New World Designs Ltd (NWD) was an early pioneer of commercial bullet time photography in the UK. The company’s expertise has been called upon across the globe for exciting projects with clients that include Prada in Milan and Unilever in Australia, and has even been called upon for Zoolander 2 in Rome. Then there’s the rigs they’ve set up in places like Macau and London’s Barbican for art installations – it’s little wonder that NWD’s team of three consider their jobs to be among the best on the planet. Director Ian Wright takes us through NWD’s history and its recent involvement in ITV’s The Million Pound Cube.
It all started back in 2001 when, straight out of uni, I’d got into creating Object VR movies. Also known as Quicktime VR or QTVR, this is a way of creating an
interactive movie that allows the viewer to virtually spin around a static object on a computer. I wanted to work out how to make VR movies quickly as well as how to rotate around objects that move, such as people and animals. To do this, instead of using a turntable to spin the object, I wanted to find a way for the camera – or cameras – to ‘revolve’ around the subject; of course, this was an expensive option that required some resourceful fundraising efforts! Through selling my car, making websites for local companies and diverting my rent money, I accrued enough money to buy 16 cameras which, when placed around a live model, I would use to simultaneously capture multiple angles of the moving subject.
The first model of camera used was the Olympus C-2040; there was no software development kit (SDK) available and the camera lacked any capability of being linked up and controlled remotely. This meant we had to change the settings manually on every camera, as well as collect each memory card and download the images one by one – which was pretty laborious. To date, our setup has evolved through six models of camera: after the C-2040, we chose the Samsung GX-1S for the 2008 London Fashion Week, later migrating across to Canon DSLRs, first with the 1000D, followed by the 450D, the 1100D, then the 100D, which we use now. It can shoot near-6K pictures, is such a small body that we can squish as many as we can close together, and it’s pretty much bombproof if you drop it! In December 2020, Canon loaned us a pile of 250Ds to try out, but the 250D doesn’t really offer enough of an improvement on the 100D, especially when you add in the fact that the power systems and connections are different, which would require whole new wiring. In fact, we found from our tests that the 100D was just as good. We even tried the 5D range but they are huge, which meant we could only fit half the number of cameras in the same space as the 100Ds on our rig.
We built the rig entirely from scratch with every single wire – of which there are tens of thousands – having been soldered, by hand, on our desks until the early hours of the morning.
Norman gets us out of a pickle
Back to the early days though, and to how we could set all the cameras off simultaneously. We’d tried using relays, but they were way too slow and couldn’t react quickly enough. Eventually, we found Norman Pickles, an incredible gentleman who used to design satellites and other military products, and he agreed to work with us. He created an amazing modular trigger that could be extended infinitely to fire any number of cameras. Sadly, Norman passed away a few years ago, but many parts of his trigger are still used in all our work today.
We built the rig entirely from scratch with every single wire – of which there are tens of thousands – having been soldered, by hand, on our desks until the early hours of the morning. All the tech boxes that hold the camera control systems were rebuilt last year on my living room floor during lockdown, using power tools – much to my neighbours’ annoyance! The wiring is designed to be in looms with connectors that allow us to swiftly change sections on the fly. Wiring gets damaged regularly, which can become a serious problem on set as directors often can’t wait for us, so we need to be able to swap out a full wiring harness in a few minutes and be ready to go live again straight away. On one occasion on The Cube, the wiring got damaged overnight (we think possibly a crane or some sort of lift had caught it), but luckily we discovered this first thing and had replaced it before the crew were even in the building.
Software solutions on our doorstep
Our next challenge was to find the right software; when we first started out doing bullet time we used a well-known
British-made program for multi cameras, but we found it appalling. It crashed frequently, was incredibly slow, and support was non-existent. So, we spent a year searching for a UK-based company that could help us build our own software. Ideally, we needed this to be a local outfit because our hardware would need to be at their premises regularly for testing, but having contacted some of the biggest companies in London and Manchester, as well as dozens more across the country (about 30 in all), we received a unanimous ‘out of scope’ from every one of them.
As we are based in a very deprived area, we were fortunate to receive some innovation grants and support from the local council, with the stipulation that all funds awarded had to be spent within the North East – but this fitted perfectly with our intentions anyway. When we attended a small marketing course paid for by Sunderland City Council (it was more of a networking thing), we chatted with a guy called Paul Lofthouse who co-owned a small software company. When he heard about our difficulties in finding a software solution, he said, “We could do that!”. It was amazing, a tiny little software company in Gateshead could do what companies in Soho with teams of dozens of developers couldn’t! So, we gave his company the chance… OK, so they were two years late in delivering it, but they did deliver and it works perfectly. Since then, the software has been upgraded countless times, and we have spent more money on that than on all the hardware put together.
