If you’re in the middle of creating what could well be Hollywood’s most ambitious consumer virtual reality project yet, you’d think having a concrete plan for how to get from beginning to end would be crucial.
"You’re building the plane while you’re flying it," says Ted Schilowtiz, 20th Century Fox’s futurist—and per his business card its "consiglieri"—of the Hollywood studio’s production of rich VR experience based on its recent mega-hit film, The Martian. "We didn’t have all the answers when we started, and we still didn’t have all the answers when we finished, but we know we created something meaningful. In scope and scale; it feels like a significant entertainment product."
Read: A significant stand-alone entertainment product.
That was the goal for Schilowitz and his compadres at the Fox Innovation Lab, which recently completed work on The Martian VR Experience: to make sure the 20-minute project, which lets users step into the role of the film’s protagonist, Mark Watney, is much more than just a short marketing piece for the movie that happens to use VR as a gimmick.
Hollywood has signaled it has huge ambitions for VR, with several studios having already turned to VR to promote larger-scale projects. Last year, Fox released a short VR experience tied to Wild, and then took home the first-ever Emmy awarded for virtual reality for its VR take on the TV series Sleepy Hollow. For its part, Warner Bros. released a Batman VR experience and Universal did the same for the upcoming fantasy adventure Warcraft. Disney recently released a short clip from its Lion King stage adaptation, and Disney was also the lead investor in a $65 million round of funding for the Silicon Valley VR production and distribution technology company Jaunt.
Yet Fox considers itself a bit more advanced than its competitors about VR, especially when it comes to leveraging the medium as a new form of premium content.
"All the studios are doing good and smart things in VR," Schilowitz told Fast Company in November. "But if you ask around, the other studios and people within the industry would say that Fox started with a leadership position and has maintained that leadership position."
Very few people in the industry have seen the full Martian VR Experience, but there does seem to be a sense in that Fox has gone beyond, and tried more new things than its competitors.
"I love the idea of content being created in VR that isn’t trying to be another type of medium," said Nancy Bennett, the chief content officer at Two Bit Circus, a media production company in Los Angeles that often works in VR. "What Fox Studios is doing is using VR for what VR is best for, an exploration of an environment that is established by a movie, but takes it to the next level, that’s the right thing to do, and it’s interesting."
Bennett added that other Hollywood studios’ attempts to use VR for more than just marketing have fallen short.
One person who had seen the full version of The Martian VR Experience is Jason Hirschhorn, the CEO of Redef.com, a sort of media industry newsletter. As a longtime entertainment industry executive, he’s seen most of what’s available in VR these days, including many different Hollywood VR projects.
Other studios are working in VR, "but I know the Fox guys, they’ve been up to it for a while," Hirschhorn said, "and I think they’re the most aggressive in terms of figuring out what a VR experience can be."
For Fox, leadership means using VR not just for marketing, but as profitable entertainment in its own right. Fox very much wants it to be successful, standing on its own as something people will seek out, and be happy to spend money to see. And then it wants to repeat that success again and again, both with VR tie-ins to traditional movies, and as entirely new projects.
The initial result of that strategy is The Martian VR Experience, which Fox is unveiling at CES in Las Vegas this week, and plans to release later in the year. It has not said how much it plans to charge, but it's likely to be close to the price of a movie ticket.
"We wanted to not [just] make a new version of The Martian," said Robert Stromberg, who directed the VR project, and who has also directed traditional Hollywood films, like Disney’s Maleficent. "We were attempting to take someone through an entire narrative storyline without it being a short demo."
And does that approach make sense?
"I think it makes a lot of sense," said Bennett, "and I will definitely buy it because I’m interested in seeing that work. I want to see what it’s like on Mars and [be able to] walk around" there.
There is, of course, a short demo of The Martian VR Experience, available on just about any virtual reality platform. Coming in at about three minutes, it offers a tease of the full version, bringing users to Mars and showing them a few glimpses of life inside Watney’s helmet. But with the demo version, there’s no interactivity, except for letting users look around them in 360 degrees. Otherwise, it’s a fully passive experience.
That’s not the case with the full experience, which Fast Company was one of the first to view last month in a conference room high above Century City, California, offering fantastic views of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and other parts of Tinseltown.
The full version requires a high-end VR system, such as the Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive, or Sony’s PlayStation VR, all of which have handheld controllers that allow users to do things with their hands, opening the door to potentially far richer active experiences than is possible with mobile-phone-based VR hardware like Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Cardboard, which offer less interactivity.
