Formed from a merger between Reel FX and Moonbot Studios in 2017, Dallas-based Flight School Studio is aimed at tackling virtual reality and other emerging platforms. And having just taken home the VR Awards trophy for VR Experience of the Year for their (first and original) experience, "Manifest 99," it's clear the creative collective is honing in on an elegant solution to VR's identity crisis: Should it be put to use revolutionizing the video game industry, offering a level of engagement and interactivity beyond the limits of the current technology, or is it best suited to enhancing narrative-driven works such as films and television shows?
Bohdon Sayre, Flight School’s Creative Director, and Adam Volker, their Game Director, talk us through how "Manifest 99" has it both ways, combining a compelling story with the interactivity of a video game.
On Founding Flight School
Adam: Flight School is formed from Reel FX and Moonbot Studios, and "Manifest 99" was our first project together, so we wanted to do something distinct and original. That’s kind of our mandate as a studio: to explore the possibilities of new mediums. All of our authors and creators are very comfortable working with new technologies and discovering what's possible rather than going over explored territory again and again.
That’s what our name is about: being at the forefront of new technology with a prerogative to keep learning, to keep pushing, to see how far we can get.
Bohdon: We like to say we’re forging through the emerging tech world, we don’t necessarily call ourselves a VR company. Yes, we'll tackle VR projects, AR projects, MR – all the R’s – but it’s about rolling with whatever new tech comes out, innovating and experimenting.
Adam: We wanted this company to be adventurous, to be daring and innovative, but at the same time, working in these emerging mediums, we knew there would be a learning process. That’s kind of what our name is about: being at the forefront of new technology with a prerogative to keep learning, to keep pushing, to see how far we can get.
The Flight School Hallmark
Bohdon: Originality of visual style is essential to us and it's something we actively look to achieve. There’s something to be said about continuing to innovate about the visuals of a piece in CG or VR.
Adam: Our creative leadership team gets together once a week to talk about the ideas we’re incubating, from every stage of production, and the question we constantly ask ourselves is, “What makes this a Flight School product?” We talk about it at length: Is it the character? Is it the art style? Is it the novelty of the mechanic? We come up with answers to each of those questions, and then those answers become our North Star, something to aim for. And even if we can’t articulate exactly what we’re after, we can usually look back and understand the choices we made through those questions.
Virtual Reality’s Identity Crisis
Bohdon: Because virtual reality technology is so powerful and innovative, and because it’s attracting content makers from all kinds of different industries, there’s this lingering question about its role. The filmmakers who come to the technology are running into problems that game developers have been familiar with for some time, and game developers are running into problems that filmmakers have grappled with for ages. It’s an interesting crossover. Is this a new medium or just a display technology? Could it be its own genre?
To me, VR is so structurally different that it just demands a new approach. I think of a Venn diagram, with VR at the center, sharing important elements with games and movies, but still unique enough to be its own thing. And the exciting thing is, we’re only scratching the surface right now regarding what’s possible.
If a VR creator is troubled with whether they’re making a game or a film, they’re asking the wrong questions.
Adam: I completely agree. If a VR creator is troubled with whether they’re making a game or a film, they’re asking the wrong questions. The technology is just so different that you need to ask yourself very fundamental questions about what will keep the viewer’s attention. If you just try to make a movie, you’re not using VR to its potential, and if you’re just making a game, you’re missing out on the story-telling aspects of VR. We take a more abstract approach, asking what’s right for our project, first and foremost.
Bohdon: "Manifest 99" was a collaborative effort, and from the beginning, we were shaped by our deadlines. We only had about two weeks to come up with the original concept, so we got together and threw around a bunch of ideas, always asking ourselves what works in VR and what doesn’t. We gravitated towards doing something a little spooky or eerie because we’ve seen how well the horror genre works with virtual reality, but we didn’t want to do horror, per se – just something in that realm. And then someone said, “A ghost train would be cool!” out of nowhere, and we just ran with it. What kind of lore would support a ghost train story? Day by day, brick by brick, we started evolving the concept into what it is now.
At that point, with the concept and the mood and the concept art, and some basic ideas for the mechanics, we started developing a more concrete story, something with a message and characters.
Adam: I’m very proud that "Manifest 99" ended up in that sweet spot between gaming and storytelling, and that had a lot do with our general approach. We had the concept, some drawings of animals in suits, and the train, and then we developed this warping mechanic to sort out how the user would experience our world. Then it became a matter of building from that base: what story can we tell most effectively, given this artwork and concept, and what kind of gameplay works best with this movement mechanic we’ve developed? Everything grew organically from that foundation.
The Movement Mechanic
Bohdon: Some of the basic questions you have to ask yourself when you’re working in VR are, how will the user interact with your project? How do you handle the cameras? In a film, the director has total control over what the audience sees, whereas, in video games, the user has a high degree of input. It’s not easy to tell a story if you sacrifice the filmmaker’s control, but at the same time, VR offers so much flexibility that you don’t want to limit the user experience.
