In 2014, I made a prediction. Virtual reality, I believed, would be the future of filmmaking. I was mostly correct; I was also terribly wrong. I was right in that dozens of filmmakers were going to embrace the 360-degree, immersive world of VR—this was obvious even from the half-dozen or so experiences tucked away in a small room at the Sundance Film Festival, where I had my epiphany. I was wrong in making it sound as though VR was going to up and replace film. It didn’t. It likely won’t. Ready Player One-style virtual worlds may never take the place of multiplexes, but immersive entertainment can change the landscape—if its creators can get people to pony up for it.
In the last four years, much has changed in the world of 360-degree filmmaking. These days virtual reality has a presence at most major film festivals. Scores of movies and TV shows now have headset-ready experiences to accompany them. Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s VR installation Carne y Arena even won a special-achievement award from the Academy of Motion Pictures. The world VR pioneers envisioned in 2014 has come to pass. “Everything I could’ve imagined to legitimize the artform, almost all of it’s happened,” says former Oculus Story Studio producer Edward Saatchi, who last week launched his new immersive film studio, Fable. “The only thing that hasn’t happened is, like, any evidence that consumers will purchase it—which is a fairly significant missing piece. So the really important ‘What now?’ is demonstrating you can make revenue.”
Oh yes, that old chestnut: making money. If you’re a startup, nascent industry, or even just a person with a good idea, you know you’ve made it when people start wondering if you’re a goldmine. For VR filmmakers, that time is coming—if not already here. With the news yesterday that VR-in-space experience Spheres had been acquired for seven figures at the festival, it’s clear the medium is moving into the realms normally occupied by traditional filmmakers and studios, but that’s only part of the necessary shift. Getting a company to acquire a piece of content and getting consumers to watch it are two different things.
“In the past year or so, no one has asked me, ‘Can you tell a story in VR?’” says Oculus executive producer Yelena Rachitsky. “VR is creating a whole new type of content, but it’s also having audiences understand what it is. So it’s teaching them how this works and what it is and what to call it and connect to it, which we’re slowly doing.”
To create something people can connect to, Saatchi’s company has been working on a piece called Wolves in the Walls, the first chapter of which is showing this week at Sundance. Adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman, it’s an experiment in getting viewers to interact with a story’s protagonist—in this case, a girl named Lucy, who asks them to help her prove there are creatures living in the walls of her house. Using Oculus’ Touch controllers, she’s able to virtually hand viewers cameras and let them take pictures. She’s programmed to have different responses based on what it is the viewers do, and she remembers their various actions for future reference. Unlike the interactions in most narrative VR, and all movies, Wolves lets viewers participate.
In Saatchi’s mind, that’s the start of the next phase of interactive filmmaking: creating characters that can later be ported over to an augmented reality system like Magic Leap or integrated with a virtual assistant like Alexa. In this world, Lucy would live in your Oculus headset, but sit next to you on the couch when you’re in AR and answer questions about what show you should watch on TV. It’s an ambitious jump, but a necessary one—now that VR storytelling has arrived, its creators need to figure out where it’s going.
“Four years ago, there was just VR, and now my personal belief is that we should be focused a future where the the thing that goes mainstream is VR/AR,” says Saatchi, who launched Fable with more than a few folks from Story Studio, which Oculus shuttered last spring. “We got to reset after Story Studio, now it’s ‘What is a five-year vision from 2017?’ instead of ‘What is the end of the vision we had in 2013, 2014?’”
Saatchi isn’t the only one. In its quest to find room in the marketplace, VR filmmaking may be feeling some pressure from other tech. In the time that the cottage industry of people making narrative VR has been working to prove their mettle, other forms of interactive entertainment have come to the fore, augmented reality and AI-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo chief among them. And now those technologies are the new kids on the block, showing up at events like Sundance. They’re still in something of an infancy stage by comparison—at the festival’s forward-looking New Frontier program this year, there are 18 VR projects, one AR offering, two AI ones, and two MR—but there’s undeniable hype around them. And with stories like this Economist piece and headlines that ask “Game over for virtual reality?,” it’s incumbent on VR to play nice, especially if it wants to be a food group in viewers’ media diets.
