LA-based full service creative and production studio, Butcher Bird Studios is capable of a wide range of production styles, from streaming and AR/VR to cutting edge virtual production strategies. While frequently engaged to produce more standard content for a variety of clients, the team has become known for their ability to create live interactive virtual events for customers such as Legendary Digital, Netflix, Twitch, and more.
Butcher Bird directors Jason Milligan and Steven Calcote began working with Unreal Engine in conjunction with Blackmagic's Ultimatte in 2019 when the world of virtual production was on many filmmakers’ minds, but had been rarely utilized. In 2020, large scale and large budget projects such as “The Mandalorian” were using virtual technology, but Lead Technical Director Griffin Davis knew there must be a way to engage that same technique on a more modest budget.
We spoke with some of the Butcher Bird team to learn about how the company is expanding the future of production with their current and future projects.
PH: What is Butcher Bird Studios and how did it come about?
Travis Stevens (Director and Partner): Butcher Bird is a collective of directors and creatives that in its earliest iterations was a place where we could pool our resources to help support each other creatively. We’ve grown into a full scale studio since then!
PH: What types of production services does Butcher Bird Studios offer?
Lillian Diaz-Przybyl (Director and Executive Producer): Butcher Bird specializes in taking shows from concept to content. Our services are based around being a tech-forward company that implements the newest workflows and tools in order to help tell stories across a broad array of platforms.
PH: You recently incorporated Unreal Engine into your workflow. Can you share how you made that decision and how Unreal Engine has assisted your production needs?
Travis: As a team who loves to test the edges of the envelope when it comes to new technologies and their incorporation into the traditional production workflow, getting into Unreal was a no-brainer. We were particularly excited about the continued democratization of the creative process that this workflow supports. We’ve always had a ‘fix it in pre’ mentality in our work, and Unreal is one more step in that chain, as well as a way to get final pixels on a project the day of shooting—which is hugely exciting and rewarding from a creative perspective.
PH: Can you talk about studio configuration? How are you utilizing three Ultimatte 12 systems?
Griffin Davis (Producer and Engineer-In-Charge): We have a three camera setup with three Ultimatte 12’s. A live feed from each camera is sent into the Ultimatte as a foreground element, while camera tracking information is being sent to Unreal simultaneously to position a virtual camera. The virtual camera position allows the software to send a tracked animated background back to Ultimatte for the final composite with the foreground element. We also send a garbage matte into the Ultimatte so that the camera operator can tilt around the entire world, no longer having to constrain themselves to the confines of a green screen.
PH: Why three? How is this beneficial?
Griffin: With three Ultimattes, we are able to dedicate an Ultimatte and a computer running Unreal Engine per camera, giving us three simultaneous live composites. This enables multi-cam production, which is useful for live broadcast and live-to-tape as well as narrative and commercial shoots. Running Unreal is taxing on any machine, so running three separate unreal machines ensures that no single computer is over-tasked. It also enables us not only to record or broadcast three feeds at one time, but also to monitor them, so that each camera operator can frame up the virtual space and so the actors can see where they are in real time.
PH: What challenges did this Blackmagic Design technology address and eliminate?
Griffin: Unreal Engine is a truly stunning program that can do just about anything you want it to in terms of virtual production. However, it is not a compositing tool first and foremost. The Blackmagic Ultimatte is dedicated hardware designed to composite. It’s all it does, and it does it impeccably. With Ultimattes, Unreal, and tracking devices, we are able to finish our composite inside of the Ultimatte, which takes resources and complexity out of our Unreal project and allows the Ultimatte to do the job it was designed to do so well.
PH: How does this technology expand the future of digital production for Butcher Bird?
Lillian: Virtual production allows us to shorten the gap between a creative concept in our imagination and the visualization of that idea in video. As time goes on, this technology will become cheaper, faster, and easier to use. That means a small soundstage like Butcher Bird suddenly has access to a world of possibilities for both narrative and commercial content. While it might sound corny, it makes the limit of our productions our own imaginations rather than budget or time or technology.
