As it tilts from the illuminated ceiling to a close-up of the news anchor, the camera captures a large extravagant set. In the background, two large LCD screens, flashing montages of the day’s news, dominate the burgundy plexiglass walls. The anchor is comfortably seated behind a curved table that bears the garish typography of the channel’s logo. This is what every viewer watching prime-time news can see, but the reality is different. The set is actually an empty, 100-square-foot room covered with a green fabric with the anchor seated on a green stool.
Everything else is part of a virtual set that was created on a computer in a few minutes.

Creating illusions using ‘green screen’ technology was previously only used to make big-budget special effects extravaganzas such as Star Wars and Jurassic Park. But today — with super-fast computer systems and affordable software — news, entertainment and even local cable TV producers are choosing digital sets over their physical equivalents to save cost, space and time.

When veteran television producer Joys Sebastian launched Space TV, a 24/7 reality and lifestyle channel in 2008, its Noidabased office consisted of only one studio with green walls. The same studio was used to produce over 20 programmes.
“Anchors could be transported to different rooms within minutes,” says Sebastian who launched the channel using virtual sets for all the shows. “We didn’t want to spend too much money, yet wanted each and every show to look different. Digitally, we could give the channel a fresh look and feel every 15 minutes. It made it look like we had gigantic studios with elaborate backdrops,” he says.

Like him, an increasing number of TV producers are using ‘virtual set’ systems. This technology uses Chroma-key compositing where everything ‘green’ in the studio is replaced with digital imagery. And the parts of the set that are not green appear to be superimposed on the virtual set.

Using virtual sets, news channels can also make their anchors appear as if they are present at the scene of action even in the most restricted areas. News television has done it all — from making TV hosts walk into a virtual Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, highlighting its wealthy underground corridors, to letting them stroll into a digitally constructed Tihar Jail to illustrate Amar Singh’s sojourn behind bars.
Then, there are those channels that want to make it appear as if their reporters are onsite while presenting the news during natural calamities. They transport them into virtual replicas of the real disasters.

Creating the hardware and software that allows broadcasters to build virtual sets and scenarios is Mumbai-based company Monarch Innovative Technologies. At their office, groups of graphic designers spend hours browsing international TV channels to study set designs. They observe everything from the colour contrast and the shape of the tables to the type and number of studio lights used.

“Our clients usually want at least 40 preloaded sets with the hardware we provide,” says Sandeep Ohri, CEO of Monarch. “Some of them use the virtual studio system to create their own sets too. They’ve placed anchors inside virtual trains, on football fields and even inside a church,” says Ohri. “Our digital church set, for instance, is used in the US to videotape ministers giving sermons for the official church webcast.”

Puneet Sharma, a 3D designer who has worked for channels like Space TV, has been creating such sets on software like 3D Studio Max and Maya. “We can replicate the exact textures of all kinds of materials including wood, glass, metal and plastic,” he says. “And always, we design these keeping at least five different camera angles in mind.”

Another virtual set solution, called WASP3D and developed by Noida-based Beehive Systems, is being used by channels like Zoom, Malayala Manorama TV and SUN News. “Channels are choosing to build virtual sets because they give producers the flexibility of changing the sets as many times as they want,” says Beehive’s brand manager Anshul Gupta.

Sebastian agrees. “Designing and erecting a whole new set would cost the channel a minimum of Rs 10 lakh. When you have to air 20 programmes a day, you can’t afford to erect different sets for each show.”
Even advertisers with small budgets prefer virtual sets to save on expenditure. “Instead of hiring a small studio for Rs 1 lakh a day, the producer can shoot the ad in a 10-by-10-foot room, using a virtual set. He also has the option of changing props, background designs and furniture with ease,” says Sharma who says producers with a Rs 50,000 budget don’t have an option but to build their sets using software.

Naxatra News, a 24-hour Odiya News Channel has been using WASP3D for the last 4 years. And although most channels today have a traditional studio setup and a virtual set as a backup, “many are yet to experiment with the new technology,” Ohri says

“One channel head asked me: Where will I make my guests sit? I can’t possibly invite them and ask them to sit on stools covered with a green cloth,” he laughs.

This story was originally published in The Times of India’s Crest edition: