When the coronavirus pandemic shut down film and television production, Hollywood had to come up with new ways to allow casts and crews to continue to work safely. L.A. Castle Studios in Burbank, Calif., was already a one-stop shop for camera, lenses, sets, crew and lighting. But the studio, which features a full 4K virtual system powered by the Unreal video game engine, is also one of the few that can shoot with multiple freely moving cameras. That versatility, mixed with the technology, means a production can look like it takes place anywhere in the world, from the Oval Office to ancient Rome, at a fraction of what it would cost to travel there — if you could these days.
Owner Tim Pipher’s main concern was the same as that of many business owners when the shutdown happened: how to stay in business. With no productions scheduled for the foreseeable future, Pipher wasn’t sure if the company would survive.
But a call from the producers of “Graduate Together,” the virtual celebration honoring the high school classes of 2020 whose senior year had been locked down due to the health crisis, changed things. The organizers “needed to find the safest place in the industry so they could convince stars like Timothée Chalamet and Alicia Keys to come into a location and be filmed. Their research led them here,” Pipher says.
The virtual locations meant there was no set construction required and no builders needed “because everything is done on a computer by virtual set designers.” Images of students were added to both Chalamet’s speech and Keys’ piano performance of “Underdog.”
Since the majority of locations are available online, posted by artists and camera people around the world, Pipher simply buys the locale the production requires. “I pay anywhere from $30-$50, and we have a location.”
The physical layout of the studio is plenty big enough for social distancing. “We have 12,000 square feet of space, and if you had 12 people in the studio, that’s 1,000 square feet per person, so by default, you could be spread out and safe.”
Other productions Pipher has helped put together during this time include the BET Awards, CBS’ “Mission Unstoppable With Miranda Cosgrove” and the CBS special “John Lewis: Celebrating a Hero,” with John Legend and Common performing on a virtual Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Pipher has installed a MERV 13 HVAC filter in the facility so that while filming is going on inside there’s plenty of safe, clean air for those at work.
Other protocols are followed as well. “All our staff is COVID tested every three or four days depending on what productions we have coming in,” Pipher says. “The tech crew, such as the camera people or control room personnel, are separated by their own entrances and areas, and everyone stays apart and safe.”
The technology has opened up many more options for those aiming to get back to work. “If a producer wants a shark tank or a football field, we’re no longer looking at million-dollar sets,” Pipher explains.
“They’re saving money while keeping their cast and crew safe,” he adds. “It’s freeing them creatively, and that’s a great combination.”