VR-Like Creations Can Be Produced For Real Screens

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VR-Like Creations Can Be Produced For Real Screens
August 16, 2017

The appeal of VR content lies in its ability to endow the viewer with a sense of agency and a sense of immersion. Well-executed experiences completely surround the audience, with no bezels or screen borders to remind them they aren’t actually in some far-off world.

 

Which is why I was so impressed by The Dome, an all-encompassing theatrical experience that has been popping up at recent iterations of the Panorama and Coachella music festivals. Think: A planetarium on steroids, where visitors are free to look around and immerse themselves in an environment, without actually being bogged down by a physical VR headset.

 

“The 180-degree screen surrounds the audience with up to 25 million pixels in each frame,” says Bobo Do, creative director for Dirt Empire and co-writer and co-director of The Ark. “To give a sense of how big that is, standard HD is a little more than 2 million pixels. So the visual fidelity is much better than any VR set available today, by an order of magnitude.”

 

At this year’s Panorama, The Dome served as the grand finale to an HP-sponsored and Meta-curated art and tech showcase called The Lab, where it repeatedly screened a nine-minute film called The Ark: An intergalactic psychedelic art film that was purpose-built to exploit the spherical screen’s sense of “wow”. 

 

“A conventional narrative with dialogue was out of the question,” says Nicholas Rubin, executive producer at Dirt Empire and The Ark's other director and writer. “The Dome as a format doesn’t lend itself to that because things spherically distort and we simply didn’t have the time nor money to do character animation.” 

The idea then became to make something feel big while confronting any expectations that viewers were about to sit through a typical planetarium show.

 

“Everyone is habituated to planetariums which can be sort of dry and didactic,” Rubin says. “But domes are amazing for giving people that expansive sensation like they are witness to something both massively exterior and microcosm. They are also great for making people feel like they are having a communal experience versus the relatively isolated experience of theater seating.”

 

But this expansive format presents a number of challenges. First, it can be difficult to model and produce a domed video on a traditional flat screen, which can’t accurately duplicate the experience. To solve this, the filmmakers modeled their in-production film in a 3D game engine with a VR headset that allowed them to step inside a virtual dome, and see what the final product would look like. “We didn’t realize just how effective our persistently moving camera was,” Rubin said. “We had one person tell us they felt like they were on a ‘floating shamanic vision quest.'”

 

There are also challenges when it comes to directing the audience’s gaze. A filmmaker producing a typical theatrical production often has a clear idea of where they want the audience to be looking at any given moment and has a well-honed bag of tricks to divert eyes to the proper spot. With dome screens, this is tougher. If audience members stare straight ahead like they would in a normal theater, they could miss important action in the periphery. “Paradoxically, if the seating is circular then they tend to look everywhere and forget to look at one spot so crucial moments of story can get lost,” Rubin says.

 

This speaks to perhaps the most challenging aspect of producing content for a dome screen. As with VR, filmmakers playing with domed screens can't always control how people will consume an experience and have to design content that works regardless of where people are looking or the decisions they make while enjoying the film. “One very important lesson that we learned from last year’s dome project is the seating arrangement,” Do says. “It was something that was not anticipated by anyone last year. We all had imagined the experience as one where everyone would be standing and free to turn around and look about. What actually happened was that as soon as the crowd entered the dome, they would immediately lie down on the floor just randomly oriented."

 

Learning from past experiences, the producers used the audience’s desire to sit or lay down as an opportunity to at least partially control where they would look. “At Coachella, the seats were oriented in a circular fashion, where all the seats were facing the middle. As we got further into working out the story of The Ark, it became apparent that it would be much easier to direct a narrative in the dome format if the audience all faced the same direction. With a shared focal point ahead of us, it made it possible to direct the camera in a more traditional way, with hero actions and objects to the front."

 

So was the project a success? When I experienced The Ark at this year’s Panorama festival, the audience roared as loud as they did at any of the headlining musician’s sets. “The first indication we had that people were super into it was that at the beginning of every show, people were hollering and rowdy and after the first 20 seconds they would go absolutely silent,” Rubin said. “Even the ushers and security wanted to know the backstory and couldn’t help but ask us about the inspiration and ‘meaning’ of the film.”

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