The Art of Indirection @ Jelly Monster

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Thanks to Toony Wu and the talented team at Jelly Monster in Beijing for hosting an iAVRrc salon yesterday afternoon, featuring my presentation on “The Art of Indirection”, and a few words from Nokia’s Jill Smolin on the creative potential of the OZO virtual reality camera.

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The Art of Indirection @ Jelly Monster

The art of indirection

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The following is a transcript of my presentation on VR storytelling principles, “The Art of Indirection”, delivered on December 1st at the 7th International Conference & Exhibition on Visual Entertainment in Beijing.

I’m here to talk about the development portion of the entertainment workflow, specifically related to virtual reality. My own background focused upon production during the first half of my career, the 12 years I spent with Walt Disney Feature Animation. After moving to China in 2008, I shifted my focus to development. This development work began in traditional areas of film and television – which I have taught here at the Beijing Film Academy – and shifted to virtual reality over the past year.

Virtual reality requires a different way of thinking. I believe you’ve heard this already. There have been great comments made today on this point, not restricted to virtual reality, but related to any new means of storytelling. When Demetri Portelli talked about shooting at 120 frames per second in 4k, he said something obvious, but also easily overlooked: the director needs to think differently about how to direct; the actors need to think differently about how to act; everybody involved in the production chain needs to review their assumptions, to adapt and expand upon what’s possible in the new media environment. This applies to VR as well. It’s easy to bring your preconceptions and old ways of working into play. In this respect – and I’m not the first person to make this observation – the current state of virtual reality is very much like the early days of… (full post on AWN)

The art of indirection

Chinese Cook-ing

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Prior to the recent announcement of Dick Cook Studios’ $500 million dollar deal with China’s Film Carnival, I had the pleasure of attending the China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit on March 25th in Grand Epoch City (Beijing’s Hebei province neighbor), co-hosted by Dick Cook and showcasing an ensemble of Hollywood heavyweights.

The speakers were welcomed by Beijing Film Academy Vice Dean Sun Lijun during a pre-summit luncheon in the BFA’s “Movie Story” restaurant.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F057A/

During lunch, I had the opportunity to catch up with my old friend and mentor, legendary Disney producer Don Hahn (THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), and also to share observations on China with Bruce Hendricks, President of Production at Dick Cook Studios (and fellow Disney veteran).

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Summit keynote speaker Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, is a tireless advocate of opportunity and diversity in the motion picture industry… and very accommodating of her first 360-degree selfie.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F057D/

The China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit was attended by a mostly Chinese audience of film industry professionals and students from the Beijing Film Academy, with a few laowai such as myself sprinkled in.  Following are some non-comprehensive notes and photos.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F054D/

Dick Cook was gracious and affable as always, and kept things flowing smoothly.  Before I departed Disney (the first time) in 2007 to pursue my independent ventures, I embarked on a string of informative lunches with an array of Disney producers and executives.  Don Hahn was the first person to let me pick his brain over a meal, and Dick Cook was the last – so it was a kick to see them both in China on the same ticket a decade later.

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Randall Wallace (BRAVEHEART, PEARL HARBOR) offered heartfelt advice during the “Art of Storytelling” panel, noting that his breakthrough came when he thought his career was over and he wrote something that he thought his descendants would want to see (BRAVEHEART).  My favorite comments from Randall were his observation that “a script that doesn’t surprise the writer will not surprise the viewer” and his opinion that “it’s easier to restrain a fanatic than to resurrect the dead”.

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Don Hahn killed it (and earned the only standing ovation of the day) with an inspirational micro master class on the animation creative process.  Characteristic of Don (but unbeknown to most) is the fact that he reformatted his entire presentation the day before, once he got a load of the venue’s panoramic screen.

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Patrick Frater (Asia Bureau Chief, Variety) did his level best to draw his panelists out during the “Cooperation” panel, but William Feng (VP of Asia Pacific, Motion Picture Association) and his fellows weren’t having it.  So, for those who may be wondering, the answer is “yes”:  China’s booming film industry is rife with problems (and opportunities), and foreign parties hoping to engage it must contend with significant (and shifting) hurdles.

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Dick Cook had a chat with his new buddy, Beijing Film Academy Director-General Hou Guangming, during the “Education” panel.

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Zhang Xun, former General Manager of the China Film Co-Production Company, had no advice on the “do’s”, but plenty to say on the “don’ts” of Chinese co-productions (memorably citing “82-year-old U.S. flight attendants” as an example of the profound cultural differences between East and West).

Even if you’re not an American screenwriter hoping to pitch your story of an 82-year-old Chinese flight attendant to Wanda, the viability of Chinese co-productions seems bleak, given only 12 in the last 5 years, with decidedly underwhelming results.  Thorny issues abound, creatively and economically.

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No surprise to anyone, filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron was a big draw – especially on the heels of GRAVITY, a big hit in mainland China (due in no small part to Sandra Bullock being saved by a Chinese spacecraft).

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Cuaron was charming and self-deprecating, noting that his primary motivation for making his next film is usually to pay his rent.

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The summit concluded with the “Technology” panel, during which you could feel the disruptive impact that immersive media will have upon the motion picture industry.  Ray Kurzweil’s dictum was prominently cited:  “The greatest change in the history of humanity is the acceleration of change itself.”

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An eye-opener for the foreign speakers was the fact that there are currently over 2,000 location-based virtual reality entertainment zones in mainland China, with a concurrent proliferation of low-cost consumer VR hardware. That most Chinese players are currently obsessed with manufacturing the bottles rather than cultivating the wine indicates an area of opportunity for immersive content creators.

IMAX stands to be hit particularly hard (IMHO), and needs to radically re-examine their business model instead of wishfully clinging to “large screens and lasers”.  What happens when home VR can replicate immersive, communal theatrical experiences – complete with an adjustable level of simulated audience response, from “sedate” to “raucous”?

(If anyone from IMAX is upset by this observation, hold a company retreat, write “IMAX goes under and nobody misses us.  Why?” on a board, use the subsequent discussion as the foundation for a revolutionary strategic plan, and thank me later.)

Chinese Cook-ing

“Future Trends In Stereoscopic Filmmaking & Virtual Reality” forum in Beijing

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 audience 1
The opening of the “Future Trends In Stereoscopic Filmmaking & Virtual Reality” forum in Beijing on December 12th, 2015.

On the weekend of December 12th & 13th, the Beijing Film Academy, the China Animation Association, and the International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center presented a forum on “Future Trends In Stereoscopic Filmmaking & Virtual Reality” at the BUPT Hotel in Beijing, featuring a distinguished group of 30 international speakers from greater China and overseas, and enjoyed by a select audience of Chinese industry professionals and graduate students.

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 participants

The creator’s toolbox has never been more powerful than it is today, with rapid advances in digital, stereoscopic & virtual reality technology, and compelling content options.  Yet challenges and questions abound on the cusp of this new entertainment era.  What will the content of tomorrow look like?  How will it be distributed?  Can virtual reality go mainstream?  What hurdles still exist?  How must directors and producers adapt for immersive media?  What does the future hold?

The mission of the Beijing Film Academy’s International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center (iAVRrc) is to advance the art of animated and cinematic storytelling in China.  Through events such as “Future Trends In Stereoscopic Filmmaking & Virtual Reality”, the iAVRrc provides a forum for the exchange of ideas, approaches & techniques between international experts and Chinese talent.  Over the course of the weekend, the “Future Trends” forum featured keynote addresses, panel discussions and roundtable sessions on topics pertinent to immersive media, including: the evolution of the technology, content considerations, educational requirements, changing production paradigms, new business & distribution models, and social impact.


DAY ONE (December 12th, 2015)


Welcome & Introductions

Sun Lijun, Vice Dean of the Beijing Film Academy, addressed the assembly with warm words of welcome.  Professor Sun expressed his appreciation for the gathering of so many international experts at the “Future Trends” forum, and voiced his hopes for future cooperation and collaboration between foreign and Chinese talent.

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Sun Lijun, Vice Dean, Beijing Film Academy

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 SUN Lijun

Kevin Geiger, Executive Director of the Beijing Film Academy’s new International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center, welcomed the audience to the iAVRrc’s inaugural event, and introduced the forum’s speakers.  Geiger noted the increasing number of experienced animation & visual effects professionals who are being drawn to the experimental “white space” of immersive media.

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Kevin Geiger, Executive Director, International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center, Beijing Film Academy

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iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 audience 2


Opening Keynote Addresses

Raymond Pao, Vice President of New Technology at HTC in Taipei, presented a keynote address highlighting HTC’s high-end Vive VR head-mounted display and Lighthouse tracking system.

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 keynote Raymond Pao
Raymond Pao, Vice President of New Technology, HTC

Percy Fung, Founder & Director of Digital Magic in Hong Kong, presented an informative keynote charting his directorial path through large-format films, high-resolution digital production and  immersive media over the past 40 years.

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Percy Fung, Founder & Director, Digital Magic

Lunch

Group lunches and coffee breaks provided forum speakers and audience members with opportunities to mingle and network throughout the weekend.

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Forum co-host Nikk Mitchell, Co-Founder & CEO of VR-China.com, did a fantastic job as bilingual panel moderator during two days of lively sessions.  

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Nikk Mitchell, Co-Founder & CEO, VR-China.com

Day One’s panels included…


Panel Session: How is VR technology evolving?

Discussion ranged from the capabilities and limitations of today’s virtual reality gear to the possibilities of tomorrow’s tech – including VR nanobot pills that engage our senses neurally.

Panelists (L to R):

  1. Jerry Ge, Research Vice-President, Analysys
  2. Tim Zhang, Founder & CEO, Ling VR
  3. Raymond Pao, Vice President of New Technology, HTC
  4. Nikk Mitchell, moderator
  5. Mike Woods, Founder & CCO, White Rabbit Ventures
  6. Gabriel Diaz, Assistant Professor, Rochester Institute of Technology
  7. Kevin Geiger, Executive Director, International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center, Beijing Film Academy

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 technology panel


Panel Session: How does VR change content development & production?

While the panelists agreed that storytelling is key, they debated if and how the concept of “story” must evolve in order to present compelling immersive experiences in virtual reality.  One thing is clear: we’re not there yet.

Panelists (L to R):

  1. Bobby Sun, CCO & Director, Beijing LetinVR Digital Technology
  2. Toony Wu, Founder & CPO, DreamSpace Media
  3. Chuck Williams, Head of Development, Marza Animation Planet
  4. Nikk Mitchell, moderator
  5. Percy Fung, Founder & Director, Digital Magic
  6. Corey Smith, Manager of Production Technology, Disney Consumer Products & Interactive Labs
  7. Jan Heinze, COO & Executive Producer, Pixomondo China

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 content panel 1

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 content panel 2
Chuck Williams, Head of Development, Marza Animation Planet
iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Toony Wu
Toony Wu, Founder & CPO, DreamSpace Media
iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Corey Smith
Corey Smith, Manager of Production Technology, Disney Consumer Products & Interactive Labs

Panel Session: What changes are required in education for immersive media?

Among other things, the panel discussed how we need to develop a new grammar of 3D interactive storytelling.  Given the newness of the medium, educating tomorrow’s storytellers may be a process of collective discovery rather than traditional pedagogy.

