Virtual reality has been a favourite talking point within the ad industry for the last couple of years now, but the focus has mostly been on the the tech itself rather than the content that appears within the headsets. So The New York Times’ decision last November to send out Google Cardboard headsets to a million of its subscribers felt significant. The sets were intended to be used alongside a smartphone and the dedicated NYT app to access The Displaced, the first of a series of VR stories from the newspaper.
The Displaced, created for The New York Times
The Displaced (and a number of later VR films for the NYT) was created by a company called Vrse.works – which last week was renamed Here Be Dragons, but more on that later – set up two years ago by Patrick Milling Smith and director Chris Milk. Both have a long history in filmmaking and production: Milling Smith co-founded renowned production company Smuggler, while Milk was respected for his ads and music videos for the likes of Nike, Kanye West, U2, Gnarls Barkley and many more. In recent years, Milk has also become known for his experiments with digital art and tech, and was behind the acclaimed Wilderness Downtown website for Arcade Fire and also The Johnny Cash Project. These projects could be seen as precursors to his work in VR, which began in 2013 with a 360 degree film of Beck in concert, titled Hello Again.
“I had know Chris Milk for many years,” says Milling Smith. “When he showed me the Beck 360 piece in a DK2 headset, it was my first experience of VR and I was completely blown away. I had a very strong feeling that this is a big part of our future.”
While they have made many films and projects in the past two years (some of which are shown here), Milling Smith admits that much of their time has been spent trying to get to grips with the possibilities of the medium. “Chris was talking about how at the beginning of film, everyone was so impressed when the Lumiere Brothers had their train come into the station,” explains Milling Smith. “But after a year or so, the world was a little bit bored with it, because it was just technology. It took a decade or two for artists and people to experiment with the medium, and for cinema to be born, the language of cinema to be created.
“When we first started, the best practices of Oculus were to put the camera in the middle of the room and rotate slowly around it, and we ended up rigging it to helicopters and bikes and dolly moves. Some of the things we did early on would make you throw up, then you learn what not to do.”
As well as a roster of great directors, a strong tech and production team has proved vital, and the company has hired from Oculus, Media Monks and the Barbarian Group since set up. “The directors will want to do something and the chances are it’s never been done before, so the technical team and the production team really work on tests and get us to a place where we can comfortably go and pull that off for a client,” says Milling Smith.
“Everything is so new,” he continues. “A lot of the directors come off shoots and say they’ve had a headache for two days trying to think of everything in 360 degrees – it’s just a new muscle that people haven’t quite developed yet.”
Walking New York, created for The New York Times
Milling Smith acknowledges that one of the major challenges for VR is actually allowing audiences to access it – particularly in the UK, which has yet to have a mass-audience moment like the NYT giveaway. He sees quality of filmmaking and storytelling as being vital to drawing people in. “It comes down to the content,” he says. “The New York Times were smart enough to launch with three really great pieces of content, which we were lucky to make with them. I think if your first experience in a Cardboard or a low-end headset is something compelling: a story or an experience that has an actual reason to exist in 360 and not just trying to show off a piece of technology, then I think people will come back to it, people will talk about it, they’ll share it with people. If your first experience is strong, then you’ll go out and get a headset.”
The team have experimented with different styles and techniques throughout to create their own rule book of VR: from the contentious issue of how fast you can move the camera – “We often move the camera, and sometimes rather quickly”, says Milling Smith. “There are good moves and bad moves, and often speed isn’t the contentious factor; there’s pitch, rotation, stabilisation, curvature, and acceleration/deceleration to consider” – to the different editing needs of different platforms.
The overriding priority is making sure that the viewer is comfortable. “As important as it is to entertain somebody or make people feel like they’re being taken to another world, the biggest thing from production is focusing on comfortability,” says Milling Smith. “We didn’t know when we first started how people would react to edits – cuts from one location to another but actually it’s been very well received and works really well. We’ve played with voiceover, we’ve played with subtitles, and both have merits, surprisingly. Sound is so important in VR, for storytelling and for throwing direction and for guiding somebody along on the story you want to tell within the experience. So we learnt that subtitles were a very good way to not compete with that.”
Part of the comfortability is how long a piece of VR can be. “I think the length of time that people are comfortable in a headset needs to be determined,” agrees Milling Smith. “We’re working on a couple of episodic shows that are up to 20 minutes in length. I think it will change – as more of the great games come out in VR and people spend more and more time in those environments, I think people will get used to it. I think it was probably the same with TV and everything else.”
Catatonic, an immersive journey inside an insane asylum
While gaming might seem the most obvious application of VR – and will probably be the first arena where audiences are able to interact with their surroundings virtually – Milling Smith sees it as a powerful medium for almost all storytelling, and with this in mind points out that not all experiences need be interactive or highly dynamic.
“You want to let someone settle in somewhere,” he says. “The most powerful feeling for me about VR is that sense of presence and the nature of 360 video tricking your brain into making you feel like you are somewhere, which in turn becomes a very strong memory, a location-based memory of that place and everything that happened. I think that’s why a lot of the slightly more elegant or seemingly simple documentary work has been very well received.
“I think there are some experiences where you want to be more passive and taken on a journey and there are going to be some experiences where it’s slightly more like a game world and you explore more and have more agency,” he continues. “I don’t think one is necessarily going to take over from the other – if you think about how we consume media, sometimes you want somebody to just hold your hand and direct you through a world, rather than you having to do too much. But there’s room for both, and we’re really excited to explore more interactivity.”
Alongside directors and production companies, advertising clients are also slowly beginning to understand VR and realise that only certain projects will work in the medium. “The better clients are understanding that there has to be a degree of restraint, you can’t just suddenly take a 30 second commercial and try and ram that into 360 or VR, because it won’t be very well received at all,” says Milling Smith. “I think that it’s important that the things are properly conceived and ideated, and there’s isn’t a scrambling rush to just use the latest hot piece of technology. Most of the clients we’re talking to seem to appreciate that and want to spend proper time making something that could only, and should only, exist in 360.”
Montage of VR experiences shown at TED 2016 by Chris Milk
As to the reasons behind the company’s name change from the rather sober Vrse.works to the more dramatic and fun Here Be Dragons, it is in part an acknowledgement that the company has settled into itself and what it is doing, but is also a bid not to be too pigeonholed within VR. “Every single company doing virtual reality seems to have VR in their name,” says Milling Smith, “and it didn’t feel that representative to the spirit of who we are. Plus, who knows if we’ll still be calling this VR in two years?”
What is certain is that, whatever future monikers for the medium may appear, they are in it for the long haul. “We’re still at a point where you can just put somebody in a room and let them discover they can turn around and they’re quite impressed,” says Milling Smith. “But that’s not going to last. We’re looking at this for the long game: we want to create 360 VR experiences for decades…. It’s important that more storytellers and directors start properly focusing on making stuff in this medium for it to grow…. There’s so much to do, it’s all-consuming.”