New Virtual Production Studio Brings Latest Real-World Tech To Webster University Students

virtual production wall
(Image credit: Webster University)

WEBSTER GROVES, Mo.—Webster University recently completed a $7 million renovation and technology refresh of its School of Communications.

The project was simply the school’s latest step designed to give students hands-on experience to prepare them to enter the Media & Entertainment Industry as part of their overall education.

A new API Audio AXS Legacy console and a new virtual studio setup featuring a 100-panel 1.5mm-pitch Absen AX Pro LED wall were the centerpieces of the refresh. Integrated and driven by ARwall servers and software, the LED wall is one of the few available to students interested in virtual production nationwide and is believed to be the first in the region.

Leveraging Unreal Engine, students in 3D animation, computer gaming, film and video production and other disciplines in the School of Communications have access to the virtual studio and LED wall.

I stopped by the university Feb. 2 to speak with Eric Rothenbuhler, dean of the School of Communications, about the renovation and refresh, the new virtual production tools and how the school is preparing the next generation for careers in media.

(An edited transcript.)

TVTech: Webster University recently completed the second phase renovation of its School of Communications facilities—a $7 million upgrade. What was the goal?

Eric Rothenbuhler: Phase two of our remodeling converted one wing of our building here in the School of Communications at Webster into a purpose-built, state-of-the-art media production and communications education facility with soundstage workshops, audio suite, and computer labs for video post-production, animation, game design and so on.

TVT: One new feature of the upgrade is virtual production and a 100-panel direct view LED wall. How does that fit in?

ER: One of the exciting aspects of this phase of the remodeling is that we're able to install the first virtual cinema system in our region of the Midwest in our soundstage. 

That is a brand-new technology here and across the country. Our students have the opportunity to learn this new technology while it's still diffusing through the industry. When they graduate in a few years, they will be the folks in the highest demand as virtual cinema becomes more ubiquitous and a more common production technique.

TVT: How did the decision to acquire an LED wall and the virtual production tech needed come about?

ER: Up until about a year ago, our plans were for a great big cyc wall, a bigger, better cyc wall than we'd ever had before.

We were in a faculty meeting in December [2021] or January last year, and a faculty member raised his hand and said, “We don't need a cyc wall, we need an LED wall. We need virtual cinema.”

I thought, there's no way we can afford that, but then another faculty member spoke up, and I started thinking about it. We talked with the architects, and we started doing some research and began to think maybe we could afford this. The more we looked into it, the more we thought we just about have to do it. It was an opportunity to be the first in the region.

The more we looked around and called around the more special we realized we could be. We looked around and found only one other school that had one already. I'm sure there are a few. But there can't be more than a handful of schools or educational institutions across the country that have the virtual cinema system. More will one day have it, but right now, we're first in the region and one of very few in the country. That’s a very exciting thing.

TVT: How important is it to give your students hands-on experience with technology?

ER: Integrating theory and practical hands-on learning is central to our curriculum. It is our pedagogical philosophy. 

Students learn by doing as well as by studying. So they do know the history and the theory of communication and media. But they are also practicing it. They're testing it in practice. So, they learn to reflect on that practice as well

They learn teamwork; they learn how to be the team leader one day and a team member the next day. We're preparing them with a hands-on professional education for their first job, and a well-rounded liberal arts communication and media education to carry them through a career.

TVT: One thing our readers face when it comes to new technology is futureproofing their facilities to the best of their ability. Given the role of hands-on training as part of the curriculum, how does a university deal with ensuring the tech that’s acquired remains relevant to the current state of the industry?

ER: I don't think there's any such thing as futureproofing anymore. What you can do is plan so that you are open to the future. We've made our architecture and our infrastructure as open as possible.

Our curriculum is open as well. What we're really teaching in our classes is not what the buttons are on this or that piece of equipment, but what the principles are by which to produce compelling media and compelling communication with whatever equipment is available. 

That said, we do everything possible to provide our students state-of-the-art equipment, especially, of course, when remodeling. We were doing a complete equipment, or near-complete equipment, refresh.

Webster University has a big commitment to that, and a substantial part of our budget every year goes to equipment so that our students have contact with the newest, state-of-the-art equipment. They're working with professional-grade equipment, even in the elementary classes,

TVT: Did the university fund both phases of the upgrade, or did public-sector companies contribute to funding the renovation and refresh?

ER: It's primarily funded by the university, and then of course we're doing fundraising all the time as well. So, we have some namespaces there. There are more opportunities for namespaces, and we're working with people all of the time.

TVT: Webster University recently had an open house to show off phase two of the building renovation and equipment refresh. You had some 400 people, including many in the St. Louis media industry attend. Was the new virtual production and LED wall setup the main draw?

ER: I think it was one of the draws, but not the only one by any means. That audio suite is equally exciting. We had a huge audio crowd that night. [The university installed an API Audio AXS Legacy console, along with a pair of 1234A Smart Active Monitors (SAM) as the main L-R array, a 7382A Smart Active Subwoofer and a pair of 1032A Studio Monitors as nearfields as part of the phase two refresh.]

TVT: Being one of the first virtual production-LED wall setups in the region, are there opportunities for those in local media to access the setup for use in their productions?

ER: A lot of people are thinking about how to use it. We are exploring, trying to design a set of policies and procedures that would allow us to lease the space when it's not needed by students and faculty, which is something that would be new for us. 

We've not done that before, and I know that at least a few companies in town have ideas that they want to propose to us for co-productions or leasing the space.

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.