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Samsung’s New Mission: Discovering VR Film Talent

Without great content, virtual reality hardware will go nowhere. So Samsung and others are taking matters into their own hands.

Samsung today became the latest entrant in a growing field of companies and organizations supporting and fostering the creation of independent virtual reality content.

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With the launch of Gear Indie, a new channel available solely on Samsung’s Milk VR section of its Gear VR virtual reality headset, Samsung is placing a bet that independently produced content can be as important as that made by filmmaking professionals. Done right, the company clearly believes, this kind of content will help sell a lot of hardware.

Gear Indie joins programs like those from Jaunt Studio, Nokia, Tongal, and others aiming to help inspire or reward VR filmmakers.

Samsung’s new initiative will have three components, Fast Company has learned: a curated showcase for short virtual reality films; a system of challenges that will reward a small number of filmmakers; and a mentorship program that will team some of those creators with established VR filmmaking professionals.

According to Matt Apfel, vice president of strategy and creative content at Samsung Media Solutions Center America, the Gear Indie channel is launching today with five short VR films, and two more will be added each day this week.

In coming weeks, Apfel said, there are likely to be more films added to Gear Indie, but it’s not going to be “a channel where there are 1,000 independent videos and no one can find them.”

Rather, Samsung wants to help the videos selected to appear there stand out from the crowd.

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The initial 13 films range in style from dark comedy to time-lapse nature photography to car racing to science, and more. There will also, of course, be a cat video. (See the slideshow above for stills from some of the selected films.)

Challenges

While Apfel did not provide much detail on the Gear Indie challenges, he did say that over the coming year, Samsung would hold between eight and 15 of them, usually one at a time, lasting between four and eight weeks. In each case, filmmakers will be asked to make videos–perhaps on specific topics, such as music.

In an example like that, Apfel continued, there might be mentors such as a rock band that would offer assistance to filmmakers as to what elements would make their videos work best.

Winners of the challenges will likely receive prizes in the form of VR filmmaking equipment, or cash.

Samsung isn’t just being coy about the challenges, it’s also not revealing the full slate of mentors, a group Apfel said would be like “the professors of VR University.”

The mentorship program will launch with several people well-known in the VR industry. They include Jason Rubin, the head of Worldwide Studios for Oculus, the Facebook-owned VR hardware and software platform developer; Nancy Bennett, the chief content officer at Two Bit Circus, a Los Angeles-based interactive agency; and Anthony Batt, the cofounder and executive vice president of WEVR, a virtual reality technology company.

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Apfel said the mentorship program was designed to offer direct assistance and feedback to aspiring VR content creators, “not only [specifically about] their videos, but also on how to go out and create.”

Someone like Bennett could be very helpful during a sports-related challenge, Apfel said, since she’s made VR films about the Olympics and the NBA, among others.

Apfel also said he expects mentors to serve as coach, judge, and adviser throughout the challenges.

For her part, Bennett told Fast Company she thinks the mentorship program is important because it can help “cross-pollinate ideas from newbies to seasoned professionals.”

Technology And Storytelling

Bennett said that while learning how to use VR technology is obviously vital to this young genre, it’s just as important to focus on good storytelling.

“Technology is going to be a part of things,” she said, “but I think a really good idea, executed to the best of the [filmmaker’s] ability, is going to be [the centerpiece] of the conversations.”

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Samsung is also clear that the challenges and mentorship elements of Gear Indie are not just about providing filmmakers with a proving ground. Given the company’s VR platform, and how essential good content is to its success, Gear Indie is very much about helping filmmakers actually figure out how to make entertaining content that large audiences want to watch.

Some who are taking part in the Gear Indie project say they understand its goals.

“It’s our intention to further develop [our] 3-D projects within a design and creative storytelling perspective,” said Marko Klijn, a producer at Cirkus, which made a short film for Gear Indie called Jack of All Trades in: “The Butcher”. The “channel provides a great opportunity for independent VR filmmakers, so we’re happy to contribute.”

Apfel said that throughout the Gear Indie project, videos selected to appear there will largely fall under one of three main categories: Automotive test drives; science, nature, or technology; and outliers that are innovative or odd approaches to storytelling.

Over the years, YouTube has generated a number of break-out stars, content creators who started making videos for themselves, and who eventually attracted huge audiences. YouTube itself has recognized that, and works to foster those filmmakers’ talents.

That’s very much what Samsung is hoping for with Gear Indie, Apfel said, albeit on a smaller scale. The medium is so new that many of the people who are working in it are figuring out everything as they go. Some, though, have learned a lot already, and Apfel’s hope is to bring those groups together and, in the process, discover the next great talent. Samsung also wants to understand what works in VR filmmaking, and what doesn’t.

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“Everybody is Steven Spielberg in VR,” Apfel said, “and nobody is Steven Spielberg in VR. We want to learn as much as our filmmakers.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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