The Supergroup Remaking Star Wars and Jurassic World in VR
By David Pescovitz
April 6, 2016
Photograph by Molly Matalon for Bloomberg Businessweek
Standing on the desert surface of Tatooine, you instinctively duck as the Millennium Falcon swoops in for a thunderous and dramatic landing beside you. Through the lenses of your virtual-reality headset, it looks real. That’s because it is, in the sense that it’s the same 3D computer model that appeared in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After you help Han and Chewie complete an urgent repair, R2D2 presents you with a lightsaber. A squad of Stormtroopers appears on the distant ridge. Not to worry, the Force is strong with you.
This is Trials on Tatooine, a new virtual-reality demonstration from Industrial Light & Magic’s Experience Lab (ILMxLAB), the supergroup of artists, engineers, sound designers, and storytellers prototyping the future of interactive, immersive cinema. The ILMxLAB is Lucasfilm’s research and development arm, leveraging graphics technology invented for traditional filmmaking and applying it to virtual reality, augmented reality, and theme park attractions. (The latter is no surprise given that Walt Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012.)
“The vision is to design, produce, and release story-based immersive entertainment experiences,” says Vicki Dobbs Beck, ILM’s executive in charge of strategic planning.
ILM announced its skunkworks last year and made a scene at January’s Sundance Film Festival with Holo-Cinema, an augmented-reality experience where participants wore motion-tracked 3D glasses in a room of projection screens to step into Jurassic Park or meet the beloved droids of Star Wars. While the demos are new, the underlying technology had gestated at Lucasfilm for more than a decade.
As far back as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. in 2001, ILM has worked to provide directors on-set with a real-time preview of scenes that meld live action and computer imagery without having to wait for the digital images to be added later. It built the tools atop a heavily modified game engine, commercial software that brings computer game graphics to life rapidly enough that the player can interact with them.
“When there was a resurgence in interest in virtual reality, we already had this long history with real-time graphics tools, high-end filmmaking, and storytelling,” says Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s chief technology officer who helped launch the xLAB. “All of it was actually coming together in this new medium.”
The core xLAB team consists of a dozen creatives and engineers but draws talent from across the Lucasfilm universe depending on each project’s needs. It’s a culture of constant collaboration. The master storytellers from the Lucasfilm Story Group run into the engineers from the Advanced Development Group at the Javva the Hutt cafe on the main Lucasfilm campus. The audio wizards of Skywalker Sound are just across the bridge.
“The way we do technology development here is really hand-in-hand with the creative goals,” says Bredow, who was formerly Sony Pictures Imageworks’ chief technologist. “The R&D is always in service to the story.”
For example, to port the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars film universe into the interactive realm, the Advanced Development Group engineers first had to figure out how the VR hardware could render the massive 3D model in just milliseconds, compared with hours or days for a film shot. Then Skywalker Sound built a surround system that realistically rumbles and whooshes as a Corellian starship should. Meanwhile, game designers and the storytellers hashed out the most compelling way for a Jedi-in-training (you) to battle an army of Stormtroopers with a lightsaber.
“We are a technology company, but we'll sit an engineer next to a game designer next to a writer and in that loop is where we get the kind of invention that can only happen here,” Bredow says.
The ILMxLAB leverages the tools of traditional filmmaking and the principles of game design, but are wedded to neither, or perhaps both. John Gaeta, the group’s executive creative director who is best known for his dazzling special effects work on the Matrix trilogy, frames their efforts as first-person immersive storytelling, in which the story itself, not the gameplay, sucks you in. Sure, there may be some game-like challenges to face as you move through the experience, but they’re driven by the story, not the other way around as in most video games.
“We want to make it plausible for storytellers to imagine allowing the audience inside these worlds as if they exist for real, not limited to fantasy,” Gaeta says.
To do that requires rethinking a century of film techniques. Consider the frequent camera pans in most movie scenes, which are a standard way of surveying a scene or following a character.
“If the scene shifts like that in virtual reality, you’ll wonder why you’re being moved against your will,” Bredow says.
Even something as simple as a close-up shot that in a regular movie focuses the audience’s attention on the actor’s emotional state needs to be reconsidered in VR. An unexpected close-up when you’re wearing VR goggles gives the distinct feeling that someone is invading your personal space. That’s why every possible moment needs to be in service of the story, says Lucasfilm Story Group’s Diana Williams.
“Yes, a close-up in VR can be jarring, but if the director has created a good story, you’ll know if that person in your space is a friend or there to kill you,” says Williams, who launched her career producing immersive (and, according to her, classified) experiences for the Department of Defense.
Discovering the grammar of what works in immersive entertainment—whether it’s delivered via a Valve VR headset, a smartphone, or some future Disneyland ride—will certainly take time and technology. But it’s a sure bet that no auteur or engineer will figure it out alone. And that’s what sets the xLAB apart, says Dobbs Beck.
“We’ve assembled an extraordinary group of dreamers and rocket builders,” Dobbs Beck says. “The dreamers are constantly thinking about what’s possible and the rocket builders figure out how to get us there.”