New Deal Studios and Jaunt VR Talk Cinematic VR at SXSW

As technology around virtual reality continues to improve, it's no secret that there's a lot of buzz around VR. Discussing their work on three films that utilized VR, a panel at SXSW yesterday saw four industry veterans discussing immersive storytelling with cinematic VR. On the panel from California-based VFX company New Deal Studios was Shannon Gans, CEO at New Deal, along with Matthew Gratzner, a Director at New Deal as well as Ian Hunter, another Director at New Deal who recently won an Academy Award for his involvement on Interstellar. Joining the team from New Deal Studios was Scott Broock, Vice President of VR Content at Jaunt VR, who collaborated with New Deal Studios on three of their VR films. "Everyone has a different take on what is virtual reality," Gans said. "For us, our point of view was 'Let's start with storytelling', because everyone loves a good story. And we all know the language of cinematics, so we thought that would be a great way to bring people into this wonderful world and get them used to this new medium."

The Black Mass Experience

New Deal Studios recently released a 360 horror short entitled The Black Mass Experience, intended to be used with Google Cardboard. Although the short is on the cutting edge of technology, it's not the technology that was the main focus for the team at New Deal. Directed by Greg Plotkin, Black Mass is much less about what you see as what you don't see. "We've seen where technology peaks and then people get bored with it," Gratzner said. "The only way to keep people coming back to it is if they're interested in the story." Gratzner discussed how everyone making movies has to deal with technology. Throughout cinematic history, technology has continued to evolve from silent movies to 3D movies. The one constant is the stories that capture the viewer's attention. So with VR it makes sense to focus more on the storytelling and how you can use all 360 degrees to your benefit in telling the story rather than the technology itself. To help with the technology, New Deal Studios worked with Jaunt VR. "The underlying philosophy for us at Jaunt is that we want to create the tools, the software and the distribution platform that works with the creatives," Broock stated. "It's meant to give you a system that may look somewhat strange-looking, but at the end of the day it has an unlock button, stop, start, record. From there it's medium management, but then you're straight into what you know -- Final Cut, Avid, Premiere." Although the visuals are incredibly important, audio is equally important. To help with this, the team looked to Dolby Atmos for their VR. "About a week and a half or two weeks ago we announced a partnership with Dolby where we're enabling Atmos directly on your phone," Broock said. "This is a huge opportunity because it's object-oriented mixing, which means I can precisely place objects of sounds in space. This becomes a huge part of storytelling." The Black Mass Experience is available for free on the Google Play store.

The Mission

Matt Gratzner directed New Deal Studios' VR short, The Mission, which follows a WWII Special Ops team on the Eastern Front. "The question comes up, if you can see the camera the camera can see you," Broock said. "So where do you place the director? Where do you place the crew?" To tackle this challenge, Broock suggests getting creative. For example, in The Mission the team at New Deal took advantage of boxes in the environment to hide inside of to be able to call out directions while being hidden from the camera. "What I've been told in VR is you can never move the camera, you cannot do hard cuts and it has to be first person," Gratzner said. "As a filmmaker that's a little bit of a challenge because now every single time you want to tell a story from a different POV you can't." This can get to be gimmicky and, unfortunately start to detract from the story you're trying to tell. Originally, The Mission was written to be entirely in first-person, but Gratzner wanted to run some tests to see if they could break that mold. "As many people, ourselves included, talking about VR we're just talking about it from what we've discovered," Gratzner said. "The true test of this is getting it to an audience." I've been on a number of panels with other filmmakers and VR technologists who say, 'You can't do this or you have to do this', but we're all kind of full of nonsense until 10,000,000 people pay for the movie," Gratzner admitted. "Because without monetization it's all just an experiment. So it's really about the mass appeal and getting the audience." The approach Gratzner took for this project was to tell an action-adventure story in a Hollywood style. So the first step of seeing if they could break out of the first-person view was done by letting the film's Director of Photography, A.J. Raitano, hold the camera and move around for about eight minutes. Banking on his experience shooting on nearly any type of camera going back to the days of true film, once he watched the test footage, Gratzner realized it didn't need to be first-person to be successful. "This is just another way to tell a story," Gratzner said. "Let's just tell this as a story. Now we certainly have a few first-person moments, because that's important to get you into it, but that would be the same as any first-person POV you're shooting. If you're shooting an actor who's getting thrown against a wall, and you cut to a shot from their POV just like in a film it actually works quite well." With this technique, they were able to achieve a feeling of immersiveness inside of a Hollywood movie. For the actual shooting of The Mission, they started with a Steadycam Pilot and modified it with some custom counterweight systems for the VR camera. The schedule for The Mission was about three and a half weeks of pre-production, including writing the script, and about two days of actual shooting for what ended up being about a six-minute short. You can watch The Mission using Google Cardboard by downloading it on Google Play store.

Kaiju Fury!

The final film the panel discussed was Kaiju Fury!, which was directed by Ian Hunter at New Deal Studios. "Coming from a background of VFX, Kaiju Fury, for us, was an opportunity to work with a lot of really great creature shop builders at the Stan Winston School of Character Arts," Hunter explained. "The Jaunt system is so small that we could actually get the camera down low enough that it'd be the same height as a person down on the street looking up at monsters," Hunter said. "So we built a city on that scale, about 1:24." While the students were building suits for the monsters, other students started working on building a city for the monsters to destroy. During this time, the New Deal team wrote the script and worked with Jaunt to figure out how they would tackle the VR. "Rehearsals are really, really important when you do VR," Hunter said. "There's some directors who shoot off the cuff, but that doesn't really work for VR because you don't really have the chance to go back and cut it together at the end. So you really want to rehearse everything." After two weeks, the monster suits and city was built and all the rehearsals were done. There were two days of shooting for the monster scenes and one day of shooting live action. "At first you think you're doing a lot of rehearsal," Hunter commented. "But once you start shooting the takes, the takes are longer. You're actually covering quite a bit of parts of the script -- a full page or whatever -- in one take." Hunter continued, "It's not really particularly longer to shoot with VR, where it is a little more time consuming is like what we experienced shooting with 3D cameras, it can just take a little more time camera-prep wise. In this case, the Jaunt camera has 14 lenses so you have to make sure the camera's ready to go." Like the other VR shorts, you can watch Kaiju Fury! using Google Cardboard by downloading it on Google Play store.