Nik Summerer on Lessons Learned Working With New Volume Technology on Netflix Show ‘1899’

·3-min read

As big-scale LED technology changes the face of filmmaking, cinematographers are grappling with how to most effectively master studio systems that envelope the set in images and light from other worlds.

Speaking at the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival on Tuesday, cinematographer Nik Summerer offered lessons learned from working on the Netflix mystery series “1899” and “Dark” with the new “Volume” system of walls of LED screens – which display a live image behind actors, signifying what some call the next big leap in virtual production.

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“You need to put in the time,” said Summerer, speaking on stage with executives from camera giant Arri, which sponsored the talk and offered emerging cinematographers the chance to explore the vintage lenses used on the production, set in the world of tall ships and seafaring.

Figuring out reverse shots was one particular challenge, Summerer said, among others. “We just didn’t know anything. We did some things because we didn’t know any better.”

The solution, he said, was to have programmers flip the images on the Volume so they flowed in the opposite direction.

Once Summerer gained some mastery of the software controlling the Volume, he said, “1899” achieved a level of realism on set, with the ship deck, the sea and the sky all moving independently, that actually caused actors to feel seasick, he said.

The show, starring Emily Beecham and set to premiere on the streamer in 2022, follows European migrants on a fright-filled journey to the U.S. In shooting, the team employed a unique turntable stage built for the Dark Bay Virtual Production Stage ​at Studio Babelsberg.

The effects add realism to the story of a steamship struggling on the high seas, written and produced by Jantje Friese. Created with producer/director Baran bo Odar, the show also employs the period looks of production designer Udo Kramer.

The multi-language series is a follow-up to supernatural hit “Dark,” the team’s previous production for the streamer, which was U.S. Netflix’s first German-language original and has run to two seasons.

“1899” was initially conceived as a lavish location production to be shot onboard vessels actually at sea. But COVID-19 considerations prompted the producers to create the realism virtually in a trend industry experts agree is likely to spread fast, regardless of the pandemic.

Summerer said he worked with Arri to create a lens called the Alpha for “1899” to function on a large-format camera, an anamorphic glass that uses the same approach as the makers of “The Mandalorian,” the live-action Star Wars TV series from last year that made well-publicized use of the Volume.

Championed by Industrial Light and Magic, that system stood at 20 feet tall, surrounding the set with 270 degrees of images and was 75 feet across.

The panel discussion, which piqued the interest of emerging cinematographers who are betting on the growing use of the Volume, prompted questions on whether the massive screen arrays can sometimes block light needed to accent actors – or whether the system will be ready to take into the field at some point.

For now, the Volume is bound to large soundstages but improvements are likely in development and demand for the system is growing all the time, said Arri’s Stephan Schenk, general manager global sales and solutions.

Summerer confessed the new technology can be all-consuming. “I’ve been 117 days in the Volume – I don’t have any friends any more.”

The talk, titled “Big Screen Experience” and focused on mixed reality and virtual productions, put into context the latest technology for achieving the goal filmmakers have shared since the dawn of industry – enhancing the real world with one of their own making.

Arri experts say keeping up to date on the newest LED technologies “is game-changing for novice and seasoned filmmakers alike.”

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