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Escape from LA: VR is Taking Over Tinseltown


VR is massive in LA but will it outcompete films or games? We spoke to some of the world’s top VR creators to discover some of the exciting innovations they have made and are due to release in the future

Escape from LA: VR is Taking Over Tinseltown

Virtual reality has become an ad industry standard, but in LA it has captured the imaginations of movie moguls and creative pioneers. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One movie is due next year (an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s sci-fi novel that explores a world dominated by VR), and big features are often accompanied by their own virtual experience. Los Angeles, a melting pot where different creative media smash up against each other, from film to gaming to animation and music, may well be the perfect crucible for creative VR content.

LBB’s Jason Caines hit up Gawain Liddiard, Emerging Tech/VFX Supervisor and Tawfeeq Martin, Technical Innovations Manager who work at The Mill, Tim Dillon, Head of VR at MPC USA, Catherine Day from m ss ng p eces and Peter Westlund, Chief Creative officer at B-Reel to find out more. 

LBB> What do you think is the attitude towards VR among the Hollywood movie industry?

The Mill> People are serious about the potential of VR. A major reason for this change is Hollywood recognising that VR is not intended to replace traditional media. We are at a point where the language of VR is easily translated to top industry individuals, because they see VR as a new playground for ideas and storytelling. The Mill’s parent company, Technicolor, have brought their cinematic might and experience to create the tools required to converge traditional media and emerging technology.

Catherine Day, M ss ng p eces> I believe Hollywood is very seduced by VR, but careful to make their own mark so they're sitting back and developing strategy and creative that is in line with that strategy while the kinks get ironed out and the marketplace grows and increases consumer adoption slowly but surely. The studios take a much longer time developing content in general, and are used to giving themselves three years or more to make something as close to perfect as possible. I imagine we will see more VR that was born and bred out of studios in coming years, but it will be a slow build, and probably one that plays it safe in the franchise arena. 

Tim Dillon, MPC USA> Excited and keen to experiment. Hollywood sees this as a new avenue, just like theme parks or immersive exhibitions, to get to their audience. They are keen to see it grow and quickly become a mature industry with a payment structure. It’s also a route into the growing games market for them. 

Peter Westlund, B-Reel> I think people are excited about VR here. Hollywood is all about immersing people into story-worlds - and making money from it - and VR has the prospect of being a great vehicle for doing these things.

LBB> Have you been personally involved in any recent VR projects that you'd like to mention?

The Mill> The Mill have been recognised by award shows and industry peers for our work in the VR space, such as picking up the first ever SXSW Interactive Innovation Award for Mill Stitch and winning double Gold Lions at Cannes for Google Spotlight Stories ‘Help’. 2017 sees us celebrating the 10th year of The Mill in LA, and it’s proven to be an exciting year for emerging technology jobs that may vary in project type but are equally complex and interesting. For example, we recently completed a project with Fox, Samsung and Here Be Dragons to create a live action VR prequel for 24: Legacy. We simultaneously collaborated with Google to create the brand ident for their Daydream platform, a branded piece which, in contrast, offers a much different experience with fully CG environments and a dreamlike narrative.


Looking at our involvement from another angle, we’ve had the pleasure of engaging in partnerships that have expanded our involvement on the technology side. The Mill was recently announced as a creative partner of Facebook on The Surround 360 x24. The camera enables “six degrees of freedom” (6Dof) within live action, which means viewers can move up and down, forward and back, and left and right to see content from different angles. 

Catherine Day, M ss ng p eces> We've got a lot under wraps in development when it comes to originals - will be able to say more soon. Everything that I could talk about is in either the branded or social VR space, so let me know if you want more details there. 

Tim Dillon, MPC USA> Yes many, as Head of VR & Immersive Content for MPC (USA), I’ve spent the last few years involved in many projects including recently ‘The Last Goodbye’ which premiered at Tribeca. Plus fan favourites like Kygo and One Republic.  

Peter Westlund, B-Reel> We just created a mixed reality app for the launch of Gorillaz new album, Humanz. It blurred the line between Gorillaz and reality - bringing people into the world of the band. 

LBB> What's the VR scene like in LA in terms of talent, collaboration, events, etc.?