Generally speaking, VR films/experiences/what-have-you are meant to fill the same free time that any form of entertainment—TV, social media, videogames, podcasts—does. But that’s an increasingly crowded room, and VR films don’t fit neatly into pre-existing distribution channels. Studios come to Sundance to acquire movies to send to theaters (or Netflix/Amazon), but they don’t really buy VR stuff. (Spheres‘ got picked up by a VR funding outfit called CityLights.) Some projects get released through standalone VR apps for headsets—like the one from Within—and others are available through services like Steam or the stores for Oculus and HTC Vive, but there is no single centralized place with with all the best content. “I think there’s an inflection point for VR in terms of it occupying the same space as social media/TV/film,” says Gabo Arora, cofounder and creator of VR studio Tomorrow Never Knows. “VR as a medium, though, is not there to supplant these formats, and it’s being degraded by trying to fit into their distribution channels.”
VR experiences are meant to fill the same free time that any form of entertainment does—but that’s an increasingly crowded room, and VR doesn’t fit neatly into pre-existing distribution channels.
Arora’s Sundance experience, it’s worth noting, does have social aspects. Created with Sensorium‘s John Fitzgerald and Matthew Niederhauser, Zikr: A Sufi Revival lets multiple users join together in VR to experience, and learn about, the mystical Islamic practice of Sufism. It’s a thought-provoking piece—and an interesting use of the format to help viewers grasp an often misunderstood religious sect—but it’s probably better suited for a museum or cultural center than a living room. Zikr and Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena are are showing the future of the medium, Arora says, but “it’s not going to be about how many shares it gets on Facebook, but how we can then extend interactivity into more social realms.”
Indeed, a taxonomy of narrative VR experiences is beginning to emerge. Zikr is more like a theatrical release—something you experience out in the world with others—while something like Wolves in the Walls is better suited to home viewing. Other pieces might be just fine on Google Cardboard or easily ported to whatever kind of VR-viewing setup is available. But none of them really offer much insight on where narrative VR belongs.
Meanwhile, VR continues to untether itself from computers and phones, with wireless-capable headsets (HTC Vive Pro) and all-in-one “standalone” devices (Oculus Go) on the horizon this year. And as the technology becomes more mobile, it can really go anywhere. Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, cofounders of VR studio Within, see a future in which VR, AI, and AR all coexist and the next generation—already attuned to living in a virtual reality on their smartphones—hang out in it with their friends whenever they want. (Let’s face it, kids who hang out on their smartphones rather than partying won’t even question where online social interactions fit into their media diets.)
It’s a world they’ve already started building. Within’s Sundance entry his year is a multi-person VR experience that turns you and your friends into female warriors set to the song “Chorus” by Justice, but for them it’s one of the first steps into a world where social VR other augmented reality technologies are a part of daily life—at home, at the theater, in a museum, and beyond.
“There are definitely pieces that feel more aligned with a heavy, thoughtful film festival, but I look at it like [VR] is a transmission tool. It’s a machine, in the same way a television is machine,” Milk says. “Ultimately, that’s what builds a truly new medium, it’s not something that you just see in amusement parks or film festivals. There eventually needs to be something for everyone in there.”
If the last four years have proven anything, it’s that VR experiences, in whatever form they may take, belong at film festivals. The next four years may prove they belong everywhere else.
MoviePass CEO proudly says the app tracks your location before and after movies
Everyone knew the MoviePass deal is too good to be true — and as is so often the case these days, it turns out you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And in this case they’re not even attempting to camouflage that. Mitch Lowe, the company’s CEO, told an audience at a Hollywood event that “we know all about you.”
Lowe was giving the keynote at the Entertainment Finance Forum; his talk was entitled “Data is the New Oil: How will MoviePass Monetize It?” Media Play News first reported his remarks.