We wanted to tell a story that’s straightforward and linear, but we also wanted to give the user some agency. We weren’t sure, initially, how to do that. We ended up taking a middle-ground approach, giving players a high degree of control over the camera and viewing angle, but limiting their movement via fixed teleportation points. A lot of VR games use this mechanic where you kind of point at the ground and then teleport to wherever you’re pointing. In "Manifest 99", we scattered crows throughout the train, perched on a luggage rack, or on the back of a chair. And if you look directly into the eyes of one of these crows for about a second, you’ll teleport to its location, and then you’ll see everything from that crow’s perspective. So you can kind of jump around to certain things, and crows will fly in and out. That allowed us to have this cool dynamic-yet-scripted control of the player’s perspective throughout the train ride.
Adam: There are two things about this mechanic that I think are particularly cool. The first is that you’re forced to look into the eyes of other characters – to see things from their perspective – and we found that people engaged emotionally with the characters because of that. It’s not something that we commonly do, in our day-to-day, when we’re interacting with people, so that was a happy accident.
The second thing that jumped out at me was that using these crows essentially allowed us to place cameras around the train. If you think about it from the perspective of a filmmaker, using this crow mechanic essentially allowed us to set up sequential shots to tell our story. When we started to think about it that way, the narrative potential of this mechanism struck us right away. We could highlight certain things we wanted the players to notice, for example. There’s one interaction I’m particularly proud of: a moment after a teleportation when the user sees the bear character for the first time. We wanted to make this a dramatic moment, so we purposefully built the set so that you can’t see the bear from the preceding crow, and then you teleport and he’s just in your face, confronting you. It’s analogous to a jump cut in a horror movie and just as powerful.
We had this teleportation mechanic in mind before we had the story fleshed out. The idea that came to us was this: a character who hasn’t considered that other people are sharing this train is forced by this teleportation mechanic to go back and acknowledge their existence, to look them directly in the eye and admit that he'd ignored them. He now has to go through this emotional shift in understanding to acknowledge these other characters and their relationship with him. That’s not something you see much of, in films or games.
The Development Process
Bohdon: This was our first VR project, but everyone on our team has worked with Maya and Max before. That familiarity was huge for us – it was the one constant in the entire production. Everything else was new to us, so it was constructive to be able to fall back on tools we’ve used before. We push Maya on people as much as we can because it’s just so well-known. We’re happy to let an artist do their modeling in Max but animation rigging and everything else is done in Maya.
Adam: The VR experience presents very new challenges. We were asking ourselves how to prevent the user from getting turned around or lost, or from getting motion sickness. It’s very tough to know in advance what’s going to work or not. When you put that headset on, you often discover that what you’ve created is very different from what you expected. Sometimes, we’d hit a barrier and have to rework something, but often we encountered something unexpected that just happened to work – happy accidents. So I think you need to be adaptable during development; you can’t expect to plan everything out to the last detail and have it work perfectly.
This was our first VR project, but...familiarity [with Max and Maya] was huge for us – it was the one constant in the entire production.
Bohdon: And with regards to adaptability, we worked with a very small team, and that helped us respond to challenges quickly. We even leveraged some of Reel FX’s entertainment team – feature film modelers and texture artists and such – so we had this hodgepodge crew, with game and film experience. We’re at about 30 people right now, but our CG team is just two or three people with a very generalized approach. They can do anything, from FBX to Engine.
The Future of Flight School
Bohdon: We'll stake out territory for ourselves in different genres and with different types of projects. We’re still doing short narrative things here and there, but we’re looking to do something bigger in the game segment – something that gamers are familiar with, that will hopefully lure more people into the VR medium.
Many are doing third-person narratives, but we’re looking into alternatives to that, different ways of portraying the relationship between the player and the character.
Then, of course, there are things within VR that we want to experiment with. Cameras and perspective are fun things to toy with. We’re also messing with the narrative of who you are as a player because that’s a constant discussion in VR. Many are doing third-person narratives, but we’re looking into alternatives to that, different ways of portraying the relationship between the player and the character.
Adam: I look to that emerging sweet spot between game and film as having the most potential. It’s so ill-defined, for the moment, so we’re happy to be breaking ground there. A lot of the obstacles at present have to do with the hardware, specifically its form factor. Once they figure that out, the possibilities are endless – everything from utilities to "Pokemon Go 2.0," or "Dungeons and Dragons in AR."
Bohdon: We do a lot of work for hire, for clients or branded collaborations, and that’s where a lot of the novel ideas come from. They’re constantly coming to us with interesting requests, pushing us outside our comfort zone – which tends to be centered around entertainment – and that’s great. We’re scratching the surface of this technology, so we’re excited to continue exploring its potential.