Panelists (L to R):

  1. Christopher Colman, China Correspondent, Animation World Network
  2. Ric Luo, Co-Founder, Ress Immersive Interactive
  3. Yi Yan, Co-Founder, Magic Dumpling Entertainment
  4. Nikk Mitchell, moderator
  5. Michael Scroggins, Computer Animaton Lab Director, California Institute of the Arts
  6. Shelley Page, Head of International Outreach, DreamWorks Animation
  7. Andy Deck, Artist, School of Visual Arts

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 education panel 1

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Chris Colman
Christopher Colman, China Correspondent, Animation World Network
iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Yi Yan
Yi Yan, Co-Founder, Magic Dumpling Entertainment
iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Michael Scroggins
Michael Scroggins, Computer Animation Lab Director, California Institute of the Arts

DAY TWO (December 13th, 2015)


BFA Digital Media Update, iAVRrc Introduction

Beijing Film Academy faculty Ye Feng gave a presentation on virtual reality and new media initiatives, including the Beijing Film Academy’s forthcoming Digital Media School.

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Beijing Film Academy faculty Ye Feng announces the BFA’s new Digital Media School.

Kevin Geiger, Executive Director of the Beijing Film Academy’s new International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center, introduced the iAVRrc’s mission, vision, operational model and funding paradigm.

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Kevin Geiger outlines the iAVRrc’s structure and support.

Opening Keynote Addresses

Tim Zhang, Founder & CEO of China-based Ling VR, gave a keynote presentation on opportunities and challenges in the virtual reality market, and previewed Ling VR’s upcoming all-in-one VR head-mounted display & controller.  Ling VR also graciously gifted the forum panelists with their Xiao Bai (“Little White”) mobile VR headset.

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 keynote Tim Zhang
Tim Zhang, Founder & CEO, Ling VR.

Disney animation master Nik Ranieri, now Animation Director at Reload Studios, delivered an entertaining keynote on his career arc from traditional animation through 3D CGI to virtual reality, capped by a sneak peek at Reload’s wacky WORLD WAR TOON animated VR short.  The cartoon of Hades in a head-mounted display was a clever encapsulation of Nik’s creative journey.

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 keynote Nik Ranieri
Nik Ranieri, Animation Director, Reload Studios
Shot with DxO ONE
Nik Ranieri reunited with fellow Walt Disney Feature Animation CHICKEN LITTLE alumni, Kevin Geiger and Corey Smith, who worked with Nik on his first 3D CGI character.

Day Two’s panels included…


Panel Session: What changes are taking place in immersive VFX?

The panelists characterized VR as the latest element in an ever-evolving VFX toolset, noting that getting directors comfortable with new technology remains the continual challenge.  Will time-based 3D scans of sets & actors replace today’s digital cameras?  One thing is for certain: overtime is here to stay.

Panelists (L to R):

  1. Aaron Zhou, Animation Director & Lead Producer, Big Big Sun Creative & Development Ltd.
  2. Liu Yu Shu, Founder & Director, Animaze Studio
  3. Jan Heinze, COO & Executive Producer, Pixomondo China
  4. Nikk Mitchell, moderator
  5. John Dietz, Founder & Producer, BangBang
  6. Gavin Boyle, Director of Previsualisation, Base FX
  7. Charles Wang, Director of Movie Virtual Production Lab, Beijing Film Academy

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 vfx panel

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Jan Heinze
Jan Heinze, COO & Executive Producer, Pixomondo China

Panel Session: Will VR make us more social or less social?

The forum’s liveliest session began with a prediction that in the future, we will be unable to tell whether our online VR interactions are with a person or with an artificial intelligence.  The conversation only got more entertaining from there.  We may never experience the virtual social circus of tomorrow, but our digital avatars will… perhaps on Facebook.

Panelists (L to R):

  1. Qiu Jiaqiu, Director, Caixin Media Company Limited
  2. Tyler Nilsson, Co-founder & Director, Coal Car Studio
  3. Weng Dongdong, Associate Professor, Beijing Institute of Technology
  4. Nikk Mitchell, moderator
  5. Flip Phillips, Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Skidmore College
  6. Shane Nilsson, Co-founder & Director, Coal Car Studio
  7. Tanja Barnes, Community Manager, Roundme, Verdom IT Projects

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 social panel 1

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 social panel 2

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Flip Phillips
Flip Phillips, Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Skidmore College

Kevin Geiger


Roundtable Discussion: What new business models make arise for VR, AR & MR?

