After two decades of working with traditional video content, Eric Shamlin of the Canadian digital agency, Secret Location, has spent an intense year and a half exploring both computer-generated VR and 360-degree video production.
The company’s first big win was Sleepy Hollow, which they made for Fox, finishing in a little over a month. After it was shown at San Diego Comic-Con, their phone started ringing off the hook, and today, the company has dozens of high profile projects in motion.
In this interview, Shamlin discusses the massive strides virtual reality filmmaking has made in the last year as well as the challenges and opportunities for the future.
How have you seen VR evolve over the years?
We’ve seen an intense full-court-press in terms of the way toolkits and processes have evolved recently. VR upends a lot of well known disciplines like game design, film production, interactive storytelling, acting, and editing. All of those things have been tested. But in virtual reality, the added layer of immersion reshuffles the whole deck, because none of the tools were ready to do it properly.
We use Unity’s platform for our work and over the last year or so we’ve seen it evolve quite a bit, as have the camera processes and the use of acting in 360-degree space. There’s been a lot of learnings, and the industry has been willing to share these learnings. Everyone is exploring what works best and the tool manufacturers are actively trying to support this new medium. It’s a great time for VR.
What about VR do you find fascinating?
The opportunity to tell stories. Nine months ago, the focus was on quality and execution with a lot of discussions about philosophical theories on what would or wouldn’t work in this space. Now, with some of the initial hiccups behind us, it’s about telling stories in VR. There have been a lot of early steps that focused on the quality and the execution. The evolution of this VR language has evolved so quickly it amazed me, and it continues to evolve.
What research did you do to prepare for this speaking role?
You could say that the research has been a result of our work. I’ve been in the field working on a number of projects using Unity for those in 3D, as well as working on straight 360-degree film pieces. There’s an iterative process that gets you to something that really works. We go out with each project and find new challenges, or try new shots or set-ups that are good for VR because of the sense of presence, and build those for either Unity or the camera rig. Over the course of these projects, there are a lot of assumptions I thought may or may not have worked. Through experimentation we now have a working knowledge of what does and doesn’t work, and I will share that at the conference.
Can you discuss some of your VR projects?
We have upwards of a dozen pretty high-profile projects completed or in production and by mid-February, we’ll have another half-dozen or more in development. The split is about half in Unity and half in 360-degree video. We worked on the interactive horror experience for Focus Features’ Insidious: Chapter 3 and we did a Sleepy Hollow experience for Fox. Those were both developed using Unity. We did a frozen moment piece called “Project Literacy” to raise awareness around literacy by putting you in the shoes of someone who struggles to read that will debut at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland Jan. 20-23. We have a big project with a well-known author that we’re going to create a computer-generated virtual reality television series for by adapting one of his novels.
What activities do you do to stay relevant in this field?
We try to stay up on the latest trends and what the latest tools are, what the camera companies are doing, and we stay active in the VR community. It’s really about looking at what the market is going to be a year out and figuring out who’s going to be buying headsets then. And then we try to develop content consumers will buy.
Where do you see VR five years from now?
I try to be cautious about the uptake of the audience. Gamers will be the first adopters. I hope it goes more mainstream than that within a year to 18 months. I’m also ready for it to be a slower burn. I hope in the next three to five years a mainstream interest will allow us to target a broader audience outside of the young male gaming demo. Virtual reality capabilities are pretty broad and I would love to see a wider variety of experiences developed.
What role do you see a cross-platform, cross-discipline conference like the VR Summit playing in that future?
It’s pretty valuable. A lot of disciplines are being challenged and rethought in the context of virtual reality. It’s important to have cinematographers talking to game directors and movie directors talking to coders. This conference is vital for that conversation.
Creatively, what do you see VR opening up for your field?
The thing we’re trying to understand is: what does an immersive story look like. Are there more directorial or narrative experiences that take real use of interactive 360-degree space? It’s a challenge for a big part of the industry outside of gaming and cinema where the storytelling paradigms are well established.
What are the challenges of 360-degree video when it comes to guiding viewers?
There’s a challenge, but only initially. It’s a Version 1 problem because people haven’t experienced VR before so they want to look around. The first 10 seconds of any experience is to acclimate the user to the fact they’re in a 360-degree world. The user will quickly adapt, and if there’s something behind them that’s relevant we’ll direct them. It’s like real life. We’re in a 360-degree, 3D world inherently, and I haven’t looked at the back of my seat as we do this interview. It’s a red herring. If the story is compelling enough they’ll be watching. There are creative ways to further guide them through sound or light cues or action, but I trust the viewer and they’ll get it and follow stories.
What opportunities do you see across the mobile, PC, console and other platforms for VR?
We see mobile as the end platform, the mass user platform. Imagine perhaps you fly on Quantas airline in business class and they give you the Samsung Gear VR. We’re building all of our experiences for more premium platforms to take advantage of positional tracking and room tracking as needed, but we can easily scale that down to run on a mobile device.
Where do you see mixed reality fitting into this evolving market moving forward?
I don’t see augmented reality (AR) happening for a number of years. Virtual reality will have a solid start in Q2 and Q3 this year, but it will be a slow growth. None of the AR platforms are near-term. Microsoft is targeting industry and won’t be focusing on mainstream for a number of years. VR will be what people use to escape and be entertained, AR will be for accessing information and data. There are technical limitations for Magic Leap and other mixed reality today.