“We get an enormous amount of information,” Lowe continued. “We watch how you drive from home to the movies. We watch where you go afterwards.”
It’s no secret that MoviePass is planning on making hay out of the data collected through its service. But what I imagined, and what I think most people imagined, was that it would be interesting next-generation data about ticket sales, movie browsing, A/B testing on promotions in the app and so on.
I didn’t imagine that the app would be tracking your location before you even left your home, and then follow you while you drive back or head out for a drink afterwards. Did you?
Naturally I contacted MoviePass for comment and will update if I hear back. But it’s pretty hard to misinterpret Lowe’s words.
The startup’s plan is to “build a night at the movies,” perhaps complete with setting up parking or ordering you a car, giving you a deal on dinner before or after, connecting you with like-minded moviegoers, etc. Of course they need data to do that, but one would hope that the collection would be a bit more nuanced than this.
People clearly value the service, because it essentially lets them use someone else’s credit card instead of their own at the movies (and one belonging to a bunch of venture capitalists at that). Who would say no? Some people sure might, if they knew their activities were being tracked at this granularity (and, it has to be said, with such a cavalier attitude) to be packaged up and sold. (Good luck with the GDPR, by the way.)
Hopefully MoviePass can explain exactly what data it collects and what it does with it, so everyone can make an informed choice.
Update: In a statement, a MoviePass representative says:
We are exploring utilizing location-based marketing as a way to help enhance the overall experience by creating more opportunities for our subscribers to enjoy all the various elements of a good movie night. We will not be selling the data that we gather. Rather, we will use it to better inform how to market potential customer benefits including discounts on transportation, coupons for nearby restaurants, and other similar opportunities.
I’ve also asked for information on what location data specifically is collected, for how long before and after a movie users are tracked, and where these policies are disclosed to users.
Aesthetic excellence: how cinematography transformed TV
Directors of photography from Atlanta, Transparent and other top shows discuss how they achieve the sensibility of cinema
Much of the conversation regarding the rise of prestige television has rightfully centered around the showrunners and writers rooms whove energized a medium that was once the province of three-camera sitcoms filmed on studio sets. But less often do we focus on the cinematographers behind the lens, many of whom never saw themselves working in television until, in the last decade or so, the schisms between the small and big screens dwindled. And not merely in the scope of the stories or the quality of scripts: never before has television looked so good, from inventive camerawork to glossy lighting.
Its hard to ascertain exactly when the paradigm shift began, but there have certainly been seminal moments that most boldly bridged the gap between the two: the six-minute tracking shot in True Detective following Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on a drug bust comes to mind, as do early seasons of Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, ambitious, world-building series that took a sledgehammer to the conventions of episodic television. That the Television Academy split its cinematography honors between one-hour and half-hour series last year also signaled that the Emmys governing body had taken note of the profusion of aesthetic excellence on TV.
Nowadays, changes to TVs visual orthodoxy is reflected everywhere, and more diversely, too: in the sprawling, noir-ish science fiction of Netflixs new series Altered Carbon; in the shabby surrealism of FXs Atlanta; in the bright, California sheen of HBOs Insecure; and in the hyper-naturalism of Amazon shows like Transparent and I Love Dick. In these shows, and several others, environment comes alive as much as the characters do and, unsurprisingly, the directors of photography behind them were inspired by the world of film, approaching the work less like fragmented installments of a serialized story than like marathon movies, constructed piecemeal.
None of the creatives involved in this project saw this as a TV show, says Martin Ahlgren, who shot half of Altered Carbons first season and several episodes of House of Cards. We all imagined it as a 10-hour movie, and thats the approach we took to creating not only story arcs but visual arcs.
Snoke Screens: Designing the User Interfaces In The Last Jedi
You’ll find no touch screens in Star Wars: The Last Jedi—not even when you can watch it at home next month (March 13 for digital, two weeks later for physical). Same goes for mice and keyboards. They’re all too familiar, too of-this-world, to appear in a galaxy so far, far away. What you’ll find instead are interface displays, and lots of them. Whether in an X-wing’s cockpit or the bridge of a Star Destroyer, every display in The Last Jedi exists to support the story—to provide a graphical complement to the film’s action and dialogue.
