The Narrows is a story by writer Samuel Pinney, set in 19th century England where almost all the action takes place on and around a working narrowboat. The story is told through the eyes of the heroine Josephine, who is disguised as a boy to be accepted in the distinctly male community.
Talking of the character of the story, director Tom Edmunds said “The Narrows is an intelligent action film. While the story is inspired by Westerns, reminiscent of genre classics like Stagecoach and True Grit, the setting is singularly British, specific to the Trans-Pennine Canal.”
The practical challenges of realising The Narrows are obvious. It is very difficult to film on a narrowboat: they are by definition long and narrow, with very limited walk spaces and nowhere to put kit and crew. That in turn raises health and safety issues: awkward shooting positions raise the potential for camera or operator to end up in the water.
The team behind the movie turned to technology to provide the answer. They built the parts of the narrowboat they needed in a virtual production studio and used augmented reality to add the rest.
The studio they chose was Garden Studios in north-west London. This has a proven and popular virtual production stage which was the ideal size for the project.
We have three traditional sound stages, but the jewel in our crown is our state-of-the-art virtual production stage. It allows film-makers to shoot live action footage within a pre-visualised virtual world, with precision camera tracking to seamlessly blend the virtual and real world and create a truly immersive experience.Mark Pilborough-Skinner, Virtual Production Supervisor of Garden Studios
The studio has an 18m x 4m curved LED wall, using 2.6mm pitch Roe Diamond LED panels. There is a complementary height and tilt adjustable LED ceiling to create a complete volume for shooting.
The studio is equipped with the Mo-Sys StarTracker camera tracking system. This uses randomly placed reflective dots to create a star map and thereby track the position of multiple cameras, in real time, to a remarkable level of accuracy and consistency.
The camera tracking data is fed into the Unreal Engine graphics system which generates the virtual set. This is critical for a convincing blend of real and virtual elements as it ensures the CGI remains perfectly in step with the camera movement, ensuring perspectives and depth of field are always maintained.
Using Mo-Sys StarTracker, the director and DoP are able to freely move the camera in any of the six axes, confident that the virtual environment will follow precisely, in real time. This enables the creative talent to forget the technology and simply create the images that are right for the production.
For The Narrows, it meant minimising the time spent on location. Just a few days were given over to establishing shots and background plates. The rest of the production was accomplished in the comfort of Garden Studios, where there was no risk of falling into murky, cold water and good coffee was always available.
It also meant that night-time scenes could be shot during normal working hours, meaning production was able to avoid undesirable overnight calls and the complexities and logistics of bringing equipment, and staff to the waterside. Instead, production could move quickly through scenes in the comfort of the studio where lighting, rain, cloud and wind conditions were creative choices and no longer uncontrollable and costly foes.
From a director’s point of view, virtual production is a huge bonus. If we were shooting a real narrowboat on a real canal, a re-take would mean moving the heavy boat back to the starting position which would take a lot of time. In the VP studio I could just say ‘go again’ and we did.Tom Edmunds
Virtual production gave the team a lot of freedom. They were able to try different angles and introduce complex camera moves which would not have been possible on a real boat where mounts and space were severely limited. The moves were dependent upon accurate tracking, and the Mo-Sys StarTracker provided instant and constant lock, so there were no technical delays in any re-sets.
Garden Studios has education and knowledge sharing among its corporate values, and The Narrows was a powerful demonstration of the use of virtual production. Together, they hosted two days in June 2022 where invited guests from the industry could get first-hand experience of live filming for drama on a virtual production stage. The sessions were a great success, and the attendees left with a deep understanding of what can be achieved.
We were shooting in real time, as we would on location, but without the frustrations, cost and environmental impact of moving kit, crew and support. Garden Studios and its technology partners helped us realise The Narrows as we visualised it.Tom Edmunds