Steven Calcote (Director and Partner): In short, it saves time! Being able to finish the post-production element on the spot allows everyone on set to be on the same page while we are on set. Via real-time compositing, the guesswork of working on a green screen is removed. This allows every person on set to be more creative and productive, because no one is trying to guess what goes on the blank ‘green’ canvas.
PH: In your opinion, will this be a trend in the industry?
Jason Milligan (Chief Creative Officer and Partner): The trend already exists—it’s just getting more accessible and affordable. Virtual Production has been around for quite a long time in news and studio environments. However, I see Virtual Production joining the democratization of technology trend that I first became aware of when digital filmmaking technology enabled millions of YouTube creators. When the means of production become accessible, professionals and consumers alike all have access to the same tools. Now effort and creativity become the catalyst for spectacle. We'll have a lot more content in the world, and many more specific voices, rather than only the large homogenous voices of corporations who have the cash and knowledge to create spectacle. This is quite an inspiring wave to be a part of, as the power is ever moving closer to the creator's hands!
PH: How else is Butcher Bird continuing to innovate in the world of virtual production?
Steven: We’ll continue to push real-time filmmaking technologies to their limit and deepen audience interactivity with our productions. Creating live shows that integrate with Unreal Engine allows us to give viewers endless opportunities to shape stories like never before. Imagine changing the location with a single click—a show that started in Paris can end on Mars. Think of the characters we can add to a live story on a whim—historical figures, fantasy creatures, robots— once we integrate performance capture to drive Unreal Engine’s CG characters in real time. Previous broadcast boundaries will melt away. Whatever new technology erupts, all we know for certain is that we’ll still focus on creating great stories!
Steven Calcote (Director and Partner): combines a passion for great storytelling, world building, and exploring humanity’s relationship with technology. He has created projects for such clients as Netflix, Twitch, Amazon, Adidas, BBC America, Nickelodeon, BuzzFeed, MTV, and Legendary Digital. An expert in the latest digital and interactive filmmaking, his work has been recognized by the Telly Awards, Spikes Asia, and the LA Weekly Theater Awards. He serves on the executive committee of the Television Academy’s Interactive Media Peer Group and is a co-founder of Butcher Bird Studios.
Griffin Davis (Producer and Engineer-In-Charge): serves as a multi-threat talent, having produced, directed, and technical-directed numerous productions for Twitch, Critical Role, The Groundlings, Legendary Digital, and Netflix. While his primary expertise focuses on broadcast switching tech, he is also familiar with cameras, lighting, and managing talent. He particularly enjoys being on comedy sets and is the co-head for the video sketch comedy group, Probably a Cult.
Lillian Diaz-Przybyl (Director and Executive Producer): focuses on new technology, emerging markets and fresh creative channels, and brings a diverse slate of original content to the fore for Butcher Bird. Most recently, she served as co-creator and showrunner of the world’s first live-stream, interactive, narrative science-fiction adventure Orbital Redux, developed for Legendary Digital’s Alpha streaming network. She also creates a wide range of projects for Butcher Bird’s roster of commercial and industrial work, with clients ranging from Apple to Airbnb, across platforms and technologies.
Jason Milligan (Chief Creative Officer and Partner): guides the visual look of Butcher Bird Studios. His experiences span the fields of animation, design, visual effects, comic books, TV news, puppetry, directing, and adventure filmmaking. An avid outdoorsman, he is most happy when least comfortable and proficient shooting in unforgiving locations. Jason is also the creator of the G.O. Get Outside brand and the host of its podcast series.
Travis Stevens (Director and Partner): grounds his work in real life experiences. His past includes time in the Army, work as an EMT, harvesting eye organ tissue, and positions in the entertainment industry for companies like Nickelodeon and Paramount TV. His filmmaking skillset crosses disciplines from producing to editing and everything in between. This experience allows him to run sets energetically and efficiently, delivering jobs on time and on budget while reaching for the stars creatively. As managing partner of Butcher Bird Studios he applies a multidisciplinary approach to team building and problem solving that results in groundbreaking productions for clients large and small.