From left, Sudhir Reddy, VP and Head of Studio - India; Amit Chopra, Executive Director and COO; Daniel Seah, Executive Director and CEO, Digital Domain Holdings; and stills from Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ready Player One
Daniel Seah, CEO of Digital Domain, during his India visit, tells us about his efforts in lending a mainstream approach towards virtual reality
In two-and-a-half decades in the entertainment industry; projects like Titanic, True Lies, Transformers, Beauty and the Beast, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, TRON: Legacy, Thor, Real Steel, Iron Man 3; the Rio Olympics 2016 — Digital Domain (DD) has mainstreamed VFX, VR/AR and 360-degree videos. Headquartered in Los Angeles with branches set up across Canada, UK and China, the company entered India only last year in Hyderabad. A chat with Daniel Seah, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, Digital Domain Holdings, during his India visit, helps us connect a few dots.
“I don’t think we’re late coming to India,” Seah says. His sixth trip since he’s taken charge as its CEO, Seah confesses India has been on their agenda for a long while. DD is traditionally focused on its Hollywood markets and they took longer than expected, building their Vancouver facility, . “The artistes here are well-known globally, they share a similar visual language to that of the US audience. This is just the beginning. We have all the confidence that India will grow as big as our other facilities across the world.”
One of DD’s biggest strengths is their digital assets library that they’ve painfully been putting together since the ‘90s. “From True Lies to Transformersto Titanic, we’ve created content that the entire world has seen. People imagine elements like space travel or even a dinosaur with the visual references and designs we’ve created.
We’ve destroyed the world many a time in our movies — 2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and the destruction is something that we let the viewers come to terms with.” He also gives us a reason behind Washington DC and New York being the first cities to be destroyed in most ‘end of the world’ movies. “It’s because of our digital cities; it saves money. The digital assets are the biggest advantage that we have. Our artistes have a lot to choose from; the groundwork has been ready for three decades.”
The ‘90s eventually had them converting their digital assets into 3D models — which would enhance their scope in the VR space. That they can create/access anything — from a car, a human, or a city — from their digital library and move onto the VR engine helps them be resource efficient. “When Facebook acquires Oculus, regardless of the products you produce, this boils down to content. Since 2013, we were the first to come up with a VR short film, Evolution of Verse, besides a VR advertisement for Nike.
Similarly with the 2016 Olympics. As we have been the leaders in VR content, the combination of our talent and technology tells us we could replicate our success in India and China as well. These are avenues that’ll define the visual effects industry in the future,” he adds.
Seah feels that most are disappointed with the VR content that’s available today. Even though the concept of making a user feel the virtual environment is new, he finds that it’s not doing much to excite.
“Even if you have a chance to visit the Great Wall of China or a Waterford, honestly, we’d prefer to take a ticket and head there than going for a pair of VR goggles. The challenge is to make it so unique that this experience scores more than the money or assets you might have to practically experience it.” The content they’ve created for Monkey King in China to experience a story, helps them differentiate their content from the rest. “What we do is way better than reality.”
That VR would redefine the movie industry as of now is expecting too much of it, he says. He feels the best VR content today lasts at most for 40 minutes. Artistes at Digital Domain are working towards finding that elusive balance. “It’s not easy at all, we’re trying to use sounds of humans to know how they’re designed to experience it.
The 5G boom and the hardware that we possess today may take at least 5-10 years to marry VR with apt content.” Though creating a film that redefines visual standards in India, such as an Enthiran or a Baahubalidoesn’t happen often, he realises the interest for Indian content is growing fast. “We’re keen to establish our base here; the dependence on visual effects here is on the surge, though it’s yet to catch up with Hollywood films, where nearly 70% of the content is VFX-driven.”
Their focus is on 360-degree experiences too, with cameras good enough to embellish visual effects to streaming experiences. “Our intention is to help people savour the flavour of concerts at home on television with a VR goggle.”
But how many practically have a VR kit in India? This is indeed a global challenge. They plan to implement a model that has worked wonders for them in China. “We’d signed a contract with a multiplex theatre owner that’ll have a VR space in 240 theatres, including motion chairs. Many people who come to theatres at least 30 minutes earlier may not have a place to sit. They instead buy popcorn and wait for the halls to open. Our VR space is right next to the spot where you collect tickets; you’ll of course experience the VR content when you have time on hand.”
One of their recent films, Ready Player One, featured a lot of dance sequences using special effects. “We had to create digital characters for which our only references were Indian movies, the spirit of dancing and singing. 3 Idiots is one of my favourite movies here.”