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The Future of VR/AR Q&A Sessions. Part 1.

VR / AR is an area continuing to grow in the Film & Motion industry. I’m putting together a series of interviews with prominent studios who are leading the way in VR/AR development. The sorts of things I’ll be looking to probe are: how VR and AR work, how the industry is evolving and what the future holds!

My first interview is with Adam Dolman – MD of Unit9 Films.

Q&A with Adam Dolman – MD of Unit9 Films

Tell us about yourself, and how you got to where you are today…

I started out in 2003 in-house at a traditional Commercials Production company, joining as a Runner and slowly working my way up to Production Manager. I went freelance in 2008, and in 2013 one of the directors I produced for signed at UNIT9. It was such an exciting company: integrating the digital, film and experiential worlds in super cool innovative ways. I started freelance producing there, and when Michelle Craig went off to open offices in LA, she asked me to join permanently and I’ve now been here for 3 years as MD. Our business is predominantly made up of film, digital and experiential (quite often an integration of all 3 in some way) and VR and AR has been a big part of that.

With VR and AR how different is it to designing for traditional flat screens?

Well, there are many similarities. In terms of the production process specifically it is fairly similar. When shooting live action VR, you still need crew, cast, wardrobe, locations, make up etc. Where it differs mainly is in the post-production process; after shooting, we have to rough stitch all the rushes together, so that we have the semblance of a 360 image to work to in the edit. The edit then takes a bit longer than normal because everyone who views it can have a slightly different experience, deepening on where they’re looking! So feedback can differ quite widely. Then once the edit is locked, we go back to the rushes and neat stitch the footage that has made the cut. It tends to be a 4-8 week post-production process, depending on the complexity of what’s been shot.

The main watch outs in the production process are:
1) remember that everything around you is in play
2) careful consideration needs to be given to camera movement, as it can give viewers motion sickness when viewed in a headset
3) beware of parallax issues when anything is placed near the camera rig.

From a narrative point of view, one of the main hurdles to overcome is that fact that you can’t employ traditional film making techniques to help tell your story. There’s no close ups, you can’t punch in or zoom in, cuts need to be slower as they can often be jarring for the viewer. It really is a different medium from a narrative perspective. For me, I think VR works better in the experiential space. The whole 4D experience is far more rewarding. I think there’s a disconnect in VR if the camera starts moving and you don’t yourself. In an experiential space, in which the chair moves with the action, it becomes a far more immersive experience. So for me, the better bits of narrative work I’ve seen have been in the horror space, where, for example, you’re strapped into in a chair and someone comes up to you with a needle and puts it close to your eye! So creepy! And because the camera is not moving and you’re not moving, the experience is that much more immersive. Where live action VR often doesn’t work is when it’s used for the sake of it, rather than when the medium of VR really optimises the intended effect of the film.

What’s the best piece of VR or Immersive work you’ve seen?

It depends, in terms of watching on a desktop and for entertainment purposes, one of the earliest pieces I saw was a spot for EA Games where the camera is focused on a bag of money which is stolen from a vault; the vault opens up, lights come on and bank robbers run in and grab you and then it’s absolute pandemonium! It’s a great piece of engaging content. You couldn’t watch it on a headset. You’d throw up. But it’s a really engaging piece and a fantastically entertaining film – machine gun battles, helicopters exploding! What’s not to like!

The best headset experience for me was a short horror film which I saw at a festival; exactly as I described previously – it was a really immersive experience and one in which the content was massively heightened by the medium.

Between ideas / concepts in your head and technical knowledge of tools / software, is one more important than the other to bring ideas to life?

Both are very important and it slightly depends on what it is. I’m not as informed in the AR space, but there’s a lot of technical and practical limitations to filming live action VR; you get parallax issues very close to the camera; you’ve often got 6 cameras to worry about, rather than just one; and then there’s the technical limitations of the hardware once you’ve made the film.

One of the main problems VR has had is that, with the exception of a few examples, the quality of the content has not been there. I don’t mean that from a resolution pov. I mean that we haven’t really seen enough engaging pieces of content to really move the industry forward. Yet. I do think that will change as the hardware improves and more talented directors and creative enter into the medium, but for now, the best work for me is still in a gaming and interactive space.  

One the main hardware limitations is the fact that content looks pixelated in the headset. This isn’t the film footage itself. It’s the fact that you’re watching it on a phone that’s only a few centimetres from your face! That is going to change with the new headsets they’re releasing next year. I believe these will have built in screens and not use phones, meaning that the image will be up to 8K (apparently). Platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook all have built in 360 players now, which is great in terms of increasing reach, which has been quite a big stumbling block for VR up til now.

Is something a social immersive experience (involving glasses or a headset), if you can’t see people’s expressions or reactions? How can you make this social?

I think there are certain ways of experiencing VR that can be classed as more social, such as a Dome experience or any kind of immersive cinema experience. We’ve built many cubes and domes and projected the 360 image within that space, meaning more than one person can experience the content at one time.  

In terms of the headset experience; I guess it can be social, in that the content can take the viewer into a more social space, i.e: a gig, sporting event, restaurant etc. But for now, other than in the gaming world, it’s not something that you can really do with your mates. It’s a very individual experience which is why I guess shorter content is a bit more social, ‘cus you can have a go then someone else can have a go; but it’s not like being sat with mates watching a movie at this stage.

Could it be?

Yes. It could in future. I don’t know how but there must be some way you can be hooked up to a mothership and experience the same experience!

How would you start in the field today with more courses and tools available than ever, and what advice would you give?

Go out and experiment and make stuff. The technology is now very available and cheap. You can get dual lens cameras that are relatively inexpensive now, as are the headsets. My advice would be to get out there. It’s an exciting space to be in as it’s still relatively new and emerging and I think it’s exciting that there actually isn’t that much good creative work out there yet; it hasn’t fully been explored and I genuinely think it’s there for the taking. We just haven’t seen it quite yet. Manufacturers continue to commit to it, so the need for content will remain. Just get out there and give it a go!

Any comments/questions please let me know

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