Our software has been developed predominantly for experiential event scenarios: it auto calibrates, aligns the images, creates an MP4 or MOV file, and even finishes off each clip with an intro and outro. There’s also a full social media feature whereby the program collects all user details
and then sends them a fully branded email with attached movie. This function is perfect for client events at trade shows and corporate parties, which now, sadly, are just so 2019 – #covid-19!
That said, some of the features are transferrable to other environments, such as TV. The fact that we can quickly create previews of our recorded sequences on the fly for a production team to view in situ is invaluable. It means we can respond reactively: if required, we can change settings as we go along, and the software will auto-detect if there are any issues with the rig. This means that, within a few seconds, we can confidence-check that any shot has been captured correctly, confirm that the rig was triggered at the precise moment needed to capture the action, and even spot whether the subjects’ eyes were open or closed!
We use jpegs to generate the preview clips, but Canon RAW files are also recorded for the real post-production work that we do later by hand, which is a process that can
ake hours per movie. We have a process that white balances all the images, aligns them precisely and reduces negative effects of most lens aberrations, such as breathing and any slight differences in the lenses (not even all L-series lenses are identical).
We’re constantly refining and improving our workflow – clearly we and technology have both come a long way. The whole procedure (which begins with our triggering the rig to capture a moment, followed by downloading the 240 jpeg and RAW files from all the cameras, rendering all the files, before adding all the amassed data to the NAS drive and preview to then be ready for the next shot) currently takes about 32seconds with our present setup. If we leave the downloading of the RAW files from the cameras until later, we can actually reduce that to as little as 8–9 seconds, but back when we first started out, the equivalent process with our original rig would take about 3 minutes!
The New World Design Team
The three of us at NWD have fairly diverse background: mine is one of a photography and product design degree, followed by 10 years of engineering; Tom Hoad was a creative photographer for decades before he became the Photography Studio Manager for a huge, high-end fashion company; and Jackson Nash is one of the UK’s fastest
rising 3D specialists who is constantly blowing our minds with his latest creations. So, together, we all have a strong photographic background, but our own specialities really help within the team – and I consider it a company asset that our banter is as strong as our work ethic!
Taking on The Million Pound Cube
During the winter of 2019–20, we were contacted by the Objective Media Group, who asked us to help them bring The Cube back to life for the summer of 2020. When it came to the set, the production team were pretty much starting from scratch, as all that remained from when the previous series finished in 2015 was the frame of the original Cube structure that had been stored in the back of a warehouse. The bullet time sequences (called ‘game freeze’ in the show) had been a really popular aspect of the original show which the team wanted to bring back and, as they needed this niche technique to be done to today’s production quality, they trusted us to make it work.
The bullet time rig we used for The Million Pound Cube consisted of 120 Canon 100D DSLRs, using a combination of Canon 18–55mm and Tamron 70–300mm lenses, along with three RED EPIC-X DRAGONs mounted with Canon 18mm lenses. The DRAGONs were there to create the lead- in and lead-out footage that sets up the bullet time sequence and allows for multiple editing options in post.
The use of zoom lenses on the DSLRs affords us flexibility, including on those fairly frequent occasions when we’d have a director say something like: “Sooo, if I asked you to move in a bit on that, would that be a problem..?”, even though we had sent out accurate preview samples and exact 3D mockups of each shot well before the recording run had started. Primes would bring us no benefits for what we do anyway, because we need a narrow aperture to keep everything in focus, so working at the incredibly shallow depth of field of f1.4 would only work against us. Considering most of our shots are for fast-moving action or objects, keeping focus on 120 cameras on such a wide aperture just wouldn’t happen – we’re lucky if we can keep the action in front of the cameras, never mind it being pinned to one precise position! The widest we go to is about f5.6, but it’s always a fight between aperture and available light; these aren’t Hassleblads or ARRIs. Our stock
answer to the lighting director when asked how much light we would need was: “As much as you can get in there, and we’ll still ask for more!”. I’m not sure exactly what we had in the end but, from memory, it was something like 6 x 24K lights and we were using about 80% of the total output.
In the past, we have often used RED cameras on our rig, because their physical size and chip ratio make aligning the cameras with the bullet time array a little easier. We place them at the beginning, middle and end of the rig, as this allows us to decide in post if we want the processed shot to develop in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, whilst the RED in the middle gives us the option to even start or finish the shot halfway around if we wish; it all depends on the nature of the moment or action being captured.
For The Million Pound Cube, we used frame rates ranging from 80–120fps, which gave us plenty of latitude when speed ramping in and out of shots. We generally aimed to get about 10 seconds of video either side of the triggered sequence, which was a challenge due to the dynamic nature of what we were filming, especially considering there was no chance of anything being repeated.
