Lights! Camera! Headset! – Oculus VR opens movie studio

Image: Oculus VR / Story Studio
Image: Oculus VR / Story Studio

Oculus VR came, in a manner of speaking, a full circle with this Year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is currently taking place in Park City, Utah, and ends on February 1st, 2015.

In 2012, journalist Nonny de la Peña showed (what was then) her latest journey in what she calls “immersive journalism”, Hunger in Los Angeles. The film utilised a head-mounted display unit developed by a 19-year-old student. So convinced was that student of the potential for VR, he started putting together ideas for a commercial, low-cost headset. A kickstarter campaign followed  and … yes, you’ve guessed it, I’m talking about Palmer Luckey.

This year, Oculus VR are back at Sundance, in the form of their new in-house film studio, Story Studio, which is showcasing the first of five animated short films the company plans to make under the Story Studio banner over the course of the next year.

Located in San Francisco, Story Studio numbers around dozen film industry veterans from the likes of Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic under the leadership of Saschka Unseld, formally of Pixar. The company started to come together around a year ago, although as Josh Constine notes over at Techcrunch, the idea for the studio was already on the Oculus VR roadmap from the earliest days. Indeed, the very potential for VR in films as indicated by Oculus VR in their plans, many have been one of the added attractions for Zuckerberg in acquiring the company.

Certainly, Oculus VR’s CEO, Brendan Iribe is in no doubt that Facebook has been crucial in accelerating the film plans, noting to Constine, “this is another example where as a smaller, independent start-up it would have been hard to spin up an effort like this.”

Lost, showcased at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is the first in a series of films from Oculus VR's new in-house film studio: Story Studio
Lost, showcased at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is the first in a series of films from Oculus VR’s new in-house film studio: Story Studio (image: Oculus VR / Story Studio)

Lost, the title of Story Studio’s short, runs at between 4 and 10 minutes, the length being determined by the level of engagement in the film and what the decide to explore within it. As such, it is said to be a powerful demonstration of the added depth that VR can bring to a film. It is being shown in the Festival’s New Frontier programme, which this years see no fewer than 11 of the 14 submissions attempt to utilise VR.

Not all of them succeed, as Casey Newton and Bryan Bishop, writing in The Verge note. Some mange to do exactly the reverse, and demonstrate the inherent weaknesses in VR if not used correctly, and the need to learn entirely new approach to filming, interaction and editing in order to properly create and maintain the desired level of immersion needed to make the use VR worthwhile.

It is because VR as a medium is so difficult a concept to grasp and successfully integrate into film-making that drove Oculus VR to create and develop Story Studio, as Iribe notes in a conversation with The Road to VR’s Ben Lang.

“When we started to show people [the Oculus Rift] in Hollywood, their question was ‘how do we get started?’… We said ‘you pick up these gaming tools like Unity or Unreal and you start making something’ but that’s not natural for [cinema creatives],” Iribe said. “Right now the focus is to support and inspire the community—share with them everything we’re doing, opening it all up. Over the next two months, we’re hoping to educate the community on how we did this and how we got started. We still have a ways to go before people are making longer film experiences.”

Saschka Unseld (image coutesy of skwigly.com)

Unseld picks-up on this line while talking to Techcrunch’s Constine alongside of Iribe.

“Everyone who starts a project in VR encounters the same things in the beginning,” he states. “They try to figure out ‘How do I make these things I know from film work in VR? How do I do a cut in VR?’ The resounding answer is that porting film concepts straight to VR just doesn’t work.”

Thus, Story Studio will be a studio in both senses of the word. Not only will it be a engine for producing a series of short animated stories over the courses of the next year, it will also be something of a “open-source” VR cinematography “school” presenting and sharing insights into the use of VR in films, offering examples of how the technology works or doesn’t work within the framework of a film, and so on.

This is actually a clever move, as it allows Story Studio to both offer a roadmap on how other studios might involve themselves in VR and present them with the kind of finished product which can be seen to work, both technically and with audiences, thus giving them something they can understand, replicate and even enhance as the technology matures.

Of course, all this will also be helped by actually having the technology – the headset itself – actually available to use by more than a few thousand people world-wide. And even here Story Studio may offer a small clue as to when the consumer version of the Oculus Rift might appear.

According to Reuters, via Fortune On-line, Lost is the first of five animated shorts Story Studio plan to produce over the next year. Furthermore, The Guardian suggests that all five will be released “in the run-up” to the release of the commercial version of the headset – which Iribe refers to as “Oculus Rift CV1”, while Iribe himself, when talking to Ben Lang, says all five films will be available for the CV1 product.So perhaps one way of counting down the time to the release of the commercial headset is to count off the Story Studio films as they appear…

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6 thoughts on “Lights! Camera! Headset! – Oculus VR opens movie studio

  1. Nonny’s first Sundance appearance was in 2008, already under the moniker “Immersive Journalism” albeit no goggles at the time. Virtual Guantanamo was developed at BAVC in San Francisco in 2007 & was her first experiment in the field.

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        1. Nope, wasn’t taken as a critique, but as a correction, which I’m always happy to have :). shortness of reply simply down to trying to do everything at once today.

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