With The Mandalorian back on our screens for season two, now is an opportune time to talk about the screens in the show. At the heart of the Star Wars spin-off’s technical innovations are vast LED screens, which are a bit of a sci-fi marvel in themselves.
A new video from Vox gives a lucid explanation of “the volume” — a combination of physical set, 20-foot-high LED panels, and digital elements within the panels, in which around half the series was shot.
In principle, this set-up is not unlike the projected backgrounds filmmakers have been using since the silent era. The difference is that it’s smart. Harnessing a real-time engine (generally Unreal), it responds to the movement of the on-set camera by adjusting the perspective, lighting, and other elements within the panels.
Vox’s video draws on commentary from Charmaine Chan, a lead compositor at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and core member of the team that operated the volume on The Mandalorian. Chan runs through some advantages this technology has over the green screen, which it could supplant. She also touches on the hazards of the tech, including the risk that actors lose sight of where the stage ends and walk right into the panels.
LED screens have increasingly been used on film and tv productions in recent years. With its sophisticated system — formally known as Stagecraft — ILM is at the cutting edge of the technology. Its powerful simulation of location shooting gives the set-up a clear appeal in the Covid age, when the logistics of actual location shoots have become hugely complex.
It also has important implications for the production pipeline. Work that would traditionally be confined to post-production is now integrated into the production proper, with Chan called on to color-correct digital elements before the shoot. As she puts it: “I’ll be honest: I would not be mad if I never have to do a green screen keying or extraction ever again. Now I get to be a person who’s doing a shot — I can help finalize a shot in camera.”
LED screens and Stagecraft are part of a broader set of technological advances collectively known as virtual production. For more information on the subject, check out our explainer, then move on to this field guide released by Epic Games (Unreal’s developer) last year. Epic has also launched a detailed — and free — online course, the Virtual Production Primer.
The Mandalorian is available to stream on Disney Plus.