Over the past few years, filmmakers have been diving headfirst into creating and shaping the language of cinematic VR. No longer are large studios regarding VR as a gimmick or novelty that eventually will pass, instead validating it as a new medium by dedicating their effort, ingenuity and money into designing experiences that are unlike anything seen before on the traditional silver screen.
Now, seemingly everyone is actively participating in the discussion and development of this bold new medium. Over the next year, the VR market will begin to take more notable form as consumers begin to define which experiences push the medium forward.
The demand for quality cinematic experiences is being felt by both filmmakers and platforms alike, as very few VR cinematic projects are making as much of an impression as immersive first-person experiences.
Despite the current technical challenges, dozens of filmmakers and specialists have been drawn into developing first-person cinematic content for virtual reality, and have since broken down barriers and solved complex problems that have existed for generations.
First-person point-of-view experiences—invented in the golden age of film and later popularized in video games—has experienced a rebirth of late via found footage projects and, now again, in VR. Fresh new filmmakers are also developing interactive VR series that challenge what we can expect out of live-action VR, while industry experts carve out breakthrough solutions to major technical challenges that filmmakers are facing in the new world of cinematic Virtual Reality production.
The ARGOS File
With most of Hollywood focusing on promotional content, creative breakthroughs in cinematic VR are coming from new faces with medium-defining ideas. Josema Roig, an up-and-coming director fresh out of the American Film Institute, has created one of the most impressive first-person VR concepts we’ve ever witnessed, building on the strengths of cinematic VR’s potential while simultaneously embracing the medium’s current technical shortcomings via practical solutions.
Like many filmmakers, Roig happened upon VR at Sundance’s New Frontiers exhibit in early 2015 alongside his collaborator and producer Michael Steiner. While experiencing several of the selected works, Roig and Steiner were blown away by VR’s potential, but took exception to current unnecessary technical limitations that hindered the experience of presence, also known as the feeling of complete immersion.
“I was watching this one roller-coaster experience and thinking, ‘This is the future,’ while at the same time realizing, ‘This so far from where it needs to be,’” Roig explains. “You’re transported to this new place, but what exactly are you? If you look down to see your body, it’s just an empty black hole, a brand logo or a tripod arm that takes you out of the experience. Being unable to move around during the experience is hard enough, so when you’re not even aware of who you are, it takes you right out of the moment. The experience just turns into a rotating 360º screen, and so it’s not a true immersive experience.”
Excited by the potential of the new medium, however, Roig and Steiner set out to design a truly immersive first-person experience in VR. They experimented with various rigs and began collaborating on a story with screenwriter Joshua Rubin, lead writer at Telltale Games, and also part of the creative teams for some of the most respected interactive content of this past decade, which include Assassin’s Creed 2 and Destiny.
The team realized how new and exciting first-person experiences could be, especially when coupled with the interactive capabilities soon to be available to filmmakers in live-action capture.
“VR is still being born, and what’s missing from most current experiences is understanding who you are and why you can’t move,” states Roig.
The team took these challenges to heart and developed The ARGOS File, an interactive first-person VR experience that puts users into the shoes of Detective Travis Brodie, a burnt-out cop in the year 2029. Through this character, the user works as an investigator in the midst of a criminal case involving the mysterious death of a teenage hacker that eventually leads to a grand conspiracy.
In The ARGOS File, Augmented Reality has become ubiquitous, and advanced neural technology allows people to record their memories, allowing Brodie to snoop around into people’s immersive past memories and uncover clues by interactively scrubbing and controlling these moments, much like the film Minority Report.
The team approached Alex Henning, Academy Award®-winning visual effects supervisor and co-founder of Magnopus, a digital experience company recognized for its groundbreaking work. Their desire was to see if The Argos File was even achievable in live action. They began brainstorming when Magnopus was approached by Nokia, seeking a team to create content using their new Nokia OZO system.
Henning felt this to be an incredible opportunity to build a trailer for the project, Magnopus and the team set out to make an ambitious proof-of-concept trailer.
