“It’s Filmmaking First, Always”:
Inside Aggressive’s Approach to Virtual Production

09 August 2023

Written by

Zhenya Tsenzharyk, LBB

LBB’s Zhenya Tsenzharyk speaks to Daniel Shapiro & Alex Topaller about VP’s ability to turn a set into multiple new realities, help talent to shine, & work in camera to create impossible worlds.

The Sweetshop

Seeing is believing, the adage goes. And seeing Aggressive's work - fuelled by live action, design, technology, and visual effects - makes you believe in the impossible.

The team behind the creative production company, lead by Alex Topaller and Daniel Shapiro, founders and executive creative directors, have been pushing the limits of virtual production from the very start. Their magic touch can be seen on projects for Amazon, Acura, Verizon, Huawei, and Bloomberg.

While virtual production often rears its head in conversation, there’s somewhat of a disconnect between the full extent of what makers like Aggressive are capable of and what agency and brand clients presently understand about VP techniques. For Aggressive, VP is “the bridge between traditional live-action filmmaking techniques together with design and animation.” Alex adds, with a laugh: “We started using LEDs very early on and adding them to all the projects we could.” The benefits of VP are myriad; from extended control and ability to execute bigger creative ideas, to providing talent with environments they can more easily react to. VP is then enhancing, not replacing, filmmaking.

Creative Control

Choctaw Casino, a long-standing client, recently turned to the team to promote three of their properties, asking for something that was cool and beauty-driven. One of the options was getting a film crew to spend several days in each casino, travelling across the US with a full crew and all the equipment in tow (and racking up quite a bill in the process). Aggressive proposed a different solution. Dan took a small crew to the different locations and shot the back plates; the team then went to Warsaw and created all the spots on a stage with LED projections.

All the LED projections are real, showcasing the locations as they really are. What adding the VP element allowed Aggressive to do is exercise unprecedented levels of control over the shoot, like executing complex loops with motion control, translating the Casino’s real locations into surreal scenarios, and giving the whole campaign a stylized, high-fashion aesthetic. Highlighting their food and cocktails, Aggressive crafted nuanced tabletop setups framed against LED visuals - “Using VP allowed us to showcase their flame-broiled steaks, their craft drinks in dynamic, unexpected, yet totally real ways that wouldn’t have been possible conventionally. The effects you’re seeing are real reflections on the glass and the tray; it’s not green screen, it’s not fake,” says Dan.

“It would be impossible to go to the casino’s bar and capture these detailed table-top shots. It needs to be done in the studio. With VP, we were able to capture the setting and then bring that into the studio for the final touches,” adds Alex.

A recent spot for the University of Massachusetts showcases further how VP is used to enhance productions. The shot was constructed using a studio set of a train car; the views outside the window were courtesy of an LED screen using animations produced using Unreal Engine. “Even standing there on set, it could have fooled you into thinking the train was moving. The animated scenery was carefully researched to accurately represent the greater Boston area. The light that falls on the seat is real, it’s all in camera, which allows us to play with perspective, stop or reverse while keeping the essence of the environment,” explains Alex.

Dan follows: “With VP, you can be a bit looser with your filmmaking, unlike with green screen. The camera can move organically, you’re not worried about tracking, about cutting it out. It all blends together visually.”

Immersive sets, better performances

Besides the creative and logistical opportunities afforded by VP, there are also benefits to talent and clients. On the talent side, VP and XR (extended reality) provide an immediate, immersive environment. That’s a bonus for actors and professional presenters, like in the production of Amazon’s ‘Prime Rewind: Inside The Boys’ companion TV series.

Aggressive used real-time CG scenics mapped across massive LED walls and floor, together with live camera-tracking and XR, to design the set and the show package. “The client asked us to do it all on green screen and we knew it wasn’t the right approach. Instead, we created something that looks unified and that the host, Aisha Tyler, reacts to in real time,” Dan says.

The Aggressive team pushes this process one step further, offering even more immediacy where possible to give clients a preview of what the finished product will look like almost in real time. “We make a point of bringing an editor on set so even as we’re shooting, we can start cutting it together too. It’s a bit of a wow factor for clients,” Dan admits.

On one shoot, the producer was sure that everyone would need to work over Thanksgiving and weekends to deliver the project on time. Instead, Aggressive delivered a rough cut by the end of the day thanks to meticulous planning, animatic pre-visualization, and on-set cutting. “Even for something that’s as complex and design driven as the OnePlus spot, for example, the rough cut was ready by the end of the day. The concert we shot for Alicia Keys was done on a Monday and we delivered it on Thursday,” Dan recalls, referencing the XR set the company designed for the performance, consisting of three predesigned triggerable environments that the team controlled during the set.

“For the first two years of Aggressive, we shot everything on green screen - that was what we had. It wasn’t the best experience to have to get everyone psyched each day as they arrived at a bare set,” Dan and Alex say.

It’s clear that for Aggressive, VP isn’t a set of blinkers narrowing their filmmakers’ eye. Instead, it’s an enhancer they’ve mastered and that they’re able to apply to situations where its involvement will amplify creativity, budget, along with the very realm of what’s possible.