For those who don't know, The Volume is like a highly advanced digital green screen that can show realistic environments in real-time on set.
The technology was first used in The Mandalorian Season 1, where it was heavily praised. Now, over a dozen projects have used The Volume, including The Batman, Thor: Love & Thunder, House of the Dragon, and more.
Using The Volume on Percy Jackson and the Olympians
In an exclusive interview with The Direct’s Russ Milheim, Percy Jackson and the Olympians cinematographer Pierre Gill spoke in great detail about the challenges presented by using The Volume technology.
First, the filmmaker was asked about how they approached this new series while keeping in mind the previous theatrical adaptations, two films released in the early 2010s that starred Logan Lerman and which weren't received well.
Gills shared how, visually, they “didn't want to do [the series] like the movie at all” since this new show was strictly “a new take on it:”
“... We didn't want to have any relation with the film. It was a new take on it. It was fresh, completely new characters--younger, closer to the book. And again, more down to Earth. So yeah, we didn't want to do it like the movie at all. There was no discussion about that. So you know, for me, as it's important for the discussion to go through] first of lenses, how you get close to characters, and it does change the storytelling with cinematography in those ways. It could be very subtle, but it's very precise at the same time.”
Part of that new take was how the Disney+ series embraced modern technology, such as The Volume.
Gill shared how they wanted to use The Volume “as much as possible” but that it was “quite a challenge because it’s more difficult to get realistic” with the technology:
“So we use The Volume a lot. So I work with [Industrial Light & Magic] ILM, they created, they built a Volume for that specific show… The goal was trying to do it as much as possible. And then it became quite a challenge because it's more difficult to get realistic in The Volume. So we worked really, really hard by working in the background, the texture, the depth... I had to adapt my whole shooting…”
One of the challenges would be matching lighting between work on stages and on location. Even on location with natural lighting, Gill admitted he’d have to add a little extra to make it line up with their work on The Volume:
“When I shot locations or stages, I always, even outside, sometimes outside it was okay, I'll put a bit more light on the faces because I cannot leave it too extremely natural because of The Volume. It's not gonna link. So, this is technically very complex. But we've done a lot of things... The interior mat, I think, was very successful. Almost all of it is in camera. We relight everything, we place lights in the background on the wall... I was lighting with ILM's team, the exact contrast, the exact bounce on the floor trying to, you know, pursue my concept of like the feel of the lighting on the show.”
Gill explained how they did “almost all” of the “Minotaur sequence” in The Volume while also touching upon how important the size of the trees in the forest was:
“... We've done the Minotaur sequence almost all of it [in The Volume]—Inside the car, fighting with the Minotaur, talking with his mom on do the rain with the car lights, all the forests behind, I painted it with the ILM team prior to, and I had just done the forest with them because you know, they built a forest... Me, if I was going on location at night, I would not do that. And I would [be able to] pick a different forest for some reason because I want depth of field. So I would put fog far away… So we changed the size of the trees because of this. So we extended the pine trees... [So they were] not as fat. The first trees that they did were very fat. And after we went longer with more depth, [trying] to create [the best picture].”
Their recreation of the forest was so successful that even some of the crew members “had no idea which tree was real or not:”
“And then at the end, there was like big trees, and I asked them to light those trees like the car lights would light them. And so I had car lights on The Volume when the mom is talking with Percy. But the trees that you see behind her are virtual, and they’re live. We're shooting them live. So that was very, very successful, very cool. I was very happy. It's very difficult. It's a lot of work. But it's very rewarding… Once we got on The Volume, people got to a point [where] they had no idea which tree was real or not. It was really great.”
The team even went as far as bringing in part of Percy’s mom’s car to The Volume to help blend it in with the virtual background:
“We brought a part of the car in The Volume, so the lights are real. Half of the car is fake, and everything next to the car is fake. In front, we put a little fence, and we mix the herbs. But then it gets very complex because you have to find the right color of the greenery in the forest that you're gonna also put on your Volume set. And this is where it gets very difficult to match these two worlds…”
The cinematographer proudly detailed how all of The Volume scenes for the Minotaur set piece were “almost all in camera” with very “little touch up:”
“It's completely built... [and] completely Volume. And it's almost all in camera. There's little touch-up. Because, of course, you have to do some touch-ups. You have to erase a camera around The Volume and fix the ceiling that you can see sometimes…”
The filmmaker went on to elaborate on how they were able to utilize The Volume as well as they did, which included making sure both he and the team at ILM had matching camera packages:
“So, to be able to achieve The Volume so well, I've asked production to have another camera package exactly the same as my camera package that I was using on the shoot. I'm using Cooke lenses, a Venice 2, and we have three of those cameras and lenses. I [asked] the production for ILM to use a Venice 2 and Cooke lenses to do the testing. Because you have to test before you shoot… Before they were doing [it] with a RED camera, with a spherical lens, and I told them we wouldn't be able to judge it. It's not gonna work. We have to be like, on the dot... So, they were so happy because what happened is that all the world that we're doing, when I was coming back with my camera, was exactly the same…”
Another standout sequence of the series utilized The Volume was the Tunnel of Love, which “was very complicated” to pull off:
“I mean, the Tunnel of Love was very complicated... So this is done in The Volume. All of it is picture-perfect like there is no touch-up. This one is one of the best Volume [scenes] ever. I'm pretty sure. It was unbelievable.”
