The VR Company Helping Filmmakers Put You Inside Movies
Look, you’re never going to get to drive the Fury Road with Max and Furiosa. You’re just not. It’s a bummer, but it’s true. However, if you want a mini taste of that post-apocalypse life and you happen to be at the Sundance Film Festival sometime in the next week, then you’re in luck: 8i’s virtual reality experience The Wasteland awaits.
The movie places viewers (wearing an HTC Vive VR headset) in a dystopian desert alongside a female warrior as a hacked-together dune buggy drives up. Because the Vive’s Lighthouse system tracks your movement, you can walk around the desert, approach the vehicle, even look at the weapons the warrior is carrying. But what the best part isn’t all the cool dystopia stuff—it’s how the wasteland was made.
If a VR filmmaker had wanted to make Wasteland the hard way, they would have had to render the entire desert setting, car included, using CG. Then they’d have to do motion-capture with their actors and take that mo-cap performance and paint a face and clothes onto each character. 8i’s technology, however, lets filmmakers capture entire performances with off-the-shelf cameras and then place them in pre-existing environments, creating a fully navigable 3-D VR movie that’s far more immersive than the 360-degree videos most have seen.
“What you’re seeing there is this integration, using our tools, of a human that’s recorded in real life, completely dressed and acting, a CG element (the car), and a photographic environment that was a real place,” says 8i CEO Linc Gasking. “It allows storytellers, like the storytellers at Sundance, to be able to finally for the first time be able to put realistic humans into a story for virtual reality.”
Wasteland is just one of four VR projects 8i is bringing to Sundance as part of their #100humans program. (There are other companies working on volumetric capture for VR, from Lytro to Uncorporeal, but 8i is the only one confirmed to be bringing multiple experiences to Sundance.) The others show a mother leaving a message for her young child, a Roman gladiator who’s a dead ringer for The Karate Kid’s Johnny, and a climber on a vertigo-inducing ledge in the Grand Canyon. They’re all very different from each other, but they’re also different from a lot of the other VR experiences at Sundance. They’re meant to show filmmakers what they can do with 8i’s tech, not necessarily show what a filmmaker has done.
Gasking, one of the founders of CountingDown.com (a fan site later acquired by DreamWorks), started 8i with the goal of developing tools that allow people to create what’s known as “volumetric VR”—essentially VR that captures a whole space and then allows viewers to walk around in it. Want to play look at that baby on the floor and ignore her mother? You can! Want to walk off the edge of that cliff? You can do that too—but you might not fall.
8i captures their human performances using off-the-shelf cameras and other tools and doesn’t really plan on making any hardware—just letting future filmmakers know what works best. It’s the software that matters. Their stack (it doesn’t have a name yet) allows VR experiences to come together much more quickly and easily than they would if they were mo-cap performances. It can even place actors filmed in greenscreen rooms into scenes shot in the real world or digitally-rendered environments that can be bought online (the libraries of pre-existing digital sets that exist for videogames or even architectural renderings can work with 8i’s software).
Gasking launched the company in 2014 with Eugene d’Eon, a Nvidia vet who had done human rendering in computer games and gone on to work with Weta Digital on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. They also brought on Rainer Gombos, who previously worked on VFX for Game of Thrones, and who Gasking says “came on with the goal of really exploring the storytelling angle.”
But 8i really isn’t necessarily a filmmaking outfit. Sure, their #100humans projects have stories, but its the tech Gasking is proud of. The #100humans projects are essentially just a proof-of-concept, what Gasking wants is for other filmmakers to take the tech to new places.
And that’s why 8i is headed to Sundance—to show the VR filmmaking n00bs what is possible. “We expect to give this out to other studios, give the tools out to other people, and really have people start to play with it,” Gasking says, adding that they plan to officially release their software very soon by the end of the year.
“We’re very much not going to be long-term storytellers,” Gasking says. “It’s all about enabling others.”