Case study: How Netflix series 1899 pivoted from location to virtual production

KFTV VIRTUAL PRODUCTION REPORT: The production team behind 1899 tell KFTV how they built a virtual set from scratch to reproduce life at sea 

By Adrian Pennington 22 Mar 2022

Case study: How Netflix series 1899 pivoted from location to virtual production
1899 filming at the Dark Bay stage: Credit: Alex Forge/Netflix

CASE STUDY: 1899 series

This is part of our comprehensive Virtual Production Report, sponsored by leading virtual studio LEDunit

1899 is a multi-lingual series about a group of migrants who leave London on a steamship to start new lives in New York, but when they encounter another migrant ship adrif in the sea there journey turns into a nightmare.

Produced by: Dark Ways for Netflix

In prep since 2018, Netflix period mystery thriller series 1899 was planned to shoot on location in Spain, Poland and Scotland. When the pandemic hit, the show pivoted wholesale to virtual production. 

The only problem was, there was no VP stage big enough to house a project of this scope. 

Showrunners Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, creators of supernatural drama Dark, set their period mystery on a migrant boat sailing from Europe to the United States. 

“We started out as a pan European show in multiple countries, a big travelling circus, before Covid hit,” says Philipp Klausing executive producer of 1899 and managing director of Berlin-based production outfit Dark Ways. “Volume technology was just emerging. We ended up shooting 90% of the show in a studio environment over nine months.” 

Netflix co-financed the build of new VP facility Dark Bay at Studio Bablesberg under the management of bo Odar and Friese’s production outfit Dark Ways. 

The showrunners sought advice from Barry Idoine, the DP who had shot episodes of The Mandalorian. They hired Framestore, Oscar winners for virtual production vfx on Gravity, to become the show’s VFX and VP producers. 

“The main challenge was the fact that the volume didn’t exist before we started shooting,” explains James Whitlam, MD, Episodic, Framestore. “It meant an enormous amount of testing. We had a test volume in London but it was nowhere near the same size so we couldn’t tell if it would work on screen. When we wanted to be testing on the actual Volume, they were still pouring the concrete floor for the stage. It was quite challenging but our team were up to the task.” 

The set would have to convincingly display life at sea. Large physical sets of the ship were constructed and background plates were shot on the ocean for rendering in Unreal. The stage included rain and water atmospherics designed so that it wouldn’t damage the set. The alternative would have been to shoot in a tank with water canons and greenscreen.  

“The actors said they felt the environment was authentic and that they even felt a bit sea sick at the beginning,” Klausing says. “At some point they said they no longer noticed the projection.” 

The 4,500 sq ft of shooting space surrounded by an LED wall contained a motor-driven 360-degree turntable which allows filming of real sets from different angles without conversion times.  

“The original idea was to give us faster access to the stage to build big sets for the engine room or 20m wide decks but it also enabled us to shoot very efficiently,” Klausing explains. “You can have your camera in the same direction but rotate the stage and set up the reverse shot with the same base lights very quickly.” 

According to Whitlam they achieved their targeted of recording more than half of the entire production in camera without needing much in the way of additional post treatment.  

Klausing adds, “Not every showrunner is capable of doing [a show in VP]. It is highly technical. You need to understand how to work in a volume.” 

Friese told Deadline that the experience will help filmmakers to think of stories differently. “Once you start working with it, it makes you write scenes differently. It allows you to explore things you might not be able to explore on a natural set.” 


1899. Credit: Rasmus Voss

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