We speak with Andy Rowan-Robinson, Creative Director and Head of CG at Framestore VR Studio, about the evolution of storytelling, interactivity and the potential to build out worlds within a VR experience.
Having created companion experiences for blockbuster movies like Interstellar, The Avengers and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – not to mention the incredibly successful television series, Game of Thrones – they’ve learned a thing or two about expanding the narrative and adapting stories in spaces where they haven’t been told before.
A Graphorn: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" VR experience. Image courtesy of Framestore VR studio.
THE EVOLUTION OF VR STORYTELLING
In its infancy, virtual reality was perceived as a gimmick, too new to be useful but novel enough to draw a crowd. As the technology improves, however, artists and storytellers are beginning to appreciate its true potential.
"It’s becoming more and more about extending the story and that’s really a great direction. Now people are starting to think about how to use VR to add something to the whole story. How can we use this as an additional thing? And even maybe the primary thing, in the future?"That evolution is happening in no small part thanks to visual effects artists like Andy who are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
"We’re storytellers and we tend to think big. That's what’s great about working in visual effects and working with software like Maya; it allows us to think outside the box and push the boundaries of storytelling. We don't just take what we've got and transpose it to VR; we ask if we can do something extra to take it further. There is so much potential to enhance and explore emotional triggers and responses with virtual reality."
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
One of Framestore’s recent projects was a companion piece to a Warner Bros. adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s latest novel, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." It gave them the opportunity to showcase what VR can do for storytelling.
"It’s an example of extending the story because you’re able to be a wizard with a wand. You’re tasked with looking after Newt’s beast while he’s away. First, you go into this introductory space which is kind of like a shed with trinkets and posters and artifacts; it's a fascinating area because there’s a lot of interactive things that we built into it. There are things you can touch with the wand and the controller gives you a level of play that’s really nice to have. And then there are various puzzles that we put in, which unlock different creatures that you can interact with."
Exploring the shed: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" VR experience. Image courtesy of Framestore VR studio.
TECHNIQUES AND CHALLENGES
Still in the early stages of development, there are hard limitations as to what can be done. But part of what artists like Andy bring to the table is the experience to play within those restrictions.
"The first decision is always whether to go real-time or pre-rendered. If you go pre-rendered, you can really render a lot of fantastic beauty and visual fidelity to the piece because you’ve calculated all that. Whereas if it’s real time, you’re limited a little by hardware.
We’ve developed some clever techniques where we combine pre-rendered things like the backgrounds and the kind of spheres that we do for the environments with carefully placed, integrated real-time objects. So we’re able to build in a nice level of fidelity and you’re seeing something that’s close to photorealistic, if not photorealistic. It looks so beautiful that you’re that much more convinced that you’re really there."
One of the biggest challenges has to do with the pace at which this technology is developing, and the variety of software and hardware solutions in the market.
"That’s what’s cool about VR; there’s always something to learn. It’s at that stage where it’s very young still, even though we’ve been doing it for years. There are always new challenges because the premises are always changing and new hardware is always coming out. There are forever new things to pick up and learn and new things to take advantage of."
From the 2016 "Game of Thrones" VR experience. Image courtesy of Framestore VR studio.
INTERACTING WITH THE STORY
For Andy, as for VR fans everywhere, the real benefit of this technology is the interactivity, the ability to immerse yourself in a world someone else has created.
"What’s key about [VR] is the interaction. When you add the interaction to experiences, it gives you a whole new level of engrossment. It’s just fun. Even simple interactions add a whole lot more to the experience – just being able to point at something and have it change is really nice. This rich potential of interacting with the story in VR is what makes this medium such an exciting one right now."
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Huge thanks to Andy Rowan-Robinson and Framestore VR Studio. We couldn’t take this Journey to VR without you!