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An Interview With Elia Petridis And The Future Of Virtual Reality

Director Elia Petridis talks about virtual reality and creating movies for the nascent medium.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak to Elia Petridis, the founder of Filmatics Creative Services and the director of a brand new VR experience called “Eye for an Eye: A Seance in Virtual Reality.” The 12-minute horror film is one of the first movies filmed for VR, and it was created in conjunction with the VR content marketplace, WeVR. It works with phones and VR headsets, and tracks the angle of the viewer’s head. I tried it on myself, and it was pretty freaky stuff. The film was recently showcased at the Sundance Film Festival.

The director made the piece as part of an on-going transmedia series that begins with a short movie called “Henrietta.” Elia also wrote and directed the last film featuring Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine, The Man Who Shook The Hand of Vicente Fernandez.

I spoke to Elia about his new project, and as someone on the forefront of VR-driven entertainment, I just had to know his thoughts on virtual reality and where it’s headed.

Ian: Let’s talk about what you’re doing. I watched “An Eye for an Eye” on the iPhone. It was the first I’ve seen a VR movie, I’ve never seen anything like this before.

Elia: Did you pop on headphones?

Ian: No I didn’t. I should. Yeah I’ll definitely watch it again. The first time I watched it, I realized the camera was shaking. It took me a second to realize that I could use the camera to look around the whole area. That just blew me away, this is… that was like wow this is the future!

Elia: I am so privileged that your first VR experience was with us, that’s amazing! That really shows me… wow that’s crazy! So you just moved the phone and all of the sudden you were like “Wow!”

Ian: It was like you know Google Street View but taken to the next level! But that’s like you have to use a mouse and move around. But this its like you use the gyroscope on the camera. So I could actually look around to see, and I look at the sky, and I look behind me. It was freaking cool! So I have a bunch of questions. How did you film the VR experience exactly?

Elia: Everybody is doing it a bit differently. But in our collaboration with Wevr who is our distributor, they provided their patented rig. But for the most part, what it’s turning out to be is 4 Go-Pros, 4K Go-Pros, with 290 degree lenses, and it’s just 4 of them. Where it used to be 17, some people are doing 15, ya know. But the less cameras, the easier the stitch. The easier it is to stitch them together. 4 was just about enough for us. Now we have the Kodak Pro-sumer VR camera which is actually simply 2 Go-Pros with 290 degree lenses, which captures the whole thing. But this was shot with 4. 4 4K Go-Pros.

Ian: So you stitch all that together to achieve the 360 degree effect?

Elia: Correct. Basically, all the Go-Pros are delivered to you in orbs. So you have 4 little orbs together, and the unique VR 360 however you might term it, the uniqueness of that is, the wow factor of that is that they’ve managed to figure out how to very easily stitch those four things together to create an all-immersive space.

Ian: I assume that’s a lot of math involved.

Elia: Well yeah. But now there’s software that short-cuts it very quickly. A year ago when we made this, it was a big deal. Like it was more difficult than it is today because the technology is moving so fast. Even the Kodak now comes built Prêt à Manger basically. Like what you shoot, it comes with it’s accompaniment software that then stitches it for you, and outputs it for you. Where as a year ago, that was unheard of. It was all manually done.

Ian: So when you filmed it, you were basically filming all of it at the same time right? You didn’t have to film separately or anything?

Elia: For the most part, it is simultaneously shot.

Ian: So like when there’s a fan going on behind, like in Henrietta’s living room, that’s not actually put in later, it’s actually happening at the same time as the cast, right? When the cast is acting.

Elia: That’s a stagnant master. It’s a master shot of the scene. There’s no crew in that shot, I’m not in that shot, none of the lights show in that shot. It’s like a play. Then you do little Russian easter eggs. Like Russian dolls, for special effects. And candles going out – all the post is a bit complicated, but like for the most part it’s basically just three master scenes, and in you go. But that’s all changing honestly, because they’re finding out how to cut. How to do faster edits. They’re discovering how to shoot one camera at a time, and stitch that together. No one has done it yet, but everyone is headed in that direction.

Ian: I think when you shot an Eye for an Eye, it was all done in one take right? You see it as one take. That can be hard right? If somebody messes up, they say the wrong line, you have to do it all over again. It’s not as easy as doing jump-cuts, where a person can mess up and they would just edit it together, and they can just continue right?

