At this year's Cannes Film Festival, VR storytelling was still exploring rather conventional avenues, in pursuit of a market still struggling to shape its present. But what if the future of VR was not to evolve from film or television, but rather from theme parks, immersive theatre and escape rooms?
We sat down with Antoine Cardon, partner and head of innovation at leading French VR studio DVGroup and Yves Chevalier, one of its main investors, to find out about how DV plans to become a major player in the emerging industry of immersive entertainment.
DV – from mobile apps to virtual reality
DVMobile was born in 2011, as a technology-driven company specialising in mobile app development. With founders coming from gaming, research, startups and digital marketing, their DNA wasn't exactly on the creative side. The shift happened in 2013, when Red Bull challenged them to find a way to "teleport their users" to its live events.
In those days, there were no 360 degree cameras, no production tools, and no distribution platforms. DV built the full tech solution, and eventually ventured into content production, making over 70 films for Red Bull including some high-end projects with deep technical challenges, such as Stratos with Felix Baumgartner. DV soon became an established name in the field of 360 degree video, leading to the decision to bring all the required skills in-house, developing tools for spatial sound and stitching, and building a complete hardware and software pipeline to cover the production flow.
"After producing over 150 films, we already knew that 360 was a dead end for storytelling. It just doesn't work." says Cardon. "When the HTC Vive came out, we had an epiphany. Suddenly, you were inside that space, where VR actually works. It opened up a lot of narrative possibilities."
Fast forward to 2017. At Cannes last year, DV showcased Alice, a 20 minute virtual reality experience featuring live, motion-captured actors (above). Developed in under a month, Alice was only supposed to be a technical proof of concept aimed at the film industry.
It was eventually hailed as one of the most enjoyable immersive experiences ever made, before premiering to a wider audience in the Venice Film Festival's VR competition, and subsequently getting worldwide exposure on the festival circuit.
We're at a watershed moment… There are now more opportunities to develop ambitious content
Producing polished experiences such as Alice comes at a cost, though, and while film and television typically get funded by pre-sales and distribution deals, VR is still in search of a model capable of sustaining project development while attracting big names to address bigger audiences.
"We're at a watershed moment. The seven-figure deal for the Darren Aronofsky-produced Spheres at Sundance earlier this year comes as a strong signal for the industry. There are now more opportunities to develop ambitious content, through international co-productions and synergies between pioneering key players," adds Cardon.
For the emerging VR industry, there are many analogies with the early days of cinema, when studios were producing their own movies using their own technologies, and showing them in their own theatres.
"We are focused on building a studio, in the most traditional sense. We can produce our own content, attract top-level talent, and provide creatives with a state-of-the-art environment and tools," says Yves Chevalier, a former film distributor now operating Virtual Eyes, a holding company that has invested in several independent companies including DVGroup.
Over the past few years, DV has grown from 10 to over 55 employees, strengthening its position as one of the leading VR studios in Europe. While still independent, the group recently secured a first round of capital financing of €4 million, giving it the opportunity to sustain its original content creation business and develop its own franchise offer for entertainment venue professionals.
"Right now, our focus is to build a strong slate, to be ready for the launch of a content platform, which is where the biggest audiences will be. In the meantime, we're talking to other major producers who are experiencing the same issues," says Cardon. "We're not competitors, we're all developing bespoke technologies to make quality content and we're all struggling to get our productions funded. One of the ways we can address this challenge is by working together to syndicate our content to leading platforms such as Netflix or Amazon, providing them with a steady stream of the best content out there."
One shot, all the angles
Cannes 2018 was also the occasion for DV to showcase a new impressive proprietary technology called VolumeCapture, which captures real-time data and creates 2D and 3D models of a real scene, producing a unique source usable for traditional or 360 degree film, VR & AR experiences or video games.
Who said tech demos couldn't be entertaining? This one unfolded as the live shooting of a black and white Z movie, The Horrifically Real Virtuality, directed by Ed Wood (often referred to as the worst director ever) and starring Bela Lugosi (the original Dracula from 1931), both played by live actors.
Ushered on a tiny set by the director, I got to watch a few dramatically bad takes of a scene revolving around the ageing movie star, before donning a VR headset to find myself fully immersed in the sequence, playing opposite a real-time 3D rendered Lugosi, free to explore the set under every angle. All it took was one shot, with a single camera.
"This experience gives us the opportunity to help the film industry grasp what VR is and how it can be used," says Cardon. "It's also an opportunity to show industry professionals, directors, and producers the tools that already exist to create 2D and 3D volumetric content from the same capture device".
Before platforms become the main distribution channel for VR, though, content producers are focusing on the location-based model, inherited from film distribution. With only a handful of VR-equipped venues around the world, recouping investments remains a big challenge for producers. To this end, DV is using the advantages of being part of a larger group of companies to provide venue owners with original content, delivery systems, software, marketing assets, ticketing and maintenance.
Immersive theatre shows are usually sold out. There's a growing demand from people for alternatives to Hollywood blockbusters
But location isn't everything. It's more about crafting exceptional experiences that audiences are willing to pay for. For Antoine Cardon, ticket sales is one of the most promising business models to cover production costs. "We're taking cues from immersive theatre, from a whole range of premium, unique experiences such as Cirque du Soleil, Sleep No More or Punch Drunk. Although these shows have a price tag around $150, they're usually sold out, which proves there is a growing demand from people looking for alternatives to current Hollywood blockbusters."
In addition to submitting new VR works to the upcoming Venice Festival in September, the Paris-based studio is already at work on a new, hour-long immersive piece called Beyond, which promises unrivalled levels of immersion and personalisation.
In groups of 25, viewers equipped with virtual reality headsets will be able to move freely through a 5,400 square foot space offering dozens of different settings. Combining VR with physical infrastructures, sensory interfaces and live-action actors, the experience will allow visitors to interact with characters from the story, whose behaviour and dialogue react to what the audience members say, do and feel. Beyond is set to launch at the end of 2018.