And it started with the film’s director. “Whenever possible, Rian [Johnson] wanted us to use practical graphics to enforce the narrative,” says creative director Andrew Booth, who oversaw the creation of TLJ’s assorted instrument clusters, targeting systems, medical readouts, and tactical displays. “It would actually appear in the script that you look at a screen and gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening. The challenge was always, what can we do in-camera to create something that feels real and believable?”
What’s impressive about the interfaces in The Last Jedi is that they feel believable not just to the audience, but to the film’s dramatis personae. In the real world, designers design for one person: the user. But creatives like Booth—whose design agency, BLIND LTD, has been behind the look and feel of some of this century’s biggest blockbusters, including every Star Wars film from TFA onward—designed the practical displays in The Last Jedi with at least three groups of people in mind: the characters, the actors depicting those characters, and the folks watching along in theaters.
Consider the film’s opening scene, in which (fair warning: plot points and spoilers from here on out) Commander Poe Dameron calls General Hux. The point of Poe’s call is to buy time; he’s charging the engines on his X-wing so he can stage a surprise attack on the First Order Dreadnought that’s poised to obliterate his Resistance buddies planetside. It’s a plan the audience comes to understand when the camera cuts to a display inside Poe’s starfighter that shows the status of his boosters.
“For us, that’s a perfect piece of storytelling,” Booth says. “Now you’ve got exposition, drama, and tension all wrapped up in this close-up of a progress bar.” And because it’s a practical effect, that tension is experienced by audience, actor, and character alike. In fact, every single display in Poe’s cockpit pulls triple duty: The top one depicts the tower Poe is attacking; the middle one shows the status bar for his X-wing’s engines; and the bottom one, which is all wonky, visualizes his spaceship’s damaged targeting system, which BB-8 spends much of the sequence trying to repair.
These kinds of details don’t always make it into the final cut of a film, and even when they do, audiences don’t always notice them. Not explicitly, anyway. “For us, these graphics are more about shape and form than they are about spelling things out—but they do allow people to feel what’s going on in a scene, and they help support the actor’s performance,” Booth says.
The WIRED Guide to Star Wars
Similar details abound inside the spacecraft from Canto Bight, the opulent casino city. The graphics aboard the ship that DJ and BB-8 steal are shiny. Slinky. Sumptuous. A striking contrast to the First Order’s stark, militaristic vibes and the ragtag aesthetics of the Resistance. “This was us trying to evoke a different world,” Booth says.
But even the film’s familiar spaces brim with visual information. Toward the end of the film, on the chalk-dusted mining planet Crait, the audience gets multiple glimpses inside Kylo Ren’s shuttle, from which he has orchestrated the First Order’s assault on what remains of the Resistance. “The aesthetic is sharp, clean, systematic—just like the First Order, itself, and the color palette is all red, grey, black and white,” Booth says.
These are classic, higher-order stylistic cues, many of which date back to the original trilogy. During pre-production on The Force Awakens BLIND LTD researched the original designs closely, and collaborated with production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford to get the look and feel just right. The graphics continued to evolve with Lucasfilm design supervisor Kevin Jenkins and production designer Rick Heinrichs on The Last Jedi. They immediately help viewers understand where they are and whose ship it is. (The Resistance’s aesthetic, by contrast, is analog and unstructured—its color palette dominated by orange, green, brown, and other earth colors.)
But look closely, and you’ll see that the screens inside the shuttle are loaded with details. Crait’s topography, the blast door separating the Resistance from the First Order, the line of AT-ATs—they’re all depicted on screens, often for the briefest of moments. “It gives you an idea of the level of detail that we put into these interfaces,” Booth says. “It’s one of the things we pride ourselves on: You don’t necessarily always see it, but you sure as hell feel it.”
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