Elia: Exactly right. That’s exactly right. So you want actors with really good theater experience. Let’s say you’re four-fifths through a scene, and somebody drops a line. That’s it, you’re fucked. The key to it is people ask me sometimes you know how do you shoot a good VR you know, what’s the trick to shooting a good VR? It’s rehearsal. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse, man. Table read, table read, table read. And then go in the space, and block it. Like most of the shoot, is weighted on the rehearsal. We don’t shoot many shots, obviously. We’re mostly rehearsing most of the time. Sometimes we’ll shoot the rehearsal, but just in case we get through it, we nail it.

But like most of the time it’s about the blocking, and doing the choreography and duh duh duh, and practicing and rehearsing when to freeze, when to blow out the candle, when to unfreeze, when to keep going and then we’re lucky if after 2-3 hours of rehearsing in that space, we’ll press record and we’ll get like 2-3 takes in the can. And then we’ll move on. That’ll be it.

Ian: That’s interesting.

Elia: Yeah it’s wild, because usually when you’re shooting movies you go in for an insert, you go “this is a close-up”, this is the establishing, this is the thing, and you actually shoot the scene for I mean actors hate us because it’s all hurry up and wait. But mostly you shoot the scene, and you get as much in the can as you can. But in VR you get as much rehearsal in the can as you can and then you know you just run the scene once or twice and get the master, you know.

Ian: We could potentially see VR theater in the future, couldn’t we?

Elia: You could. You could see like, you could put a camera on stage during Macbeth. You could, sure.

Ian: That’d be awesome.

Elia: I’m sure the West End will do that soon. Although does it ruin it? I mean to be a contrarian I would say that you know it’s nice to be – the fourth wall in theater is so intrinsically linked to the art form that it makes it nice. But with our VR piece and with others coming, there’s this element known as inclusion. So I guess if you were performing in a play to include the viewer in the play? That would be uniquely VR. That would be uniquely VR theater.

Ian: Yeah there’s nothing else like it, except maybe in video games right? Video games are the only medium to do that, right now.

Elia: Yeah exactly. I would just be sensitive about saying that it’s an alternative, but not a substitute, for theater you know. Because there’s nothing quite like going and sitting in the row and looking at the stage and seeing a play. You know what I mean?

Ian: That’s right. Everything’s framed in the way the director wants it to be framed.

Elia: Exactly, yeah yeah. It co-exists certainly. It will contribute to that experience, but it’s not a substitute for putting on a nice suit, and taking a friend out. Your girl out, your boy out, whatever. Getting a drink at the lobby bar, and then going into a theater and watching Macbeth and leaving with your head full. You know what I mean, and seeing a real human being in front of you, you know what I mean.

Ian: I notice that all of the scenes in an Eye for an Eye were essentially stationary. The viewer, first he or she is standing and then in the next scene, he or she is seated down in the chair. Do you think in the future, we could have a moving protagonist?

Elia: Of course you could. So take a look at the HTC Vive that’s happening now. They’re doing a lot of movement with CGI, because CGI is much more of a controllable element, where you can move around, and that’s mostly experiential but it’s weighted on the video game side as well because the HTC has avatars in your hand, joysticks that you can use to interact. But there’s something now coming out that they’re working on called photogrammetry. Which is real spaces you can walk and move around, not CGI.

Ian: I think I watched a video of that, like a preview of that a couple years ago on Vimeo. Someone was showing off a photogrammetry of them biking through town.

Elia: So the photogrammetry you can actually move within the map grid of your room, or where the lasers are mapped, blocking you in. You can move around that. Whereas two or three months ago it was only relegated to CGI, but now it’s expanding into that. So once that occurs, then it obviously opens up the door big time. But then you start to blur the line between narrative story telling and video game interaction.

Ian: Right like FMV could make a return. FMV as you know in the 90s was they used to film that stuff and it was cringy. But now I think if you could actually integrate the player into a real space, instead of a CGI space, I think that’d be very interesting. I mean you could do a detective story or something and you’re like walking around looking for clues and stuff, and it’s picking up real objects.

Elia: Sure, the artistic notion of pro-activity takes on a whole new life, in your own narrative. It has a whole new meaning now. But even in mobile VR, even the stuff that’s on mobile phones, first of all I think there’s talk that photogrammetry is going to catch up with mobile phones, so that you’ll be able to wear a headmount with your samsung Gear, or a headmount with your Google Cardboard, and you’ll be able to track photogrammetry on your cell phone. You won’t necessarily need the Vive, or your house.

But the other thing is that even in mobile VR there are things known like for example when this is published, an Eye for an Eye, it will come with something called the Focus Gaze, which is that you’ll be able to look into the painting across the room and you’ll be able to go into the bathroom where Marcus was murdered. That hasn’t been coded, it’s been stitched and ready to go, but it hasn’t been coded yet. Once they code it, that piece will have that element to it, and even just in mobile VR you’re able to activate certain portions of the screen, simply by resting your gaze on it for more than 3 or 4 seconds at a time to let the screen know that you’d like to explore that further, or you’d like to activate another inpoint, and then go into that inpoint experience, and then leave at an outpoint and go back to where you left off. So that’s kind of neat, that’s going to be awesome.