To cap off the forum, the audience was excused, and our panelists were seated in a circle around a VR camera.  A roundtable discussion of future virtual reality business models ensued (minus table), with portions filmed in 360 video.

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Dinner

Dinners were a relaxing way to conclude each long day and toast a successful forum.  Beijing Film Academy Vice Dean Sun Lijun presented forum panelists with honorary Guest Professor certificates.

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Raymond Pao
HTC VP of New Technology Raymond Pao receives his honorary Guest Professor certificate from Sun Lijun, Vice Dean of the Beijing Film Academy.
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Forum co-host Nikk Mitchell is recognized for his service by Professor Sun.
iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 Mike Woods
White Rabbit Ventures CCO Mike Woods is among those invited back as an honorary Guest Professor of the Beijing Film Academy.

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iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 dinner 2

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Thanks to…

Remarkably, the “Future Trends In Stereoscopic Filmmaking & Virtual Reality” forum was put together in just one month from idea to event.  While this fast pace is typical of China, it would have not been possible without the steadfast efforts of the forum’s organizers and student volunteers, some of whom are pictured below.

iAVRrc forum Dec 2015 organizers
Forum organizers Zuo Yan, Kevin Geiger, Liliang Li, and Wen Feng (with forum mascot Claire Skye).
Some of the many hardworking student volunteers.
Some of the many hardworking student volunteers.
“Future Trends In Stereoscopic Filmmaking & Virtual Reality” forum in Beijing

Consider yourself warned

ed catmull

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, who famously derided stereoscopic films as a fad, and declared Pixar’s steadfast stance against sequels, has now declared virtual reality unsuitable for storytelling.

Catmull’s thesis is that people have been trying to tell stories in VR for over 40 years, and would have succeeded by now if this were possible.  His dismissal of recent advances in VR technology ignores the precedent of increased accessibility & sophistication of a given medium attracting transformative creative talent (such as the artists & writers drawn to Pixar decades ago, and the Pixar veterans now signing on with Oculus and other VR players).

Ironies abound, but one thing is certain:  stay tuned for Pixar’s eventual embrace of virtual reality as a storytelling medium.

Consider yourself warned

The Swayze Effect

Swayze

One of the most compelling aspects of virtual reality is the feeling of PRESENCE: of being there. Yet this powerful feeling of presence can be frustrating if not combined with AGENCY: the pleasure we feel when actively engaged in a fictional world.

The folks at Oculus Story Studio call this discrepancy The Swayze Effect (after the star of the 1990 film GHOST): the disembodied feeling that you are in the room, but no one acknowledges you.

Matt Burdette describes Oculus Story Studio’s creative struggle with this dilemma, citing contrasting issues encountered while making the VR shorts LOST and HENRY:

LOST showed us that not acknowledging the viewer can create a considerable gap in connecting with the story and action. HENRY showed us that acknowledging the viewer is powerful but can contradict the intent of the story being told.

As Matt admits, the takeaways are still being determined. The exciting thing is that we are clearly in new territory, with the rules of engagement being discovered on the fly. There hasn’t been such intriguing creative whitespace since Walt Disney & company worked out best practices for animated feature films during the previous century.

 

The Swayze Effect

Future of StoryTelling Summit highlights

Glen Keane quote

What if we gather the top creatives, executives and technologists from the field of storytelling and get them to participate in a conversation? – Charles Melcher, Founder & Director, Future of StoryTelling

The 2015 Future of StoryTelling Summit concluded on October 8th in Snug Harbor, but the ideas generated among the interdisciplinary roundtable sessions and collaborative workshops still glow – from an eclectic program of presenters including David Blaine, Al Gore, Glen Keane and Edward Snowden.  It was an inspiring and transformative event, to say the least.

I’ll include notes from the summit in future posts.  In the meantime, check out the official FoST 2015 highlights reel (created in Microsoft Sway and best viewed on a desktop).

Future of StoryTelling Summit highlights