"The Lion and the Firebird" is an independent epic action-adventure film set in 40,000 BCE during the last conflict between early humans and Neanderthals. A world of fierce creatures and breath-taking landscapes, where the forces of nature could determine the fate of the entire species. To bring this ancient world to life in all its glory, Director Daniel Byers and DP, Zachary Ludescher, turned to virtual production technology and some real-world lighting power from Litepanels Gemini panels.
T-Rex Sized Budgets Not Required
The filmmakers wanted to take the audience back to this time when the Ice Age was oncoming, triggered by massive volcanic activity. Originally planned as a physical production, the team soon realized it was unrealistic to achieve the five different unique environments required for the film in the limited production schedule of five days. Instead, they opted for virtual production technology in the Unreal Engine, which allowed them to build a virtual world and populate it with volcanoes, weather effects, and active lightning and eruptions.
Virtual production proved to be the most efficient solution for the film's tight budget and production schedule. It made making prehistoric filmmaking as easy as a walk in the (Jurassic) Park, allowing the film to look and feel great without the resources of a major studio. "This is a grant-funded student film – my thesis at Columbia University," says Daniel. "So, it was a kind of case test, can you use this technology at an independent scale budget level to make something that looks and feels great?"
Daniel and Zachary worked with environment designer Francisco Barros, who previously worked on Disney's "The Mandalorian." "He came on board and built all these beautiful unique environments," says Daniel. The filmmakers then shot the epic short film in an epic short time using virtual production, with only minimal special effects added in the editing room, as they did most of the work in-camera.
“"We had caves, steps, plains, erupting volcanoes, and lightning-filled stormy jungles, all in just one prep day"”Daniel ByersDirector
Making Tracks to Virtual Production
But creating a world before history came with its own set of challenges. One of the biggest hurdles the team faced was figuring out how to bring the lighting to life to be both convincing and immersive. Zachary, who has a background in visual effects, was eager to explore the possibilities of LED volume walls and virtual production. "The physical space was at World Stage in Manhattan," says Zachary. "It is an older space, converted into an LED studio with a three-wall volume rather than a curve."
Utilising the studio's MoSys tracker with a Sony Venice camera, and the LED stage, they achieved beautiful levels of immersion. "Zachary came up with a brilliant lighting design that made it possible for us to quickly realize scenes, crucial for finishing the movie in time," says Daniel. With a steep learning curve, the first few days were challenging, but the crew soon found a rhythm and were moving quickly in no time.
Zachary had just one day to rig his lights for the five-day shoot, and he had to contend with unique challenges such as the emitted light from the floor, which created an under light that could kill the illusion. "When do you get underlit by grass?" he says. "Definitely not a thing that happens in real life." He spoke to the tech crew, who told him he could turn off the floor everywhere except where it needed to be rendered out. "Once I did that, it was a game changer," he adds.
Selling the effect
To create active lighting effects, like lightning flashes and erupting volcanoes, Zachary cued events in Unreal and disguise to trigger the effects. "A lightning flash or the explosion of a volcano in the background emits some light from the volume, but not anywhere near enough. So, we must supplement it," says Zachary. To supplement the effects, he used Litepanels Gemini 2x1 LED panels. "The Geminis came in particularly useful because we could hook them up to the DMX board and I would cue them all together," he says. "Let's just say all right, cue lightning and then they would trigger the lightning effect in the volume at the same time as they triggered the lightning effect from the Geminis, which was really crucial for selling the effect."
Working with an LED volume presented a unique set of challenges, but Zachary could overcome them and deliver an exceptional lighting design. He used four Litepanels Gemini 2x1 Soft panels as the key light, with two additional 2x1s on the floor for fill. The Geminis were powerful and soft, allowing them to work for various purposes.
Geminis to Fire: You’re History!
"We used the Geminis in some creative ways," says Daniel. "This is an ancient world that's lit by firelight. Fire making is an interesting part of our collective human history. We have a scene where the Neanderthal character in the film is burning a fire using what they call an Apache match. A bundle of parched loose grass sticks with coals in the centre that is ever-burning so that you can blow on it and start up a fire after travelling. For that scene, we used a Gemini 1x1 Soft." Zachary adds, "This is where the form of the 1x1 works really well.
“It's so small, you can put it on the floor just out of frame and then you tilt the camera up and you can see the firelight effects. The Gemini lights have some great built-in effects.”Zachary LudescherDirector
The Geminis were the workhorses for Zachary, and so powerful he rarely used them at 100% output. "Geminis are so useful because they have big output that is also soft, so they work for whatever I need them to be," he says. "Sometimes I would just work with them as they are, and they hit well and then if I needed something softer, I would put a silk in front of them." And with the added benefit of being able to adjust the lights on the fly, Zachary could tweak the lighting to match the desired effect, rather than having to adjust in post-production.
The power output of the Gemini lights proved crucial in overcoming technical limitations on the set, particularly in relation to the refresh rate of the space. By shooting at 60 frames per second, Zachary could achieve slow-motion shots while compensating for the low refresh rate of the space.
“Thanks to the power of the Litepanels lights, I never felt like I was lacking for firepower. And that used to be an issue before Gemini.”Zachary LudescherDirector
Scream Fest to Film Quest
"The Lion & The Firebird" premiered on the big screen at Scream Fest in LA. "It was an incredible experience to watch it the way movies are supposed to be watched," says Daniel. The film also played at Film Quest, a genre film festival in Provo, Utah, which, according to Daniel and Zachary, is "the most fun film festival in the universe". As the film continues to do the festival circuit for the time being, the team is looking for other homes for it in 2023. But for now, they're just enjoying the road.