Life on Mars: ‘The Martian VR Experience’ and the new frontier of virtual reality

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Robert Stromberg is the director of “The Martian VR Experience.”

The digital age of motion picture creation is a constantly evolving art and science. I believe virtual reality (VR) is the next generation of movie entertainment, and we recently marked a significant milestone in that journey with the creation of “The Martian VR Experience.”

The “VR Experience” – which I directed in partnership with the Fox Innovation Lab – transformed from a three-minute mobile trailer (created in partnership with MPC) for the recently launched Samsung Gear VR to a full 25-minute compilation of scenes, like chapters in a book. This structure allows participants to become astronaut Mark Watney as he tries to survive on Mars, with both interactive and more “traditional” video content. The forthcoming release marks the culmination of many years experimenting with the medium, a journey that began before I had even tried on a VR headset.

Discovering the possibilities of VR

While working on “Avatar” with James Cameron, we noticed something brewing with a new technology called InterSense, which enabled us to create the fantastical 360-degree virtual world in the film. A few years later, the folks at Oculus invited me to their top-secret research lab for a closer look at what they were working on. What I experienced there changed my life: Within the first 10 seconds of wearing the headset, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities this technology presented, and I immediately decided that I needed to be more involved in VR.

That very day I set off to begin The Virtual Reality Company (VRC) to push this new medium forward. As I built up VRC, I realized that while many tech companies were building hardware, no one outside of the gaming community was developing content for this radically new platform. Within the first year of VRC, we developed a four-minute test that would push VR to a cinematic level and transport the viewer through a dream-like space. When I showed the test to Steven Spielberg, he flipped out and we immediately joined forces to work on a yet-to-be-announced project. (Stay tuned, folks!)

‘The Martian VR Experience’ takes off

At the same time, 20th Century Fox, through the Fox Innovation Lab, was stepping boldly into the VR space and investing in an area where no film studios dared to go. It was – and still is – a brave move, as the monetization model for VR is still undefined. Nonetheless, my team at VRC, RSA Films and the Fox Innovation Lab agreed that developing cinematic VR experiences holds a promise that can’t be ignored.

Our first project with Fox and Ridley Scott was creating “The Martian VR Experience” while the film itself was in post-production. I was amazed by a number of things that happened while working with Fox. We benefited from a culture that welcomes visual effects and nurtures emerging technology. Furthermore, we were able to tap the expertise of other pioneering minds in this space, including Fox Innovation Lab’s Mike Dunn, Ted Gagliano, David Greenbaum and Ted Schilowitz. It is no coincidence that this level of experimentation in technology and storytelling is being done alongside Ridley. He has always challenged the tools and traditional paths to go beyond their core efficiencies. The VR community is small, and it’s even smaller in the world of entertainment. In working with some of the brightest minds from VR who had complementary backgrounds, we were able to tackle a new application for VR and extend how “The Martian” could reach audiences.

Creating Mark Watney’s world

When directing for VR versus traditional content, you have two choices: You can either be a participant or an observer. For “The Martian VR Experience,” we decided to incorporate both approaches.

Participants are charged with completing tasks that mirror plot points from the feature film, such as throwing potatoes into a bucket or lifting solar panels onto a rover using a crane. By utilizing the interactive elements of VR, the experience becomes much more immersive. At the same time, we wanted to create a narrative that would weave the sequences together, so we added additional scenes where the user is an observer – more akin to the traditional viewing experience.

For me, directing for VR brought to light the importance of an audience’s natural psychological triggers. The headsets of today are realistic enough that the viewer’s brain instinctively responds as if the environment is real. For example, our minds are so well-tuned to the horizon that if we’re not perpendicular, our balance is thrown off. We also had to be extremely careful about how we moved the camera to avoid the common motion sickness associated with VR. Furthermore, we learned that dissolved transitions – rather than hard cuts – were more palatable to the viewer.

Finally, we partnered with a sound production company called Q Department to give the audience cues for where to look. By using sound cues, we could steer a person across Mars and in space. This technique enabled us to tap the basic human instinct to turn around if we hear something coming from behind us.

An exciting time for filmmakers and content creators

We are just scratching the surface of how Hollywood and VR will revolutionize entertainment by exploring innovative ways to develop immersive experiences as a new storytelling medium. With “The Martian VR Experience,” we’ve hit a new high with existing technology. But as the technology continues to evolve, we’ll be able to create a new form of drama that builds on that and is even more powerful.

Technology has always played a role in storytelling, particularly over the last century. Prior to the advent of film, we had the stage and other forms of live entertainment. Filmmakers like Mack Sennett and his contemporaries changed the game by shooting from different angles and weaving the clips together, establishing a new kind of edited story.

This moment feels very much like the beginning of film. In particular, this intensely different way of experiencing content reminds me of the cinematic lore of the “train effect”: In the early days of cinema, a train on the screen approached the audience, and – alarmed by how realistic the imagery appeared – the moviegoers panicked and ran out of the theater.

Like those nascent days of film, there’s a power to VR that hasn’t truly been contained yet. But I see it happening. That’s what makes these first several years exciting: There’s an untapped energy and we’re just now figuring out how to wire it up.

Robert Stromberg is the Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of The Virtual Reality Company (VRC), a Los Angeles-based content studio dedicated to the creation of immersive and memorable stories for virtual reality platforms, combining the best in technology, art and storytelling. He is a two-time Academy Award winner for the production design on “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” and the director of Disney’s “Maleficent.” Stromberg is an innovator in this space, as he is the first mainstream filmmaker in Hollywood to now also direct VR experiences, as well as movies.