Arts & Design

The buzz at SXSW? How virtual reality is reinventing filmmaking

From the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One to conversations at the hit HP house, the intersection of technology and film ruled the fest.

By Garage Staff — March 30, 2018

At the popular South By Southwest (SXSW) festival, which draws more than 280,000 techies and music fans to Austin, TX every spring, glimpses at future technologies are a big part of the appeal. “It feels like you’re going to walk around the corner and see something you’ve never seen before,” said Kate Swanborg, senior vice president of technology, communications and strategic alliances at DreamWorks Animation before participating in one of many panels at HP’s Digital Artistry House. “I can’t get over how vibrant it is.”

Courtesy of HP

Open for just one day, the HP exhibition space drew more than 5,000 people for provocative panel discussions about the tools and the ideas that will drive the future of digital storytelling. Eager visitors, with local drinks and nibbles in hand, even had a shot at trying a few of HP’s digital artistry tools. 

At the HP Digital Artistry House, illustrators used HP's ZBook x2 to create digital portraits of guests.

Courtesy of HP

At the HP Digital Artistry House, illustrators used HP's ZBook x2 to create digital portraits of guests.

For those keen to experience the cutting edge of how films are edited, HP’s Z8 Workstation with a curved screen was on display. To showcase the power and versatility of the HP ZBook x2, local illustrators were enlisted to sketch caricature drawings of guests who stood still enough to have their digital likeness captured.

But those who came for the cool digital swag (and great catering) also had the chance to be provoked by the HP-hosted panel discussions that punctuated the day. While most of those discussions took place at the Digital Artistry House, there was one that was perhaps naturally destined for a bigger stage.

Film’s new “virtual” reality

At the “Technology’s Impact on Storytelling” panel, some of the top minds at DreamWorks Animation took to one of SXSW’s main stages at the Austin Convention Center. The discussion, moderated by HP’s Chief Technology Officer, Shane Wall, focused on the idea that VR has become much more than a technique to deliver immersive experiences for audiences or gamers.

During the hour-long chat the DreamWorks Animation team spoke of the studio’s long-time partnership with HP. The collaboration has led to a workflow known as PreVisualization, which lets animators produce their creations in amazingly advanced renditions. This gives them a VR-based way to virtually step inside the worlds they’re creating as they create them.

“PreVisualization gives us the opportunity to understand lighting direction, staging and performances in a way that's very rough, but it provides a blueprint for the film,” Chris Stover, head of digital cinematography and PreVisualization at DreamWorks Animation, told the audience. “It gives the director an opportunity to lay out a vision for the film that they can push into production.”

“I think VR is going to have a radical effect on what moviemaking will become. Imagine if people can come in and have their own experience, within a directed or confined experience, but it's theirs.”

Shane Wall, HP Chief Technology Officer

VR, the star of the show

Elsewhere at the festival, director Steven Spielberg hosted the world’s first public screening of his new film “Ready Player One.”

In the packed theater, Spielberg and his team discussed the spellbinding visual and narrative feat they pulled off. “We made this with a lot of ambition to really fill the screen,” Spielberg said to an enthusiastic audience.

The story, based on the 2011 dystopian novel by Ernest Cline, is set 26 years from now and depicts a dark society from which many humans are trying to escape. Through a VR game called the Oasis, characters interact with others around the globe. The main character wades deeply into this virtual world in search of something that will bring him a great fortune.

While the theatrical release of the film itself isn’t based on an interactive or VR element for the audience, it certainly begs some interesting questions about a society where VR becomes an integral part of how we experience everyday life.

In the past Spielberg has suggested that a fully immersive, VR movie experience might take away some of the power a director currently has. In short, the viewer, not the director, could one-day choose where in that filmic world to go next. At the “Ready Player One” screening, however, the acclaimed director offered a thought. “The side windows are for cultural references,” he suggested. “The windshield is for the story. If you look straight ahead, you can always follow the story.”

The future of digital storytelling

Back at the HP Digital Artistry House, surrounded by young artists eager to learn what’s next in their respective disciplines, Wall, offered this: “I think VR is going to have a radical effect on what moviemaking will become. Imagine if people can come in and have their own experience, within a directed or confined experience, but it's theirs.”  

Where VR is concerned, the only given is that it will surely have a place in the production and the consumption of entertainment as we move forward. Exactly how is up to us.

“It's a really exciting time to have the opportunity to tell stories,” noted Jill Hopper, global head of production at DreamWorks Animation, as she answered a question from a an animator who had come to see the panel discussion. “Technology can change the experience, can challenge us to learn differently and really get lost in a story that the storyteller is trying to tell us. I think that's kind of fun.”

Furthering the drive to advance the interplay of film and technology at DreamWorks Animation is the recent appointment of “Ready Player One” executive producer Chris DeFaria as the company’s President. An innovator in the industry, he was president of animation and innovative technology at Warner Brothers Pictures and deeply involved in the CG-heavy productions “Man of Steel,” “Pacific Rim” and the final Harry Potter films.

“Some story tellers are daunted by the need to create more comprehensive worlds for VR — we aren't. We already do that,” says DeFaria of DreamWorks Animation. “I have heard filmmaker concerns about shifting to the non-linear storytelling capabilities VR allows — but that seems like an opportunity to us more than a challenge.”

What’s clear is that digital storytelling is fast evolving, providing the tech and entertainment worlds ever-more ways to collaborate. With another SXSW in the can all eyes are now pointed toward June’s Cannes Film Festival, where the industry as a whole can ponder just how VR might help it tell the next, great story.