Virtual Sets the Easy Way: Joe Herman Reviews Intensikey
Running your own virtual studio just got a lot cheaper, not to say easier.
Virtual studios aren’t new, of course. If you’re a network or large production company you can sink some cash into slick, real-time systems from Vizrt and Brainstorm, for example. Someone with a TriCaster rig, meanwhile, can get by for less via NewTek’s $1000 Virtual Set Editor.
But Intensikey will only set you back $299 for the HD version. Introduced at this year’s NAB, Intensikey certainly makes the whole process of setting up and creating virtual sets a lot easier.
What exactly is a virtual set? In simple terms, a virtual set is a 3D environment complete with lights, materials/textures, props and cameras created in a 3D modeling program. Your talent? Simply shoot them in front of a green screen. After keying out the green, you can place them inside the virtual set and create camera moves with insensitkey’s virtual camera while they speak.
To those who are familiar with what a virtual set is, you already know how cost effective and practical this solution is. True, you could create a virtual set from scratch in a 3D program, but if you do you’ll have to learn a complicated 3D program (no easy feat), design a cool-looking set, texture it, light it, set up a camera and composite it together with a compositing system. If you’ve mastered all of that, it will probably look pretty good. If you’re not quite on that level, it’s a different story.
True, you could just hire a set designer, 3D animator and a compositor to do it for you, but that’s also time consuming, not to speak of expensive.
Let’s see how Intensikey’s software-only approach works.
Virtual Sets Made Easy
Here’s how a virtual set works using Intensikey. First you shoot your actor on a green screen. You don’t need a large green screen stage, since you’ll pretty much want him or her standing in one place (you could get away with the talent taking a step to the left or right). As far as the arms, torso and heads are concerned, go ahead and move them around as much as you want.
Regarding that stage: it’s easiest just to rent out a small green screen studio for the day. But if you’re like me, someone who takes a do-it-yourself approach whenever possible, you could just put one together in your office or suite. All you need is some green fabric, some lights and of course a camera. Check out YouTube and Vimeo for videos that get into more detail on how to do this.
Once you’ve shot the actor’s performance, it’s time to start using Intensikey. To begin, you first choose a set from among the many different ones Intensikey ships with.
Considering how inexpensive this app is, I was impressed by the quality of the virtual set designs that ship with the system. Some sets are suitable for presentations, others seem better for news-type shows. Intensikey also offers other virtual sets for sale on their website, so you can shop around for the exact look you want.
Currently there are 80 sets available in addition to the ones that come with the program. More are promised from Virtualsetworks, Intensikey’s sister company. If you’re doing a lot of virtual set work, you might want to pick up the Virtual Set Pack Volume 1 with 20 sets for $499. Individual sets are $99 each.
Here’s a nice touch: customers can also get customized sets directly from intensiKey by request.
Importing the Green Screen Footage
Once you select the set you want, it’s time to bring in your green screen footage. No need to pre-key it since Intensikey has keying functionality built in. I used some demo green screen footage for my review that was shot horizontally, that is to say that the camera was rotated 90 degrees when shooting. This trick makes sure the camera’s maximum resolution was used. It’s easy to flip it to the correct position during the post process.
The green screen footage is applied to a video plane, which, prior to import, looks like a big white screen in your scene. One nice feature: the video plane is not locked to a particular position, so you can move it around the set and place it where you want, even behind furniture such as desks or consoles.
Intensikey provides useful keying tools for keying out your green screen footage without having to rely on another software package. Aside from a threshold level and range, other controls act to soften the matte to remove aliased edges. You might also use the shrink matte control (helps remove any green fringe) or the suppression control thats helps to remove green spill on the actor.
Those experienced working with chroma keying may prefer to use another program for the keying such as After Effects or Silhouette. These give more control as they provide masks and other rotoscoping options. However, I didn’t see a way to bring in pre-keyed or matted footage inside of Intensikey. This would be a useful feature, so I would be surprised if future versions do not include it. Until then, unless your your green screen footage has serious problems, Intensikey’s built in keying tools will most likely do the job nicely.
Aside from the keying tools, you can work a slider to set the volume level of the actor and a scale control to scale the footage up and down within the video plane.
If you are looking for added realism, you can set the system to create shadows under your actor. Intensikey does a pretty nice job of creating a believable shadow, and you can tweak it further to control the shadow’s opacity, X offset, Y offset, skew, blur and Y scale. Shadows are also real time, so there’s no penalty to use them.
Importing Videos and Still Images
When working with a virtual set, no doubt you’ll want to customize it to make it more relevant to what it is you’re producing. For example, you might want to have a video playing on a screen somewhere in the set. Or you might want to have your logo affixed to the front of a console.
Besides the video/image plane used for the actor, Intensikey’s sets offer planes built into the set that are placed to seem like video screens or signs. Make them come alive by importing video files or still images. If it’s a video, you can adjust the volume or loop the playback so they repeat.
Once you have imported the green screen footage of your actor, placed it where you want, and added videos and images in the background, you can liven things up even more by moving the camera around. For example, you can start with the camera far away and have it dolly into the actor for a medium close up while he is speaking followed by a tracking move to the left or right.
Of course you’re doing just what you might do on set: give a presentation a more dynamic feel as the perspective shifts as a result of the camera’s motion. If you shot your footage in HD with a high quality camera, you can even get very close to your actor without losing quality. Extreme close ups may take a hit however, unless you planned for them in advanced by shooting your actor very close up.
There’s a timeline on the bottom of the interface similar to those found in programs such as Maya and Cinema 4D. Keyframing is straightforward as well, simply move the time marker to a new frame and move the camera, and your keyframes are created automatically.
After you’ve set up your actors, customized the set and animated the camera, you’ll want to render out the final video. Several different presets allow you to choose from the most common HD and SD resolutions. File formats include MP4, AVI, MOV, WMV, F4V, MPEG-2 or as an image sequence.
Working within Intensikey is fast, especially when moving around the set. Things happen in real time, even though the set might contain a fair bit of geometry, large amounts of texture and a number of lights, not to speak of multiple video planes.
I did wonder, however, what the final render would look like. While the real time display gives you a close approximation of what the rendered output will look like, it is not final quality. Nor should it be. The app is designed to keep things moving at a fast clip while you are working, which keeps you involved.
After rendering a final test to an HD file, however, it all looks good. Edges and lines as well as detailed textures were nicely anti-aliased and smooth. Better than the real time display, and good enough for prime time. The app also renders fast. I’m not sure what technology is under the hood, but there is no question that some advanced GPU handling is involved.
I’m impressed. Intensikey is not only an inexpensive and useful tool, but it is easy to learn. You should be able to get the hang of it in a day or two. It makes the whole process of setting up and using virtual sets really simple.
Intensikey runs on Windows. For best real-time results, make sure you have one of the newer video cards from NVIDIA ors AMD. More information, tutorial videos and pricing details can be found on the Intensikey website.
This review was conducted on an HP Z820 workstation, a great system for high-end post production.