Virtual Reality - How it sells films and TV
Virtual Reality ‘experiences’ are becoming a more popular marketing tool to help promote high-profile films and TV shows. KFTV takes a look behind the scenes.
When the multinational consultancy firm Deloitte predicted the virtual reality (VR) market for 2016, they called it a “billion-dollar niche,” leaning on the idea that most of the content for that year would be games. It was a safe assumption, given how easily games translate to VR.
There has, however, been a significant push toward content that's either purely narrative or with a hybrid approach between interaction and storytelling.
Tie-ins with upscale film productions such as Ghost in the Shell, and The Martian and Alien: Covenant (both directed by Ridley Scott), plus television including 24: Legacy, have used techniques from conventional video game technology to advanced movie visual effects.
The involvement of two Scott films makes sense: his company RSA Films launched its VR division this spring, although work on The Martian started in 2015. Jen Dennis now heads the department.
“We pitched [US studio Fox] an idea,” Dennis tells KFTV. “We knew that they had done WILD: The experience.”
WILD was produced by Felix & Paul Studios to support Fox Searchlight's 2014 film Wild, which stars Reese Witherspoon in the true story of a woman who treks 1,100 miles on her own along America’s Pacific Crest Trail. The VR project used live-action photography featuring Reese Witherspoon and co-star Laura Dern, and allows the viewer a taste of the forest hiking experience as featured in the movie.
In contrast, the VR tie-in for The Martian uses game technology, so it involved creating digital sequences taken from the feature and allowing the viewer some interactivity, controlling an avatar in attempting to survive being marooned on Mars, mirroring the film’s story.
The virtual Martian world was sourced in part from the film's visual effects assets, the models for which tend to be more complex than those for games.
“To intake VFX assets and adapt them into the VR process can be very laborious,” says Dennis. “But there have been a lot of great strides made recently to shorten that process and to make it simpler.”
The Martian VR Experience is available for Windows and Playstation 4, and is compatible with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets. The PC version is available through Valve's Steam distribution system.
The Alien: Covenant VR tie-in is subtitled In Utero in reference to the Alien franchise’s infamous ‘chest-burster’ imagery, whereby aliens burst from the bodies of their human hosts, and was the first project officially produced by RSA VR.
In Utero allows the viewer to experience a chest-bursting from the perspective of the emerging alien.
The presentation was initially available in Oculus Rift demo kiosks at Regal cinemas in the US, but can now be viewed free via Steam on the Vive, Rift or OSVR (Open-Source Virtual Reality) headsets, or through the arguably less effective YouTube on-screen player.
In contrast to the VR presentation for The Martian that runs as a videogame, In Utero is a video sequence created using the same visual effects techniques used for conventional filmmaking, allowing for more realistic visuals but less interactivity.
“The Martian was all being cooked up in 2015,” says Dennis. “We used a lot of the VFX assets, but we didn't have Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) scans.”
In this context, Lidar involves laser-scanning real-world locations and using this as the basis for constructing a digital representation in films, games or VR.
The future mass-market success of VR is dependent on the audience buying headsets, something that has arguably guided the choice of content to date. Science-fiction fans comprise a customer base that is being seen as overlapping with the tech-savvy enthusiast group most likely to own headsets.
One example is Rupert Sanders' 2017 sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell (pictured below), a live-action adaptation of a 1995 anime classic.
The film’s VR tie-in is available for the Rift or Gear VR headsets and allows the user to experience part of the story from the perspective of the film's lead character, the Major, during a key action scene. Users have a limited degree of interactivity, being able to slow down time and trigger events.
“Being not particularly a gamer, I was shown an experience that really opened up my mind to the other kinds of storytelling that could happen in this new medium,” says Luisa Murray, an executive producer at Here be Dragons, where the Ghost in the Shell VR experience was created.
“We decided that we wanted a game-engine route for this property,” Murray says, although she is keen to distance Here be Dragons' work from the existing world of computer games.
“The demand has grown for game engine projects [but] I wouldn't call anything we're doing games. We sometimes utilise game mechanics to allow for interaction and greater immersion.
"When you have the experience on the Rift you can slow down the fight sequence [and you can] play with some of the storytelling elements yourself.”
Despite the surge of interest, there's concern that growth in the VR audience size must be maintained, with the cost and quality of headsets being key to its continued success.
Google Cardboard (pictured below at last December's Virtual Reality Creative Summit in London) is essentially a low-cost cardboard head mount that accommodates a smartphone, through which the VR experience is played. However, a lot of VR material requires either a Samsung Gear VR, which is a low-cost holder for an expensive Samsung Galaxy smartphone, the Rift headset or an HTC Vive, both of which are significant investments to the consumer.
These are early-adopter prices, with the brevity and limited interactivity of film tie-in projects affecting their consumer appeal.
Alternatives are being tried and tested. Jen Dennis refers to IMAX's VR arcade project, with plans to open in New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Paris.
“That's going to help drive the demand [and] help democratise the medium,” she says. “The headset quality will get better, lighter, easier and more available.”
Although attempts at VR have been made for decades, the field can still seem immature.
“Every time somebody tries to say 'This is what we've learned in VR so far - this is the rule', someone finds a way to break it in an interesting way,” says Luisa Murray. “It's too early to draw conclusions like that. People are starting to understand the best ways to use VR.”
Ghost in the Shell image: Paramount Pictures