Production provided us with a sample clip from one of the ped cameras and this gave us a benchmark ‘look’ to which we would grade our footage for the dailies. The video footage from the REDs was graded and paired with the bullet time sequence (made up of 120 CR2 RAW files that had been manually aligned within After Effects) to create a 4–5 second sequence at 25fps. From that, we generated either a 4.8GB MOV or an 8GB TIFF sequence. Many clients
prefer to receive a version created from the 6K TIFF stills as it provides them with a high-quality, aligned image that’s had a basic grade for each frame but, as the files contain so much data, it allows a lot more to be done in post, such as 3D and green-screen work. They can also completely redo the grade, perhaps pull more detail out or zoom in digitally if they wish, and the degradation of image quality will be far less than if they were working on footage that had been squashed down to a 4K Pro Res file.
A firm grip on calibration
The spacing out of cameras on the rig has been mathematically calculated and every camera is manually aligned to the same central point within the Cube itself, by means of a calibration marker which is also used to set focus and later to assist in post with matching up the white balance across all the shots. However, The Cube did present us with a problem because the design of the Cube meant whole sections of cameras couldn’t physically see the calibration marker where it was hidden behind the Cube’s vertical edges, so we had to rely on our Jedi camera skills! We have since figured out an ingenious way to get around this, which I’m afraid I can’t reveal here. Well, I could, but then I’d have to kill you…
The cameras are fixed in position using custom-made steel clamps that we have specially made by a local family firm of steel fabricators.Their usual output is architectural steel work, but they have been incredible and have made so many parts for us – particularly when we went through dozens of prototype versions of the clamp before arriving at the perfect design. Helpfully, once each clamp is fitted onto our bespoke truss, this adds an extra few hundred kilograms of weight, which provides further rigidity to the whole structure. To hold the cameras on the clamps, we attach simple, small ball heads, the pan and tilt locks of which have been modified to be operated with a nut spinner screwdriver. This is to ensure the heads can be locked off so securely that the cameras won’t move at all but, over time, this method causes damage to the ball heads, so they are considered disposable, to be replaced as and when necessary.
Squaring up to the Cube
The planning for the job had to be done during the start of COVID, but it was incredible to work with such a professional team. One of the head designers on the show
built a complete, virtual 3D model of the entire set using a CAD program called Sketchup. We provided him with measurements of our rig – accurate down to the millimetre – so they could add every part of it to the set. Knowing exactly where we would be, including all our wiring, tech boxes, desks, everything, meant they could work out the specific height the ped cameras would need to be in order to see over our rig as well as ensure that the LED walls could fit precisely under our truss. All meetings were on Zoom and, with dozens of people in each, they would sometimes last for hours because each person could have their say. Naturally, I tried my hardest to get out of as many as I could!
We have worked in many studios, with numerous different camera setups, but none has come close to The Million Pound Cube. The show really is in a league of its own when it comes to the volume of cameras and lighting tech that is condensed into the studio space; to make it work, everyone had to compromise their ideal shooting scenarios, camera settings, working spaces, setup times, etc. We were working around at least 13 other cameras, which comprised mobile and static peds, Sony cameras shooting super-high frame- rate coverage, a small Antelope PICO camera that was often mounted inside the Cube, a mobile jib arm, and the biggest Technocrane in Europe operating within inches of our rig. As we have the ability to monitor remotely the live view of any of the cameras within our rig, we got into the habit of warning the director if any excitable peds or boom arms entered our shot.
There was also some getting used to COVID protocols and the very high levels of new health and safety measures in
the studio. For us and many others on set, this was the first job post-lockdown and everyone was finding their own way around, fully aware that the whole production could be shut down, all but instantly, if the wee bug(ger) turned up! And wearing a face mask every day for over 12 hours straight was made even more challenging in the highest temperature recorded in London since the 1960s!
At the start of the run we would provide the gallery, as we went along, with an mp4 preview of the last shot we had taken, but they were soon happy to trust us to get the shots and power on. The show was being filmed at a tidy pace and, as it was, they had squeezed an extra two episodes into what had already been a tight shooting schedule. They had a great editor, called Ed Booth, who worked closely with our team, so we could discuss shot ideas on the hoof – this really helped with the 20 new games that had been introduced, alongside all the classic ones. Every little helped, as we were up to our necks in post-production on set whilst also filming and trying to render out 4K 10-bit HQX data made up of colour-graded REDCODE RAW and uncompressed MOV files directly out of After Effects, all at the same time. This was a tight turnaround scenario; usually, we would spend several weeks back in the comfort of our office sorting out alignment processes and post-production.