The Mill> The location of Los Angeles is crucial to the progression of VR; it is the conduit between the tech gurus in Silicon Valley and the Hollywood creatives. By keeping a finger on the pulse of all different types of tech including traditional media, VFX and augmented reality, developers have all the necessary tools at their fingertips. This makes Los Angeles a hub for the rapid creation of prototypes. 

The VR events scene in LA is always growing. There are plenty of opportunities to share and demo new content, such as VRLA, VR On the Lot and monthly mixers for publications like VR Scout. These provide a fantastic opportunity to meet and collaborate with those already immersed in VR. It’s been interesting to see the focus on VR this year at high profile events such as SXSW (where both of us presented the panel ‘The Impact of Audio on the VR Visual Story’), Pause Fest (where Gawain presented a keynote ‘VR: From Passion Project to Cinematic Blockbuster’) and Cannes. 

The tone of these events has significantly shifted from predominantly focusing on a niche gaming market, to working with the major production minds of Hollywood in looking to how we use their intent to expand that to a global opportunity. It’s important to remember that VR is still a very fresh media, so it’s fascinating to see an influx of people mobilised to transform the industry to its full potential.

Catherine Day, M ss ng p eces> It is exhausting trying to keep up with all the events, but when you do, it is incredible to be constantly meeting fresh talent, and prospective partners to collaborate with. Both VR Scout and Upload have spaces here that are constantly throwing events. Digital LA has a different panel/symposium every week it seems with a VR focus. Women in VR/AR, perhaps the most robust and purposefully diverse VR community out there with over 5,000 active members was founded and is based in LA.

I think every VR agent is based in LA, as well as the content teams for all of the major tech platforms moving south from SF more and more. In addition, LA easily has more production companies than any other place in the world, and all of the forward-thinking successful business model is starting to integrate and launch their immersive division. 

Lastly, the biggest post houses and SFX companies are in LA and they have been the best positioned pools of talent to service the VR industry and help work through all of the post production painpoints and innovations. The studios are all here, and able to vet the new tech popping up everywhere around town - they often decide to invest in it, and collaborate on precious IP. And let’s not forget all of the celebs that live here and have access to this network simply by way of proximity, so whenever a star becomes VR-curious, it's very easy for them to find a swath of VR companies that would die to work with them. 

Simply put, LA is the best place to be if you're working in VR. I was given the choice to work in LA or NY when I joined MP, and as much as I'd love to move back east and be closer to family, it was never a question in my mind as to whether or not LA was the best place for me to stay as someone determined to stay at the cutting edge of this industry. 

Tim Dillon, MPC USA> Vibrant and full of creatives embracing this new tech. The new space UploadVR has opened in Playa Vista is great and our group (Technicolor) is due to open an experience centre later this spring. The IMAX VR centre at The Grove is a great place for people to get their first premium VR experience. 

Peter Westlund, B-Reel> It seems to me LA is the geographical epicentre of the burgeoning VR industry, especially on the content side. There is this confluence of entertainment and tech, with startups overflowing out of SF and landing here, studios, post production, creatives... Both in terms of the business side but also the skills to make VR things. And there is a VR event happening every other week.

LBB> What makes the VR scene in LA unique?

The Mill> The tremendous resources of Silicon Valley, combined with the creative minds in Hollywood, are the perfect foundations for the VR scene. As the birthplace of modern cinema, it’s exciting to witness Los Angeles’ renaissance through VR. Here at The Mill we are fortunate enough to be located in the heart of the entertainment world with connections reaching to the northern area of Silicon Valley. This puts us in the perfect position to facilitate conversation and collaboration between both worlds. It’s a pleasure to see the traditions of Hollywood (we still use terms such as “speeding” on set, when obviously, no physical film is being used) with the disruptive desires of tech companies.

Working with Hollywood greats such as Justin Lin (Director, Star Trek Beyond), Henry Alex Rubin (Director, Murderball) and Claudio Miranda (Director of Photography, Life of Pi) is a fascinating meeting of the highest cinematic standards with cutting-edge technology.

Catherine Day, M ss ng p eces> LA is the creative capital of the world. We are living in the belly of the Hollywood Machine, a 45-minute flight from Silicon Valley, and affordable enough for start-ups to make ends meet - as we cultivate our own start-up community at an exponentially gaining velocity. 

