinations, some production companies will still prefer to use the LED Volume screen over building background sets.
“It will be the new normal,” Moore said.