“Nokia’s mandate was to push it, go big, be dangerous, don’t make it easy, and be sure to make it hard,” Henning reveals. “This is all about coming up with solutions, about pushing the boundaries of creativity with their camera and figuring out what kind of action can you shoot in VR.”
Impressed with the capabilities of the OZO and the freedom granted by Nokia, the team focused their attention on fabricating a rig that could be worn by the actor/operator, allowing them to work uninhibited while providing camera stability and, of course, remaining entirely hidden to a camera that’s looking everywhere.
A custom rig was designed that placed the camera right above and slightly forward to the actor’s head, and hid his head entirely from the camera using a simple scarf, thereby giving the user the impression of embodiment, the key to true immersion.
“VR is so difficult because, as a viewer, your reality detector is always on high alert,” says Roig. “If you see anything that doesn’t appear to be real, it’s going to instantaneously break your connection to the experience.”
This attention to detail and ingenuity pays off spectacularly for the filmmakers, as the teaser doesn’t allow any of the current limitations to affect the story in a negative way. This creative ingenuity in all facets makes it a wonderful achievement in cinematic storytelling. The uniqueness and originality of projects like The ARGOS File is also inspiring more filmmakers to develop content in VR.
“There isn’t much room in traditional film to do something original that hasn’t been done before and actually make something good,” notes Roig on the subject. “But there’s so much room to hit gold with new techniques in VR storytelling. Film has been a developing medium for 100 years. Just think about all the things that don’t exist yet in VR, like light-field or volumetric video. Suddenly everyone working in VR wants to do something really big, but because of current limitations you simply cannot. That’s the nature of film, art and now virtual reality as it continues to keep evolving and finessing. We hope to help with that.”
Learn more about The ARGOS File at theargosfile.com.
Developing complex solutions under tight deadlines is nothing new for Michael Mansouri. Since 2005, his company Radiant Images has been providing the entertainment industry with extensive 2D and 3D solutions in motion pictures, television, commercials—and now virtual reality.
Radiant Images began experimenting in Virtual Reality back in 2008. Since then the company has built several specialized camera rig systems and partnered with other camera makers to become one of the best solution providers available. Last year a request brought Mansouri and his team to the forefront of exploration into first-person experiences in VR.
“We were contacted by Warner Bros., and directors Guy Norris and his son Harrison, who were exploring the possibility of a VR experience for Suicide Squad, Mansouri explains. “They weren’t interested in doing what we’ve always seen in VR, namely. creating an experience where you’re a fly on the wall, observing an experience with no participation other than being a passive watcher.”
Warner Bros. wanted to do something very challenging, looking to have embodiment in a scene to become Margot Robbie’s character, Harley Quinn.
“When they came to us with this idea that required a ton of action and with subjects very close to camera, so we initially said it was technically impossible to deal with such major parallax issues,” recalls Mansouri. “We didn’t believe we had a solution, but then we asked ourselves if it was really possible. In exploring it further, we discovered there was a way to do it. By oversampling the material, you can augment the image in post with information that was previously unavailable.”
Warner Bros. went ahead and gave Radiant Images a two-week window to build a camera solution that eventually became Mobius. Radiant flew out to the film set in Toronto and provided production support and captured an outstanding experience that places users right in the shoes of Margot Robbie in the midst of a furious gun-fight.
The Mobius is possibly the most impressive GoPro rig for VR capture we’ve seen, housing 17 cameras and a binaural microphone system for 360 audio capture, integrated power and a customized shoulder support system that offers the operator outstanding stability.
Mansouri stressed to us that the Mobius was designed to specifically aid the post process, which has become the major pain point in early VR production. Radiant Images is no stranger to first-person POV filmmaking, having worked on several cinematic works in the past, including David Ayer’s End of Watch. Their team understands that in these early days of VR, each project requires entirely different specialty solutions, and as such, have built several VR rigs available for rental that cater specifically to different VR experiences.
