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VR & AR: The Mill Creates Immersive Experiences
Boo Wong
Studio's organic diversification into virtual & augmented reality storytelling explored in this sponsored feature
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This is the first in a series of VR & AR sponsored features.  

In SHOOT’s just released Mid-year Survey, Vic Palumbo, partner, director of production at Deutsch, noted that the industry has seen virtual reality and augmented reality go mainstream. Regarding VR and AR specifically, Palumbo observed, “We’re just scratching the surface of what’s happening. In the next year, we’re going to see more VR and AR experiences change the game, much like Pokemon Go. They for sure are going to get better, especially as it continues to interact with the real world.”

Palumbo’s observations were echoed by other surveyed agency creatives, producers and execs, including Bryan Cook, executive content producer at Team One, Conor Duignan, head of broadcast production, barrettSF, Tom Lorenzo, executive creative director of Situation, and Andy Clarke, executive creative director at Publicis New York.

The latter affirmed that VR is “certainly no gimmick. I would compare it to radio in the early 20th century, television in the late 1920s (later color) and the internet in the early 1980s as a breakthrough medium that gives us another option to entertain and communicate through.”

For The Mill, segueing into VR and AR came organically, explained Boo Wong, the company’s global director of emerging technology. Wong leads the emerging tech ensemble of talent across The Mill’s studios in London, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. “Coming off of 20-plus years of heavy sophisticated visual effects work, we found ourselves in a great position to delve into immersive experience,” said Wong. “It’s a natural evolution of The Mill’s core technical and creative abilities to move from linear content into the immersive and interactive space.”

The Mill’s emerging tech team works across VR, AR, real time, interactive and experiential formats to deliver powerful new ways of connecting with audiences. “Whether it’s within a fully enclosed VR space or AR where you are integrated into the real world--either way The Mill looks at it as ‘world building,’” related Wong. “We strive to tell great stories, create compelling content, to build new worlds. ”

Part and parcel of that is to enable viewers to experience those worlds on their own terms. “This is no longer a dictatorship,” said Wong. “If a viewer doesn’t want to stay on a closeup, he or she doesn’t have to. They can explore the world as they see fit. They have the control. We are the architects of the space but they are the ones who can experience it their own way. We might kind of try to nudge them in the right direction but ultimately it’s still their adventure. It’s still up to them.”

Facilitating this interactivity is where The Mill has positioned itself in the immersive/interactive landscape. “We are not in the business of making video games. But we very much do tap into real-time interactive game engines to further the VR and AR experience,” said Wong. “We are--and very much like to be operating--at the intersection of cinema and games. This is how the viewer becomes more of a user. There are viewers who just watch--even in VR, many are still just watching. But you open up the interactive world for many of them by making your content more gameified.”

Yet more integral to success is the selection of stories and experiences that lend themselves to VR and/or AR. “In the early days of VR we would get scripts that weren’t really appropriate for a 360 or a virtual experience,” recalled Wong. “We work with our clients to make sure we are creating content that makes sense for the space.”

That process has yielded assorted experiences of high caliber, helping to break new ground in the immersive marketplace, a prime example being a piece of branded content for newspaper The Guardian--a documentary titled 6x9: a virtual experience of solitary confinement. Placing the viewer inside a solitary confinement cell with little more than a bed and a toilet, 6x9 mimics a prisoner’s experience of being locked away for 23 hours a day, delving into such psychological effects as blurred vision, hallucinations and a sense of floating that may occur after long-term sensory deprivation. Deploying game engine technology, The Mill London worked from first-person accounts and documentaries as references for both cell design and spatial audio capture. The cell was designed in Maya and further developed in Unity. Environmental binaural audio was also used which ensured the audio was anchored to the environment, enhancing the sense of space and creating the effect of the sound continually moving with the viewer. 6x9 was a joint venture throughout the production process with Carl Addy, The Mill’s creative director, working in close collaboration with co-directors Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton from The Guardian to steer the creative direction of the piece.

6x9 served with its immersive experience to raise awareness of and spark discussion about solitary confinement, shedding light on the issue and whether related policies should be reconsidered or revised. The critically acclaimed 6x9 was showcased at both the Sundance Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Fest this year.

The Mill also made its mark at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas, with its groundbreaking live-action cinema grade production tool, Mill Stitch, topping the VR/AR category at the SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards. This accolade underscores The Mill’s multi-faceted involvement in the immersive arena, not only creating projects but developing and inventing product that advances the storytelling/experiential discipline. “We are constantly experimenting, discovering, making prototypes not only for VR and AR but also our visual effects endeavors,” noted Wong. Much of this is done via Mill LAB, the space where creative technologists experiment, identify the correct applications for emerging technology, seek and realize ways to better connect with audiences. This initiative is creatively spearheaded by executive creative director Rama Allen and Wong. 

Regarding Mill Stitch, awhile back it was difficult for a director to follow what was being captured during the course of VR production. The video village turned out what at best looked like a security camera feed. Mill Stitch enables directors to be on set and see the shots to determine what she or he has and if anything further, including a revised approach, is required. “Placing this in the toolkit allows directors to see what they’re shooting--stitching everything together real time on set so the director can view it in 360,” said Wong.

When it comes to immersive fare at The Mill, directors can be Mill talent or from outside the studio. Whereas 6x9 was an example of the latter--teaming with directors from The Guardian--Jack Daniel’s Storytelling: VR Experience exclusively involved Mill directorial talent, co-helmed by ECD Allen and Mill+ director Bowe King for FCB Chicago. Mill+ produced the experience which transports fans of Jack Daniel’s to sensory rich locations on the hallowed grounds of the distillery. The visual style of “mixed time” was developed for the content where moments slow down and time seems to stand still. The highly stylized, cinematic visuals combine with ambient surround sound. This style of film borrows from the visual language of cinemagraphs, allowing viewers to linger in moments of mixed time. Combining real-time and frozen elements in one shot, the mixed time film technique was developed by The Mill specifically for Jack Daniel’s Storytelling: VR Experience.

Most recently, The Mill teamed with The New York Times on The Modern Games, a VR film available on the NYT app that marked the start of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and takes viewers through seminal moments in Olympic history. Led by creative directors Westley Sarokin and Eric Chang, The Mill ensemble used archival photographs and transferred them via 2D and 3D techniques into VR experiences--worlds which viewers could themselves inhabit. The Modern Games transports viewers to these Olympic stadiums (Athens, Los Angeles, Mexico, Bejing) and historic happenings.

From the revival of the modern Olympics in 1896 to Babe Didrikson Zaharias’ paradigm-shifting victories in 1932 to the almost superhuman feats of gold medalists such as Bob Beamon and Usain Bolt, NYT VR takes its audience inside the triumph and failures of the Summer Olympics. The Modern Games was created through the use of the Odyssey camera, built to support Google’s Jump Camera platform.

In the big picture, Wong said that VR and AR are part of an evolutionary process. “Five years from now, we’ll have established much of what is needed for the best VR and AR storytelling. We’ll be looking to innovate on some other emerging fronts. And our talent evolves along with each change. Our original compositors for example are now our VR compositors. Our talent, tech development, creative and production evolves. It’s part of our looking-ahead philosophy, always searching, discovering, experimenting and innovating.”

The next VR & AR Sponsored Feature will be published on October 21, 2016 across all SHOOT digital and print platforms.  
Click Here for information on participating in the October sponsored feature and marketing package.
Click Here to contact SHOOT for more information.


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