Tim Dillon, MPC USA> I think it’s the mix of filmmakers, executives and the proximity to the San Francisco technology scene too, that’s a potent mix of content makers and developers. Plus a few ambitious types around who like to dream big. 

Peter Westlund, B-Reel> I think it is about the overlap between entertainment and tech industries. This place has the tradition of creating immersive story worlds, captivating characters and all that. And there is an appetite and history of adopting innovations and evolving the format of the experience. Companies are looking for how to bring these experiences to the people, whether on the emerging personal VR platforms or with things like Imax VR

LBB> VR is being used as a tool to promote movies and world-build, what projects have stood out to you?

The Mill> While we are seeing great VR, there’s so much more to explore. We feel that we are on the horizon of a shift into an even more exciting landscape. It’s interesting to see the merging of game engine and live action through technology such as light field data, as well as capturing six degrees of freedom video. We have witnessed the struggle to create narrative within in VR, but feel it’s certainly achievable given the right technique as expertly executed by Guy Shelmerdine’s recent piece, ‘Mule’. 

‘Notes on Blindness’ is a particularly powerful project, using VR in a way that allows the viewer to see the world in a totally different way. It illustrates the beauty of interaction and creating shapes.

6x9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement’, a collaboration between The Guardian and The Mill, is a nine-minute-long VR journalism piece placing the viewer inside a solitary confinement cell. VR barriers were embraced to create effects typical after long-term sensory deprivation. This immersive experience provides an innovative style of storytelling with narration from six men and one woman sharing their experience of solitary confinement. Showcased recently at South by South Lawn at the White House, it is another great example of the genuine impact of VR on people’s mindsets and public policy. 

Catherine Day, M ss ng p eces> What Nuralize is doing to help studios preview their worlds and possible immersive storylines is pretty incredible. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors out there, and their team is the real deal. Dreamscape's demo is by far the best experience I've ever had in VR. I imagine with that team coming out of Disney and DreamWorks, there will be many room scale VR experiences in the future that do an incredible job of promoting movies and the worlds the characters exist in. The arcade model is going to give the consumers what they've been waiting for as the marketplace catches up via mobile. Looking really forward to mobile allowing consumers to have positional tracking. Probably a year or two out. WebVR is going to be huge - and that's coming soon. Facebook is just now starting to integrate with partners in this respect and as the internet becomes the metaverse, VR experiences will become even more accessible to consumers and creators alike. 

Tim Dillon, Head of VR, MPC USA> There are plenty, but to call out a few, The Martian VR experience really led the pack to get people interested in VR last year. The John Wick VR experience is really well done. We (MPC) recently created pieces for Passengers and Alien Covenant. 

Peter Westlund, B-Reel> For now I think these VR/movie companion pieces are more focused on individual interactions or scenes, rather than epic narrative journeys. So, it is up to the film if there are these central moments to build from. For example, we worked to create an experience for the film Gravity. We built on how it feels to be alone, floating in space, which was a singular moment that worked well to represent the mood and core idea of the film, as well as an interesting VR experience. 


LBB> Do you have any funny stories or notable memories about VR experiences that you'd like to share?

The Mill> Seeing the reactions of the viewer such as ducking and gasping, having incredibly physical reactions to a media format, really emphasises the unique nature of the VR experience.

A notable mention has to go to the unusual experience of shooting VR as opposed to traditional media. People on set often forget that VR is 360 degrees, so they will ask repeatedly if they are “in frame” while shooting. Obviously, everything is “in frame”! It’s just another example of how the language of virtual reality is continuously evolving and having to be translated outside of the industry.

Catherine Day, M ss ng p eces> I couldn't figure out how to get to the third level of the Accounting and was literally walking around my office for 30 minutes while an angry cartoon cursed at me to get out of his life. In the future when we are able to see emotional scars in our neuropathways, I'm quite sure one will be there from that experience. 

Peter Westlund, B-Reel> In general I think it is interesting to be around when people try out VR the first time -  for example when my kids tried out proper 6DOF interactive VR for the first time. It's fun because I feel maybe the self-consciousness of VR is less with kids, they are just so uninhibited and not concerned about looking stupid to people around them, crawling around on the floor and so on.

Photography by @mikeyschwartz

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LBB Editorial, Mon, 22 May 2017 13:44:12 GMT