“The Mobius was developed specifically for first-person POV experiences, while our Dark Corner VR 360 system, based around the Sony a7S, was designed for experiences that require extreme low-light capture,” continues Mansouri. “We also have the Headcase VR 360, which was developed for exceptionally high-resolution captures, and perfect for cinema-quality aesthetics with lots of dynamic range. We allow filmmakers to choose different systems for each project.”
Despite the complex variation of camera solutions Radiant offers, it was essential to Mansouri that each system include ambisonic sound-recording systems.
“Our approach is that it’s not what you see in VR, it’s what you feel,” Mansouri outlines. “We believe that the subconscious is where you create memories, and we’re always looking to impact the subconscious. There are tools that really help, and sound can especially impact a user’s feeling of being immersed far greater than the imagery itself. The visuals provide the proof of you being there, but the feeling of being there is provided by sound.”
For Suicide Squad, we recorded using ambisonic binaural audio embedded into the Mobius rig so that we can simulate full spatial sound of the environment. We really wanted to create a memory for the viewers, something that felt more than just an experience.”
With so many pain points in content creation for VR, Radiant Images has seen first-hand how exciting the potential for first-person experiences in VR can become.
“It’s hard to classify what VR is right now, and there’s something exciting about not knowing what it is just yet,” wraps Mansouri. “Before you have a business model, you have an art form—and that’s exactly what VR is right now. Everyone is developing the business model around the art form. In traditional cinema, you have art coming out of this already developed and proven model. VR is still very much at the early stages, but we’re making incredible progress.”
As post processes improve, Mansouri expects the amount of creative content to skyrocket in numbers and continued support to push boundaries and solve complex technical challenges.
Experience Radiant Images’ Squad 360: The VR Experience at SamsungVR.com.
Gear For POV VR Filmmaking
Ricoh Theta S 360 Camera. One of the first handheld 360 solutions to hit the market, the Theta S has been the tools for many filmmakers’ first experience filming in VR. Providing users with the option to capture both stills and HD video at true HD resolution at 30 fps, the Theta S streamlines the capture process and allows users an easy all-in-one solution with their Theta app to output footage and render on the fly for easy upload to YouTube and other platforms. The Theta can record up to 25 minutes, making it a reliable option for low-budget productions, test shoots and location scouting. The Theta S is available now at a respectable price of $349.95. theta360.com
Samsung Gear 360. The Gear 360 is a twin-lens ball of a camera that captures spherical 30-megapixel photos at 3840×1920. Equipped with two bright ƒ/2.0 fisheye lenses, Samsung’s Gear 360 camera allows for higher-resolution capture than the Ricoh Theta S and offers live video shooting, as well as a 195º-angle of view. Like the Theta, Gear 360 can be easily uploaded to a Samsung phone for a Gear VR, as well as other 360 Video platforms like YouTube. The Gear 360 goes for $349.99 and can be found at Verizon and other Samsung retailers. samsung.com .
Nokia OZO. Moving into professional solutions, the OZO is a futuristic eight-lensed sphere that can do some seriously impressive things to aid content creation, and thus has become the go-to camera for many professional productions. For starters, its eight 2Kx2K genlocked lenses allow for 30 fps and 3D stereoscopic image capture. It has an onboard power supply and 500 GB SSD for untethered capture, and includes eight ambisonic microphones to record full spatial sound. The OZO’s most impressive capability is the OZO Remote App, which allows filmmakers to see all eight lenses in real time for last looks and rehearsals. The app also allows for HMDs so that users can see footage in 360 video. The OZO comes in at $45,000 and can be found at several rental houses, including Radiant Images. ozo.nokia.com
Teradek Sphere. The Sphere is a must-have accessory for filmmakers using camera solutions that don’t feature built-in monitoring systems. This real-time 360º live video-monitoring system works on any camera rig that uses HDMI or HD-SDI ports. It can support up to eight cameras and offers an extremely useful iOS app that allows for on-the-fly stitching with multiple configurations. The App also allows for color calibration, live recording and wireless connectivity so users can even live-stream content. The Teradek Sphere is available for $2,990. teradek.com