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How I Formed a Team to Build Our Next VR Experience

While making my first feature film “Living with Strangers” in 2013, I struggled a lot with finding help to make the project. I remember back then feeling very frustrated by the process. As with all my projects, the budget for the film was extremely low and therefore I was relying on a way to capture people’s imagination, passion, and of course work ethic. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work and in reflecting back on my approach, I feel like I spent a lot of time chasing people’s attention and consequently not enough time working on my own path. During the project I worried a lot that it would fall part at any minute and ultimately because of my determination and stubbornness it didn’t. What I learned from that experience is that I could make a film with a skeleton crew and despite it being a lot of work, I could certainly pull it off. I carried that attitude right through to my second feature, and ultimately first VR project “I Am You”.

However, when I worked on The Key and then Circuit Rider subsequently after that everything started to change. A lot of people in the VR community in Toronto knew who I was and when I told them about the projects, they offered to help in any way they could. In reflecting on this more deeply, I don’t think it was about popularity but rather a shift in my attitude about being open to allowing people to help. I certainly say that I wasn’t as open as I am now and I think that has become the real difference from my approach to team building.

A close friend of mine once told me about their experience walking the Camino de Santiago and it really stuck with me. They told me how they would constantly run into people along the journey and some people would start to walk with him and at some point they would stop.

At that point, he would decide whether to stop as well or keep going. That metaphor for his journey really resonated with making narrative work, especially in film or VR where a team can really elevate a project. It made me examine how alone and afraid I can feel that I can’t make my projects unless I had a team. That’s when I decided that I would walk and keep walking, and whomever was interested could come along with me on the journey.

So in essence, I built the team for Circuit Rider by putting out the intention that I was going to make this project and people were welcome to join me in helping to create it. Finally, I haven’t stopped working on it whether people show up to work or not, I just keep moving and that keeps the team moving with me. It’s the best advice about making creative projects that I have ever received.

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Volumetric Capture Truly Feels Like the Future of VR Filmmaking

Last year I discovered a company called Depthkit through a kickstartercampaign they were running for their project “Blackout”. The project was interesting because they were experimenting with narrative in VR by allowing the viewer to walk through a subway car and when they looked over at person sitting on the car, they would hear their voice. The technology they were using for the performance capture of the actors was a mixture of their own custom software, an Xbox Kinect, and a DSLR camera. The campaign was also interesting because if you donated to it, they would give you a copy of their software so you could create your own film. As intrigued I was by the perk, I didn’t have the money and waited to see if they would release it to the public.

In the spring, I ran into Ben Unsworth from Globacore and talked to him about Depthkit and how interested I was to start working with it. It turns out that he had backed their Kickstarter campaign and was generous enough to lend me the hardware and software to try it out.

During the summer, I met with director Pierre Friquet who was interested in using Depthkit for his next VR project, Patterns. I was so excited that another filmmaker was interested in using the technique that I pushed hard to allow me to help him on the project. In a matter of a week I learned how to calibrate the camera with the Kinect and their software and went off to help shoot their film in Montreal.

Me on the set of ‘Patterns’ shooting Depthkit

Me on the set of ‘Patterns’ shooting Depthkit

The hardest part of the process was calibrating Kinect and the camera. It took quite a few hours and a bit of trial error to figure it out. Luckily the developers are available over Slack and support you through the process, so it’s just a matter of sticking with it and over coming the learning curve. The shoot ultimately went well and it was good to get my feet wet with using the technology before I went out and made something for myself. I learned on Patterns the entire workflow of shooting with Depthkit, which is always the best way to learn anything — through a project. Shortly after the Patterns shoot wrapped, I flew to Berlin to do a month long storytelling workshop. I knew from the outset that I was going to use Depthkit for my new VR film and I just had to get the right actor and location to make the project work.

Still from Patterns with Depthkit Footage

Still from Patterns with Depthkit Footage

It took a lot of hard work and frustration to get the camera and Kinect calibrated with the minimal gear that I had access to over there, but I managed to make it work and ended up finishing my new VR project in 3 weeks. In September when I returned to Toronto, I was lucky enough for the film to premiere The Key at FIVARS. What I discovered from the screenings of the film that I did in Berlin and Toronto were that people really liked the performance capture. I was a bit surprised as people didn’t focus on the imperfections but rather were taken by the ability to walk around and participate in the narrative.

Promotional Image for The Key

Promotional Image for The Key

Convinced by the results that The Key generated, I was dead set on finding a way to integrate Depthkit in my next VR project, Circuit Rider. The way I would describe Circuit Rider is a mix between a traditional game and a cinematic narrative. You are playing the game Circuit Rider and when you die in the game you get sent to a room to undercover the mystery of why you are actually playing it, as there is certainly something much more sinister happening. While in the room you must unlock certain clues, that will trigger Depthkit characters to appear with you and lead you to the next step.

Depthkit Render of Actor

Depthkit Render of Actor

This past week we held our auditions for the experience and used Depthkit to capture their performances. It was great to be able to watch their performances back in VR and really changed how I made my decisions about who to cast.

Depthkit or volumetric video really feel like the future of VR filmmaking. The ability to see characters in a 3D volume and be able to move around them creates all different possibilities for narratives in VR and I’m excited to continue manifesting these stories using these techniques. If you are interested in trying out Depthkit, they have a reduced rate if you are an artist.

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What We Learned from Play Testing Our VR Game

Last week we started play testing an early version of our new VR experience, Circuit Rider, and in reflecting back I think it was important to do this for a couple reasons. First, the project we have been dreaming and obsessing about since mid-September materialized off the page and it was important to show people what we were talking about is actually happening. Secondly, despite still being at a very early stage, it was enlightening and encouraging to see people move through the work and give feedback on whether they enjoyed it or not. We actually learned a lot from both reactions and because we are still at such an early stage of our development we have the opportunity to integrate their feedback to help shape our experience.

At the moment, the industry is still very small. I have read estimates that Oculus, HTC, and Playstation are going to ship less than 1 million headsets each by the end of 2016. In addition, the titles that are currently Steam and Oculus range from cheap to very expensive and the quality can feel short or even a bit half baked. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism, but rather an observation around the state of things.

As a creator I really think about these things and other days I don’t. However, what I try and come back to time and time again is how much I love the medium. In terms of it’s future growth and potential, I have done a lot of work with the general public showing them VR over the past few months and it’s hard to feel cynical when you see them literally lose their minds playing Tilt Brush.

In thinking back to play testing, I believe that for a game or interactive vr experience to work getting feedback as early on in the process as possible. What happens is it brings to light what works, what doesn’t, and has helps us stay motivated as we continue to iterate and problem solve the experience. I one hundred percent believe that being open the way forward and I feel like this attitude is making us better creators as we continue to home our craft.

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