Image courtesy of The Robot Company

Patrick Mahomes’ Fortnite debut hyped with help from virtual production

August 26, 2022
The footsteps of a broad-shouldered man echo ominously as he makes his way down a dramatic hallway. He nods acknowledgement as he passes busts of sporting legends including Naomi Osaka and LeBron James, before donning the bionic arm, helmet, and pickaxe that will be his signature pieces in Fortnite.

We’re following superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes on set as he gets prepared for his debut as a Fortnite Icon.

The teaser video marks the arrival of the first NFL Icon in the Fortnite universe. It’s an impressive, atmospheric film in which the worlds of Mahomes and Fortnite collide perfectly to build anticipation for fans.
 

To create it, The Robot Company and Los York used the limited time they had with Mahomes to shoot all the footage they needed in a single day, thanks to virtual production workflows.

Virtual production in brand advertising

The Fortnite Icon Series represents an exclusive group of culture-defining athletes, musicians, and other notable Fortnite players and creators.

Each new Icon brings new outfits to Fortnite for players, along with their own cosmetics such as back bling, gliders, and more. “Every Icon Series launch is exciting, because it’s always a huge name,” says Adrián Flores, VP of Creative at The SpringHill Company. “Becoming a Fortnite Icon is a defining moment—a true mark that you’ve made it. But Mahomes being the first NFL star in the Icon Series makes this one even more buzzworthy than usual.”
Flores oversees the creative output from The Robot Company, the brand consultancy arm of SpringHill, a video-production company created by LeBron James and Maverick Carter. Flores started out making war documentaries in Afghanistan, Timor, and Papua New Guinea, before moving into advertising at major agencies in Sydney, London, Berlin, LA, and New York, doing lots of CGI-heavy automotive, beer, and sports-related work along the way.

Flores explains that The Robot Company is all about helping brands find their place and voice in culture, working with their network of talent and brand partners to create authentic connections that build real credibility. Tasked with coming up with a campaign to hype the arrival of Patrick Mahomes into the world of Fortnite, The Robot Company needed to set the bar in a way that would really excite Mahomes’ fans.

They came up with the concept for a brooding, bold teaser video that was shot on a cutting-edge XR stage powered by Unreal Engine.
 

LED stages for advertising film production

XR stages—also known as LED stages or virtual production stages—output images from real-time engines to a live LED wall that acts as a backdrop. Used in combination with camera tracking, they are able to produce final-pixel imagery, completely in camera.

The benefits of this to filmmakers are huge. Compared to green-screen cinematography, there is no uncertainty for cast or crew. Everyone can see exactly what is in the shot as it unfolds in real time. Instead of reacting to a marker representing an imaginary image, the actors can react to the actual final imagery live in front of them. All of the natural reflections and lighting from the screen provide important artistic cues and enhance the realism of the imagery.
Image courtesy of The Robot Company
As Flores explains, opting to use an LED stage has huge advantages when you’re working with people who aren't professional actors or accustomed to green screens. “Talent being able to see the environment they’re interacting with in real time is clutch,” he says. “Anyone who has had to direct non-acting talent on green screens knows how hard and time-consuming it can be to get it all squared away. And being able to match lighting between real-life action and the background really elevates the piece as a whole.”
Image courtesy of The Robot Company
What's more, because all the images are being served up in real time from a game engine, you can change the backdrop scene at the click of a button. That makes the shoot progress at a much faster pace than would be possible on a traditional set.
Image courtesy of The Robot Company
“The flexibility to create and change the environments in real time is a total game changer,” says Flores. “You can do much more in a much shorter window of time, meaning you get more out of your shoot days, which is invaluable when you have athletes and celebrities who tend to only be available for very short windows.”

It’s a point on which Ergin Kuke agrees. Kuke’s career path has taken him from child actor to newspaper publisher, to published poet, to Wartime Guide for the Washington Post. Today, he’s a director and VFX supervisor at Los York, the creative production studio that collaborated with The Robot Company to create the video.

Kuke believes XR stages are a breakthrough for VFX pipelines and directorial freedom. “It’s priceless to be able to create realistic environments in real time and tweak the Unreal lighting on site while seeing the effects of that light affecting the live-action talent,” he says. “The speed at which we can do these changes in Unreal Engine—changing the layout and geometry quickly— is really important as budgets and consequently the number of shooting days shrink.”
Image courtesy of The Robot Company
By leveraging the fast real-time production workflows that Ergin describes, the team was able to complete the project in just a few weeks, as close as possible to the scheduled go-live date.

That ability to deliver on a short time frame is key when you're working with a superstar like Mahomes. Put simply, the bigger the star, the less time you have with them. “We had a tight turnaround due to Mahomes’ schedule,” explains Flores. “Unreal Engine was essentially the solve. It let us create the sets in no time at all. Ordinarily, we’d have to source local set builders, or spend a fortune shipping stuff in. We were able to build the rooms virtually and pull them up on location with no hassles whatsoever, helping make the entire process more efficient.”

Kuke expands on this, elaborating that the team actually only had one day to shoot and minimal time to prepare beforehand. “Unreal Engine backgrounds were created over the course of a week, but until you are on set, matching the background to the real-life foreground props, seeing how a particular environment works with the talent—those are all educated guesses.”

3D engines on film sets

Once on set, the team could instantaneously tweak and adjust the visuals in real time. This enabled them to perfectly match up the live action, physical props, and CG environment there and then. Effectively, ‘post’ becomes ‘pre’. “That ability to make changes in real time, to make all these elements, real or CG, fit convincingly together—that is the winning combination when time is short,” says Kuke.

The Robot Company is a relative newcomer to Unreal Engine, but the team had wanted to work with the technology for some time. “We were most excited by the flexibility it offers for getting more out of your shoot day, and the freedom to build truly crazy sets that you can tweak in real time,” says Flores. “It definitely lived up to its reputation on all counts!”
 
Image courtesy of The Robot Company
This way of working has been an eye-opener for Flores. He believes it could revolutionize what’s possible for agencies and production companies—particularly those working with major stars, who only have access to them for a limited amount of time.

“You can fly your talent around the world without leaving your set,” he says. “It’s a total game changer. We often work with talent that have very short amounts of time available for them to be on set. Being able to completely change locations at the literal flick of a switch makes every shoot way more efficient, allowing us to create much richer stories in incredibly short time frames.”

Opportunities for brands in the virtual world

For artists, athletes, and creators, the virtual realm opens up a whole new way to show the world who they are—and connect with fans and audiences. “You just have to look at what artists are already doing with concert experiences in Fortnite to see that the metaverse is going to completely change how personas and celebrities express themselves,” says Flores.
Image courtesy of The Robot Company
Right now is an exciting time for those with a pioneering spirit. From new ways of filmmaking using cutting-edge LED stages to the opportunities presented by the virtual world, new doors for creative discovery are opening everywhere. “It’s literally limitless,” says Flores. “We haven't even begun to get close to exploring what’s possible. The next few years will be very exciting as people try to test what can be done. But the ability to create next-level interactions without having to be in the same space is going to blow fans minds.”

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