Audiences at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival were treated to some 30 films that offered a virtual reality component. One of the most ambitious and surreal of these offerings was director Jérome Blanquet’s Alteration, the story of a man who volunteers for a dream recording experiment, only to discover that an artificial intelligence named Elsa is not only interpreting his dreams and memories but feeding off them.
We spoke with James Senade (Founder, VFX Supervisor) and Bastien Harispe (Co-Founder, Head of Post Production) at Saint George Studio, the Paris-based VFX studio in charge of post-production for the film, about their background in VR, their work on Alteration, and the future of virtual reality.
“We saw that the market was changing, and we had to adapt to stay competitive...”
The first thing to note is that, though both men have decades’ worth of experience working in visual effects, they’ve only made the transition to virtual reality in the last four years. “As a small studio, we need to be hyper-aware of what’s happening in the industry,” James told us. “We saw that the market was changing, and we had to adapt to stay competitive. VR is one of those new challenges, and as a small studio headed by a Flame artist and a producer, we thought we were well situated to make an impact.” So, when their company was approached to do post-production for Alteration, they jumped at the chance.
“You could have the best idea, but if you don’t have the tools to bring it to life – on time and within your budget – then you’re out of luck.”
But both men point out that to say their involvement stopped at post-production sells their contributions short. Unlike with traditional films, where the visual effects artists can come in at the end to work their magic, virtual reality is very much a hands-on process from the beginning. “We were involved from the start, during the script work, and during pre-production,” James says. “We were even in charge of picking the right camera rig since the camera setup dictates so much of what we can and cannot do in post-production, and this was very much an effects-driven project.” James also spent a lot of time on set, either coordinating with the director or doing 360-degree captures of the set. “The precision demanded by this project meant that we had to be on set, shooting everything, capturing everything, advising the director on shot selection.” Oculus headsets were used by the director and his advisors to help envision what the shots would look like in 3D. “The headsets helped a lot,” explained James, “because we were coordinating with six different cameras, and we had to have some idea of what the audience would see, how they would experience each shot.”
All this early involvement translated into a more creative input for James and Bastien. “Since this wasn’t a full CG project but based on real actors and real environments,” Bastien notes, “a lot of the work involved figuring out just what was possible, and finding the right balance of VFX and reality to keep the audience engaged in the story.” James described an early version of the script that had to be scrapped and reworked entirely when it was discovered that it wasn’t feasible within the limitations of the technology. “Because it’s such a new medium, you need to have technically proficient people working at every stage of the production. You need to have a strong lead 3D artist, a strong compositor, a strong everything to make sure that the technical aspects are all working properly. You could have the best idea, but if you don’t have the tools to bring it to life – on time and within your budget – then you’re out of luck.”
“Instead of having to reinvent the wheel, we’re adapting our old toolkit to perform new tricks.”
Because of that emphasis on technical skill, both men stressed the value of their experience working with familiar software, including 3ds Max and Flame. “We’ve been using these software suites forever,” Bastien said. “From the moment we opened up shop 5 years ago, we were always trying to work with the tools we knew and loved, instead of always looking for the brand new stuff. And we think that consistency of experience has made transitioning into VR much easier. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel, we’re adapting our old toolkit to perform new tricks.”
And their experiences working in VR have made them even more excited for its future, and the potential they see in it. “With the new tools in programs like Unity, you can bring your knowledge and creativity as a CG artist to bear inside the VR experience, in real-time. That’s a very exciting thing for us as a studio, to think that we’re at the point where we need to build new tools to adapt ourselves to this new way of telling stories. It’s like we’re heading towards a merging of the creative potential of films and video games!”
Clocking in at 18 minutes long, Alteration might seem like an odd vehicle for promoting virtual reality, since the film’s message seems to involve the dangers of technological progress, but one glance at its stunning visuals, or the harmony it manages to create between its special effects and its story, will provide ample proof that virtual reality will leave a lasting mark on the industry.