The crew had to “synchronize” how the boat traveled alongside the scripted images on The Volume:
“How do we make this [boat] travel?... Okay, how do we synchronize the speed of this thing going by with the script with the drawings with what they're saying? It became very complicated... It was like a music video because we had to find exactly the timing of the thing and what speed… Because you cannot adjust too much once you build it… I was like, well, let's build these little lights in the tunnel that are broken a little bit... They're dim, but we are going to feel [like] we're traveling all the time this slowly. And then all the animation painting goes around. We can change the speed of this. But we don't change the speed of the boat because that's going to be a problem. It has to flow at one speed until it gets to the end…”
Pierre Gill continued, revealing how they had a “very shallow” pool built with “some guys hiding in the water” to slightly move the “boat left to right:”
“We built a pool in The Volume, just very shallow. And we have some guys hiding in the water just moving the boat left to right. And we very slowly move the camera and nothing movie, it was all planned and everything went around. And it's really cool.”
The filmmaker then brought up how important colors were to the show, as he feels many “shows now are very desaturated:”
“... On this show, one thing I wanted to do is to keep color. Because a lot of shows now are very desaturated… It's harder to keep color than not keeping it, and the show has colors. You know it's colorful. It's not over the top. I don't think it's cheesy colors. That's what I didn't want to do, of course, but there's color… And so, in that Tunnel of Love, It was the feast of like these beautiful deep purples and pinks and blues and greens. And to shoot that was, I mean, people have to see the making of this. It's phenomenal. I mean, it's phenomenal because they're just in the middle.”
Gill mentioned how proud he was of one particular little detail in the Waterland sequence, which involved a pink neon light as Percy and Annabeth entered the Tunnel of Love:
“And one of the I'm very proud before the Tunnel of Love, they go into the Water Land Park, that was built on a stage. And when... they see the Tunnel of Love, I [asked], 'Can I have a small fluorescent? It's going to be pink.' So we put this up... so they're in the studio on a stage, and they get into their little boat inside the Tunnel of Love. And when you see them the first time inside the Tunnel of Love behind them, it's just that pink light. The pink light was created by my artist at ILM, putting this light on the screen, matching what I've done or what I was going to do because I don't know which one I shot first on a stage. And the match is perfect. And it's these moments are very, very rewarding and fun for us.”
When it came to crafting the main visual language of the show as a whole, the creative team aimed to “really keep it natural and real” and to “keep it as a character-driven story:”
“I mean, the main concept was, for all of us, the showrunner, Dan Shots, and John Steinberg, was to really keep it natural and real. That was the main goal all the time. Keep Percy a normal guy. Don't make it over the top... We didn't try to do like a superhero type of show. We want to keep it as a character-driven story. And that was my take when I read the script. And when I had discussions with the showrunners. It was clear for them it was the main theme to keep.”
The Increasing Use of The Volume Across Projects
The Volume technology can certainly work wonders.
It's mind-blowing to hear how the scene with Percy and his mom in the rain was done on The Volume. That entire sequence was incredibly well done and is a perfect example of how to use the technology.
As great as The Volume is, the technology has been growing out of favor with fans. It has started to become extremely noticeable in lots of projects, creating an inauthentic and cheap to everything.
It can stick out like a sore thumb due to its tendency to require circular set pieces. Some productions can also do a poor job of blending the physical stage into the large LED backdrop.
Ahsoka DP Eric Steelberg previously shared with The Direct how another challenge of using the tech is the intense “amount of prep work” that’s needed to create its “three-dimensional sets.”
So far, it's safe to say Percy Jackson and the Olympians has done a commendable job with the technology.
The Volume will next be seen in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars Disney+ series The Acolyte.
Percy Jackson is now streaming on Disney+.