Using a Tool to Make VR within the Environment You’re in the Process of Making

And around we go.

Last night I had my first Oculus Rift experience in a co-working space on Capitol Hill. Don Alvarez, President and Co-Founder of Accelerated Pictures was demoing Filmmaker Live, a storyboarding tool for VR and 2D movies. While my career has led me to various interactions with Hollywood in the past (like the time Jane Fonda scowled at me at a red carpet event, long story), I am neither a filmmaker nor software developer. My impressions of Filmmaker Live are entirely through the frame of a storyteller and VR noob. Grain of salt alert.

Obviously, in order to make VR experiences, we need tools to make those experiences. Since we don’t yet understand what those experiences might entail, we don’t yet understand what tools we might need to make them. It’s a chicken and egg problem that folks like Don are working on.

For some time there’s going to be an innovation loop between the software developers who build the tools to create VR, and the Vrtists who use those tools. This is going to require a lot of feedback, trust, imagination, and camaraderie. And there will be a certain porousness of these roles. In an emerging medium, artists and engineers are often the same people.

filmmaker live
Filmmaker Live. The MS Surface interfaces with the VR environment through the cloud. I think that’s how it works.

So what is Filmmaker Live? Roughly speaking, it’s a story boarding tool. It allows filmmakers to imagine their shots ahead of time in a virtual environment. You can plan either 2D or VR experiences with Filmmaker Live. For instance, you can frame your shots from within a 3D simulation of your location. And here’s something really trippy that took me several minutes to buffer. When you’re in the VR environment, with the goggles on, you can call up a control panel for the software within the environment. You can bring the tool inside the tool itself and while you’re there, you can either use the tool to frame a 2D movie or fly around the environment that you intend to use as the basis for your VR environment. And it gets trippier. The VR environment you’re in can represent the real world you’re planning to film in (a world in which production teams build physical objects and breathing actors speak their lines), or a computer generated VR environment, or some combination thereof. Who designed this stuff? MC Escher?

Don showed a group of us a 90-second film of a boy going to bed and entering a dream land. This VR experience was composed of distinct “shots.” You start from a standing position in a room. The next shot has you hovering over the boy in his bed. In both cases, you can look around from where you are, but “where you are” depends upon where Don wants you to start from.

I know there are people who’ve thought about this in much greater detail than me, and I’d love to hear from them. But here’s what I see as the essential situation. In some VR experiences, you have free reign. You can run around your environment and go anywhere you want to go. We can think of this as a gaming environment. Or, you can go where the Vrtist wants you to go. This is sort of like getting strapped into a ride at Disneyland. As with that experience, you can still direct your attention to various elements of the ride you’re enjoying, but you’re being moved along on a path that has been determined for you.

We don’t know yet what experience users are going to prefer. I bet it will be various iterations of both. One question for me is how we’ll  come to navigate between directed and undirected VR experiences. Will I get frustrated if am having a VR experience that’s directed? Maybe I’ll have the option to jump off the ride at any point, walk around and poke my head into various store fronts or castle windows, then jump back on and let the director take me by the hand again.

After the demo, I popped over to St. John’s Bar and Eatery on Pike for something called the Film + Music + Interactive Happy Hour, hosted by Seattle’s Office of Film and Music, Washington Filmworks, Startup Seattle, The Recording Academy, and Seattle Film Institute. A bunch of people drank and passed around a Google Cardboard. Somebody whose name or affiliation I didn’t catch spoke about how so far the tech people have been working with VR and now it’s time for the artists to contribute. People seemed to be having a good time.

The evening was just another step in a hybridization between the worlds of gaming and film, with each camp contributing its own artistic vocabulary and set of expectations on how this stuff should work. It’s like chromosomes stitching the DNA of two parents together to create a baby.

I spent much of the event talking to Tradon Jordan, a social media marketing specialist who DJs under the name Bass Pharoah. One of the questions Trey and I puzzled over was how much it costs for someone to become a VR filmmaker. As with many conversations I have with Millennials, I found myself adopting the persona of Old Man Grunge. Back in the old days, I said, four people in a garage could start a band for a couple thousand bucks. Trey ballparked the figure for four people wanting to make a VR production team to be in the low six figures.

The further down we can drive this figure, the more indie Vrtists we’ll empower, and the more artistically diverse and rich the medium will become. First we need some tools to get there.