All told, the full Martian VR Experience takes users through seven different scenes, each of which exploit the interactive features of the Rift, the Vive, or the PSVR.
At Fox’s request, so as not to spoil users’ surprise when they run through the experience, all seven will not be described here. But suffice it to say that each scene presents users with a scenario from the theatrical version of The Martian and tasks them with working their way through a challenge that Watney had to overcome in order to survive alone on Mars.
"We chose the clips based on the shots that were most poignant," Stromberg said, "and the ones that would take us further down the story quickly."
For example, in one scene, users have to load two large solar panels onto a Rover before heading out on a vital trip across Mars’s surface, using levers on a control panel to power a small crane and lift them up and onto the back of the vehicle. A menacing dust storm adds time pressure. It’s not difficult, but it’s exciting. Those who have seen the movie will find the scenario familiar, which is part of the point.
"I thought [that scene] was a pretty cool experience," Hirschhorn said. "You feel the sense of the urgency because of the sound, and the wind."
That’s definitely the point.
What’s Fox’s larger idea for VR? To prove that virtual is a great medium for storytelling and to find, define, and learn the best techniques for leveraging VR as a storytelling medium.
"Our role here is to create narrative-driven content," says David Greenbaum, executive vice president of production at Fox Searchlight Pictures, and one of the Fox Innovation Lab’s principals. "We use real people, and integrate them into worlds. Some are computer-generated. Some are photo-real. So where we want this medium to go, and what [Stromberg] and all of us talk about all the time, is making VR storytelling that is human, that is emotional, that connects the viewer to stories. Our goal here is ultimately to create compelling stories."
There’s plenty of experience with storytelling at Fox, and in some ways, the process of making The Martian VR Experience wasn’t all that different from what a Hollywood studio normally does.
"We approached it very much like a feature film," Stromberg says. "It started as a concept, with a script, and then it [went] through an approval process."
To make the project, Stromberg and the folks from the Fox Innovation Lab mined the wide range of visual assets from the full movie, and during the final months of production on the theatrical version, tweaked those they used so they would work for the VR experience.
"We worked closely with editorial," he says, "which had never been done before, especially during the frantic winding down of the actual film."
Although there was a script, the Fox team still had to work out exactly how to translate elements from the movie into interactive scenes that would be both challenging and which made sense in a VR experience.
In other words, there was a whole lot of tinkering before the project was completed.
"What we were learning" to do, says Ted Gagliano, Fox’s president of post production, "was how to do a complementary VR experience that honors the film and the moments in the film, but also integrates with the process of post-production."
With the Wild VR experience, Fox's previous foray into virtual reality was based on the Reese Witherspoon film about a woman solo-hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. But while that project gave viewers a 360-degree look at the forest and incorporated an ethereal moment when the main character’s dead mother [Laura Dern] appears out of nowhere, it was largely passive because of the nature of 360, or spherical, VR.
That was, of course, a lifetime ago in the world of VR technology. Now, there are new techniques, such as volumetric VR, which captures an entire scene and lets a user walk around in it, and which could have made the Wild VR experience significantly deeper.
"If we were to go back to the Wild well today," says Schilowitz, "what we’d be compelled to is capture [Witherspoon] and Laura in true volume, so they were real humans with dimensional depth….so if you were a voyeur in that scene, you could get up off that rock and swing around back behind [the mother]. Then suddenly, it’s magic at a whole new level."
The likely rapid advancements in VR production technology and viewing hardware to come over the next few years present a major challenge to the Fox lab face as they pursue virtual reality as a new storytelling medium.
"It’s like painting in a hurricane," Stromberg says. "Every day you’re pushing with technology that isn’t quite there."
So what does Fox plan to do with VR in the future?
The folks running the lab won’t say exactly, but did hint at other projects already in the works. It’ll "be something great," Greenbaum says.
Either way, it’ll depend on story or no one will watch.
"Think about the original virtual reality medium," Schilowitz says: "reading a great book. What trumps everything is a great story. If you don’t have a great story, you just have technology that doesn’t do anything."
Still, Fox wants to establish itself at the vanguard of VR production in Hollywood. And it plans on making its virtual reality projects into must-see experiences.
"A lot of what we’re seeing now is like, ‘Have you seen VR?’" says Greenbaum. "The question will shift: ‘Yes, I’ve seen VR, but have you seen this?"