By Jordan Houston
Move over, Skype and Zoom.
As COVID-19 disrupts the traditional workplace dynamic, Scottsdale’s Sneaky Big Studios is tapping into virtual reality to promote a new and safe way for businesses to stay connected with clients and employees.
The full-scale production studio, located at 15750 N. Northsight Boulevard, is offering virtual reality technology designed to make large, companywide meetings, virtual conferences and training events feel as intimate and connected as possible.
Sneaky Big, which features production, motion graphic and post-production services, debuted the new technology in 2020 on the hit TV show “Judge Jerry Quarantine Court,” according to Sneaky Big Studios Chief Executive Officer Marianne Guenther.
“Because we had the technology in place, we were able to step in during the very early phases of COVID to help companies continue their productions and conferences — but in a virtual way,” Guenther says.
Sneaky Big partnered with NBCUniversal to film in three states at one time and merge feeds to create a virtual courtroom. “Judge Jerry” is typically taped in front of a live studio audience at the Stamford Media Center in Connecticut and is produced and distributed by NBCUniversal Television Distribution, Guenther notes.
The syndicated court show, premiering as the highest-rated court show in five years for the 2019-20 season, features TV personality and former lawyer Jerry Springer at the bench, using “law and order to settle disputes.” The legal show takes on actual cases from real people, according to NBCU.
Sneaky Big merged five video feeds and more than half a dozen audio feeds to create a seamless courtroom experience for viewers, Guenther explains. Although the cast appeared to be standing next to each other, the remote production and virtual reality set allowed staff and crew members to follow strict COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“We were using our technology platforms to thread them together to make them look like they were in the same room,” Guenther says. “So, for example, the litigants were in front of a green screen. It’s beautiful technology.”
Springer was filmed on a green screen from his home in Florida, the show’s bailiff Najee Hinds was filmed at home in New York, and the litigants were recorded at Sneaky Big’s Scottsdale studio. The NBCU team also produced and directed its talent remotely from their respective homes.
Following the show’s success, Guenther says she believes the virtual reality effort is just the beginning of what the new technology has to offer to the future of the workplace.
“It could be anyone and really across different sectors,” the CEO says. “It could be brands producing a new commercial, or a town hall interactive platform with their executive leadership or CEO. It could be award shows. These are just some of the things we’ve done recently.
“Not only do I think VR is here to stay, but we are doubling down on that front as a leader in this space and in Arizona,” Guenther continues.
Founded by businessman and philanthropist Bob Parsons, Sneaky Big boasts a 4,000-square-foot main stage, a 500-square-foot sound stage, production control rooms with state-of-the-art audio and video equipment, five editing suites and a color correction suite with “the most advanced equipment and software, including virtual and augmented reality systems, on the market,” according to Sneaky Big’s website.
The production studio’s recent virtual reality efforts aren’t going unnoticed.
Sneaky Big won a Gold Davey Award in the Experiential & Immersive Virtual Reality category and a Silver Davey Award for Virtual & Remote Experiences-Media & Entertainment.
The gold award recognized the company’s work with the National Association of Basketball Coaches Guardians of the Game Awards. The Silver Davey was a nod to Sneaky Big’s partnership with NBCUniversal Syndication Studios for the virtual and remote production of “Judge Jerry.”
“I think virtual reality is here to stay,” Guenther shares. “So many brands, whether big or smaller, have understood exactly what it could bring to them. VR creates this interactive, immersive world in an easier-to-produce way than traditional good, old-fashioned set builds.”
Next on the horizon is the installation of an LED wall, Guenther discloses, which uses a dynamic background to match the perspectives from the camera and replace the green screen.
“Not many folks have LED walls,” Guenther says. “It’s the same kind of technology you would find in a large-scale film project like ‘The Mandalorian.’ It’s an immersive set of hyperreality VR.”
The chief executive officer says the wall should be up and running by the middle of March. ν