Komixx Entertainment explores virtual production on ‘Itch’

'Itch', shooting against Last Pixel LED screens. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

The second instalment of ABC/Komixx Entertainment’s Itch was the first drama to recommence in Western Australia last year, thanks in part to virtual production technology used to contain sets.

Like many in the industry, Komixx Entertainment MD and head of global production Amanda Morrison had followed with interest the technology used by Jon Favreau on Disney’s The Mandalorian.

After then attending an R&D demo of LED screens by Perth company Last Pixel, she was convinced virtual production could be done locally on Itch.

Indeed, the pandemic seems to have ramped up broader industry interest in VP as such shoots can allow for smaller crews, contained sets, and the technology can create photo-realistic environments.

Set up within ABC Studios, Last Pixel provided Komixx with both the VFX and LED screens to be used for simulated car chases and scenes within an underground bunker. Morrison believes Itch may be the first children’s series in Australia to employ such virtual production techniques.

The team used a 22 x 4 metre wall, built with live events company Mediatec, comprising 6.4 million individually programmable LEDs across 144 panels. Like The Mandalorian, the production then utilised Epic Games’ Unreal Engine to build the virtual sets – animated from photographs – that were then projected behind the actors.

Trackers volume-capture the movement of the camera, with the real-time engine then updating to render the virtual from the camera and display on the LEDs.

“In the context of the COVID-world we’re in, it helped us to mitigate and control a very key location on our shoot,” Morrison tells IF.

The technology itself isn’t necessarily cheap, but there are cost benefits.

“We were able to licence a large underground bunker scene with a cyclotron that was used on the LED panels and shot in camera with a small set build and dressing; the equivalent set would have been really expensive and difficult to build.”

While was a learning curve involved, the producer foresees using the technology into the future.

“Once we had learnt the limitations of where the technology currently sits in regards to on set lighting and cameras, we were able to create a much richer world on screen; the on screen production value speaks for itself.”

Most of all, technology offers producers and directors unprecedented flexibility on set. It has also allowed the post-production process to be faster and more cost-effective given there is no need composit in, as you would with green screen.

“If we wanted to darken the sky, we could. If we wanted to move particular trees, we could,” says Morrison.

“To be able to see in real-time what normally would be done in post-production is a significant change.”

In addition to the studio work, Itch, which is based on the novels by UK author Simon Mayo, was shot over nine weeks across the Great Southern and Peel regions, as well as around Perth.

The second series sees titular character Itchingtam Loffe, a science-obsessed teenager, investigate with his friends why dead fish keep washing up on the shores of Seaburgh after a boat explosion.

Itch season two is currently in post and expected to air on the ABC later this year. The first season sold to various territories including BYUtv for the US and CBBC for the UK.