We learnt so much through our filming The Million Pound Cube and it was great to be able to see how a show like that is produced from the inside out. The most important knowledge gained from our time on the series were: the correct amount of equipment and staff we need for the workload, and how to do it better and easier next time. Our experience highlighted important refinements to our production workflow that will enable us to be even more adaptive in such a fast-paced, live shooting environment.
Over the course of filming The Cube, having captured about 260 shot sequences, our render queue clocked up approximately 100 hours over two machines and we filled a 16TB NAS drive. I think, over the whole production, two Petabyte storage servers were required to hold all the data from every camera across all eight episodes (including a Christmas Special) that were sent to The Farm in Soho for the main editing of the shows.
A peek under the bullet
Of course, the cameras on our bullet time rig are just the first piece of the puzzle. The really hard part is getting them all to play nicely together; if any images get stuck in the camera buffer, it can lock up the whole rig and crash the computer
network, which you obviously don’t want on a live-action show. So, how does the back end of the bullet time rig work? We have 10 tech boxes containing a computer, power adapters, 10GB SFP+ hubs and our trigger system, with each box allocated 12 cameras to look after. Whenever we take a shot, the boxes leap into action, as they extract the data from the cameras and push it down the pipeline, over 10-gigabit fibre lines, to a central PC that is connected to the NAS storage via a 40GB fibre network. The NAS drive houses our bespoke software, which talks to the tech boxes and cameras, to gather all the data into a timestamped folder, and also allows us to adjust all the camera settings simultaneously. All the stills and video data is stored on a central 40GBps Synology NAS system, whose network our team can access, via 10GbE connections, so each member can do their own post-production work on the sequences.
Moving but not shaking
Our whole setup is mobile and, whilst the nature of our work does mean a lot of our jobs are in studios in and around London, we have taken our gear on adventures all around the world. Depending on the size of the job, we use our trusty Transit (which took us to Milan and back twice in 2020), and hire additional vans when needed, whereas, for trips further afield, we use logistics companies whenever we need to air freight. In fact, we recently experienced a client who hired a G8 private jet to fly a team member and the gear across the Atlantic to ensure they got to set in time! We already have several jobs throughout Europe booked in for 2021, so we’re eagerly waiting to find out how the Brexit mess is going to affect our logistics and competitiveness around the world.
Towards the end of 2020, NWD completed one of its biggest jobs to date, which was a gig for Prada at its 24-carat gold-plated HQ in Milan. We used a bespoke system to capture the whole Spring and Summer 2021 product range; we can’t say too much about it yet, but it involved 240 Canon DSLRs, 30 computers and large, custom-built sets. The video project will have its worldwide launch early this year.
What new world is on the horizon for NWD?
We have spent years developing the technology to create photogrammetry and volumetric hologram movies – this is where the director, in post, can freely choose the path of the camera around an actor/object/environment after it has been captured. Last year, we created the highest quality volumetric capture ever taken, which was four times higher in quality than can be produced by Intel’s system which cost a billion dollars. To find out more about this technology, visit: newworlddesigns.co.uk/volumetric-holograms-and- photogrammetry.
For the The Cube Christmas Special, in a section featuring Emily Atack, we pushed our tech and skills into a new area to see if we could create something not seen before on this type of show. For the shot, we combined our regular bullet time work with photogrammetry and advanced CGI, to create views and camera paths that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise. Upon viewing it, the ‘powers that be’ loved what we had created, telling us: “That’s what The Cube is all about!”. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it into the programme as the final edit had already been locked down, but the movie is on our social media and website feeds. We look forward to seeing how well this technique will integrate into the look of the show in the next series.
We’re currently in the testing phase of our updated bespoke software, where lots of new improvements are being finalised. Canon are sending us a load of different stills and cine cameras to play with; we have just bought three Blackmagic (BMD) 12K cameras and we are in talks with BMD about some of their new developments. So, all in all, there are exciting times ahead for NWD.
Ian Wright, Tom Hoad and Jackson Nash make up the award-winning team that is New World Design.
Through their bespoke, in-house approach to creating and building software and hardware, NWD has become a world leader in the creative application of bullet time photography, volumetric holograms and photogrammetry for commercial and TV and film production purposes.
Amongst all of NWDs considerable achievements and global success, the team are rightly proud of their two Sunderland Echo Portfolio Awards: Creative Business of the Year 2017 (newworlddesigns.co.uk/ sunderland-echo-portfolio-winners) and Small Business of the Year 2018 (newworlddesigns.co.uk/small- business-of-the-year-2018).
Contact Ian and the team:
mobile: +44 (0) 7748 724085;
To find out more about NWD,
visit: website: newworlddesigns.co.uk; Instagram: @newworlddesignsuk