Liberating My Inner Blerd (Black Nerd) at the New Frontier VR Lab

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Walking into Youtube Space LA was a return to kindergarten. Brightly colored buildings in the “Silicon Beach” office park welcomed us as we checked in using tablets. “Shouldn’t Google already know where I am, I just used Maps to get here,” I joke to the check-in table, a cover for the intimidation I felt as a filmmaker entering FREAKING GOOGLE, the heart of the tech world.

We’re set up in the Gold Room (usually reserved for those with 1 Million + subscribers), and I could see that my intimidation was shared. Tentative filmmakers and Youtubers (evidently a word now) stumbled along clumsily wearing HTC Vive headsets, and Google cardboard rigs with a silly nose and eyes on the front.

A type of curious trepidation wisped through the place as introductions were made and headsets passed. Will this group ever get comfortable? Then, “A few house-keeping notes, we have co-ed bathrooms” gets a throaty “Yeaahhh” from the back. The ice starts to break. Kamal Sinclair (co-director, New Frontier Story Lab) does a mind-reeling intro on all that’s happened in Sundance Institute’s New Frontier section in the last 10 years and ends with, “Story does not exist, unless it is shared.” I look around the room again at the nodding heads, the conquered eyes – okay, now we’re getting there.

It’s A Brave New World…

“So be brave. Push boundaries,” is the advice from Tom Small of Google Technology Programs. The advice sets the tone for the next round of presentations that confirm what my instincts were already telling me; it’s the wild wild west of VR. First, we are challenged to wrap our minds around new techniques and terms like: heat tracking, 360 field of view, latency, parallax, refresh rates, haptics, and stitching. Then they pull us into a new world of philosophical/neurological challenges of Immersion vs Presence; the idea that you can be in a space but not engaged so that you’re “there” but not “there there.” Think about it: to be present in a virtual space you have to let go of being “present” in the physical space (that you’re standing in while in the virtual space). Trippy stuff. It forces me to think about how, as a director, I wouldn’t only want to plan for the experience in VR but also the experience outside of it.

At any film festival you’ll get shushed or thrown out if you take out your phone or talk too much – it distracts the other viewers from being present in the story. But what kind of environmental control can you plan for if people are watching your VR content at home?Joe Chen from Vrse tells us that we also need to think about our approach to storytelling that takes into account the physical/neurological. If there’s too much movement it can make people nauseous. “Find the most sensitive person you know, and test your work on them” is the advice we’re given. He warns us about first-person POV and the challenges it provides by hitting us with more philosophical questions:

Does your viewer have a body?

Can their body move?

Is it more distracting to have a body that moves but you can’t control versus placing a shadow “under” the viewer so that there is an acknowledgment of their presence in the space? (The response in my head: Owwno.)

We’re also taught to plan, not as the Auteur director, but as a tour guide in a new space. “You are bringing someone into a world” so blocking has replaced the traditional “shot.” The audio cues or visual cues that get the viewer to turn around are your cuts. Or if you choose to have cuts, what does this say to the viewer about their presence in that space? How are these tools used differently in documentary VR vs narrative? Live action vs Digital CGI? Is your brain starting to hurt? Mine is.

Joe drives home a key point: “Not every story should end up here.” You should ask yourself more questions:

Why VR?
What does VR bring to your story?
What does your story bring to the medium of VR?
How does your story force connection vs just empathy?

Should your story be first-person or third-person?If first-person POV, how do you justify the lack of physical control or “Swayze syndrome” – a term taken from the film in which Patrick Swayze is sitting in every room but can’t impact his environment (until he learns from that weird looking ghost in the subway to use his emotions to help him move things and later his love for Demi helps him slide a penny up the door...)

Anyhoo…

After Diana Williams from Lucasfilm gives us some insight on their process for creating the Star Wars VR experiences, the floor opens up for a Q&A. Most filmmakers go for the jugular:

Q: How can we get our hands on this tech?
A: Raise some money or D.I.Y.

Q: How much per minute does it cost to produce live action vs CG?
A: Anywhere from $50 dollars to $10,000.00 respectively.

Q: What’s the development process like for putting a project like this together?
A: No infrastructure yet, but check back in six months.

I start to get a little frustrated. It seems there are no clear access points for the indie filmmaker to connect in these early stages to figure out how to shoot. I find myself thinking, someone (in addition to Sundance) needs to ensure that filmmakers are at the table in these early stages of development of the business structure of this new world. I leave the space with a quotation from Lily Tomlin in my head: “I said, somebody should do something about that. Then I realized, I am somebody.”

Day 2

A much smaller group arrives for the Maker Days. Six filmmakers and six Youtubers. The ice is broken pretty quickly with this crowd in the intros.

Lauren: Hi, I’m Lauren I have a show on Youtube

Gabi: What show?

Lauren: "Space Girl."

Gabi (full of excitement): “Oh my God, you’re Space—

Group laughs. Ice broken.

We start the day with a review of Day 1 and what we hope to get out of today. Tom from Google’s advice: “If you stay scrappy and smart, you can make something dynamic.” We start with a presentation from Sam Storr from Vrse. While describing Chris Milk’s first 360 shoot with Beck she uses the term dealing with his “Mad Genius.” I like her already. In my head I think, “So wait, you’re saying I can tap into my inner mad genius and people will still want to work with me?”

As she gives us insight on previous projects and some things in the pipeline, she freezes, “I don’t know if I was supposed to say that.” She flicks her hand, “NDA or something.” Her awesomeness continued and the group was tech-crushing on her big time for the next couple hours.

We break up into small groups, and we get assigned one person to do a personal consultation about our project ideas. I get Tom Small from Google. (I’d been idea-crushing on him for the previous day, so I was pretty geeked.) My inner BLerd was released. He connected immediately with my idea of a first-person narrative short, and we geek out on ideas for the shoot and ways to maximize the impact of the experience. After 30 mins or so (we all go over) we switch and do another consultation with a second mentor. I get Vincent McCurly from the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio, who personally created Cardboard Crash. We discuss the tech platforms (Mettle, Juke, Adobe Plug-in for After Effects and Premier) in which you can create 3D elements and drop them into your live-action space.

Then the fun begins as we get access to the Kodak PixPro sp360 and are given an hour to go around and shoot. I decided to try out some of the strategies Tom and I brainstormed. We each get assigned two volunteers. I get the awesome Lauren and Javier. We walk through small moments from my short script I’ve written and try out some blocking and choreography. Then Tom comes over and points out that the way we are trying to simulate someone getting arrested in first-person won’t work because our camera doesn’t have a body.

So we get creative and find some Styrofoam, and we fashion a makeshift chest plate out of two criss-crossing pieces. Then I put my vest on it, and it works out pretty well. We shoot out a few different movements (including soliciting the whole room to do the electric slide with the jacket cam as a participating dancer). As our time for the day wraps up, we get a stitching demo from Kevin at Kodak and we have just enough time to download, stitch, export and upload it to Youtube 360 (this all literally happened in less than 10 minutes).

As everyone says their goodbyes, Tom and a small group of us who are still geeking out over what we just shot stick around and watch each other's’ content. It was a great end to a phenomenal weekend.

About the Author

Sultan Sharrief is a filmmaker and producer who directed the 2010 Sundance Film Festival selection Bilal's Stand. Sharrief recently attended the first-ever New Frontier VR Storytelling Day Lab.


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