Why Alter Ego is big on virtual LED production

A spec spot for McDonalds using tech from TV sets shows an opportunity to change the commercial production status quo.


Toronto-based video production studio Alter Ego has making a big bet on technology not used before in retail commercials, and it has created a proof-of-concept to debunk what some have seen as its cost and creative restrictions.

The technology, called the LED Volume, is a giant LED screen that serves as a backdrop and can display a photoreal CG environment. Unlike other technologies such as green screen, however, this technology reacts and moves in real time with the camera, making it appear just like a real environment.

The technology has been used in television series such as The Mandalorian, but Alter Ego says it’s the first to repurpose it for advertising. The studio, collaborating with visual effects company Pixomondo, Feels Like Home Films and William F. White, shot a spec ad for McDonalds to prove that it works.

“Sometimes, you need to provide a proof of concept to convince people that it’s the right way to go,” says David Whiteson, who co-directed the spot. “The results don’t lie. It’s impossible to tell that not only is the restaurant computer generated, but that everything was entirely captured in camera.”

“The challenge that we undertook here is to create something completely recognizable and that exists in our everyday lives,” adds Matthew Manhire, who also co-directed the spot. “The viewer instantly knows what a McDonald’s restaurant looks like. The margin of error is far smaller.”

The proof of concept provided by the spec spot was so strong that it has already won over some key proponents, including Craig McIntosh, ECD for Cossette, McDonald’s AOR.

“This isn’t just going to change the production process, it’s going to change the ideation process,” he says. “Anything is possible now. Visiting the studio and seeing the screen in action … it felt like I was stepping into the future.”

But the real strength of the technology lies in its reusability, Whiteson says.

“Once we’ve built the restaurant in CG, McDonald’s can reuse that asset forever, eliminating the need to ever go to a real restaurant location again. They just return to the studio and load up the CG environment on the LED Volume,” he explains. Things about the background that could change – like signage or menu graphics – can also be changed “at the push of a button.” This not only allows for adaptations to new menu items, branding or seasonal elements, it eliminates the need to re-hang new posters for French-language or special promotion spots.