Ian: How does it work exactly? Does the device read your eye, and where it looks or something?

Elia: Yeah. Even if you go in the Samsung. So if you go onto like, even on a simple level – if you get a pair of Samsung Gear VRs, right? And you put in the phone, when it takes you to the store? Already the mousepad, the “click”, the little circle that represents a click? Is orbiting while you’re looking. It’s traveling with your eye. It’s headtracking. So you just take that simple element, if you made that little circle invisible, right? But then sort of activate a portion of the frame once it rested on it? So let’s say like for example you’d look at Claudette across the room, the painting with no eyes? And then because you’d rested on it, it would start to glow. Right?

You’d feel like “Oh, that’s cool, because I’m looking at it,” but actually the code is that there’s a little mouse, there’s a little orb that’s traveling with your eye. So once that orb, between timecode let’s say for shits and giggles (I don’t know the timecode) let’s say between timecode 3:40 and 4:10, if your mousepad is resting on Claudette? Claudette will start to glow. Let’s put it this way – between 3:00 and 3:40, Claudette will start to glow, to let you know you might want to look at her. Now, if you look at her, any time between then up until about 4:30, it will change the inpoint. Because “ahh now I know he wants to go somewhere else” BOOP it will take you to the bathroom. Right?

And then it will play that section of it for about 25 seconds. And then the outpoint will click in, and you’ll go back to the place from which you left. Back to your inpoint, and then the narrative continues. But the alchemy to that is that you want to make sure in that window of the focus gaze, that the narrative is able to pause. That should you come back, you don’t miss anything. You won’t miss a stitch. You won’t miss like, a narrative turn. You know what I mean? That’s why our focus point is where she’s saying “an eye for an eye, the dead don’t lie” she says it like 3 or 4 times before anything happens. So that’s where the focus gaze occurs. We give them about 45 seconds in that so that they’re not missing much by going in. You see? They’re not afraid they’re gonna miss much, and then they come back out, and then the table shakes and whatever and the story continues. So it’s a melding of all disciplines, honestly.

Ian: It is. This is a new frontier. There’s really nothing else like this right now.

Elia: Wait till you see what we do next, it’s gonna FUCKING BLOW YOUR MIND.

Ian: Oh yeah! I’m sure it will.

Elia: We’re gonna have tons of fun. Yeah I don’t know if Anders sent you – do you know that the seance is a piece of trans-media that there’s a short film companion to it?

Ian: Yeah I watched that as well.

Elia: Ok! Brilliant, so that’s what Filmatics specifically is interested in, is we really love trans-media, ya know. We love VR, but we love VR as it co-exists with other elements of media, because it gives you more possession of the VR space. It gives you more emotional connection with the object, with the props, with the characters, because all of a sudden you’re with them ya know?

Ian: Right. I feel like I’m invested in Henrietta’s story. Right? She wants to find eyes for the boy. The boy she accidentally killed.

Elia: Exactly. So if you show Eye for an Eye on it’s own, you get a very different reaction. It’s a valid reaction, but you get a very different processing of that content, whereas if you show them both together. That’s the richness of trans-media, is that you can keep revisiting the same content, when you know further pieces of that content.

Ian: I watched an Eye for an Eye first before I watched the prologue, and my reaction was that she’s kind of evil. She was just killing people to get their eyes. That was my reaction, and then later when I watched the prologue, it was like “oh she’s actually quite a sympathetic character,” and the ghost is not quite a bad guy. You know, he’s kind of demented. But he just wants to pass over to the next world.

Elia: Yeah. Thank you! That’s exactly what we want. That’s exactly the result we want. It warms my heart that you would say that. Because you process the same content in two very different ways. Now we’re getting interesting, you know what I mean. That’s kind of neat, because imagine being motivated to revisit that content, over and over.

Ian: It lets me see Heniretta as the character in different light.

Elia: Yeah absolutely.

Ian: Is this all for Henrietta? Or does she have a next part? Because I’m interested in the story, where’s it gonna go next?

Elia: There’s a song called “If I had a ribbon bow” that plays in both pieces. That song is sung by – the featured vocalist, it’s composed by Ruy (Folguera), and so “If I had a ribbon bow” is an old standard that’s sort of public domain. But this arrangement is by the great composer Ruy Folguera, who’s working out of here in LA. But it’s a featured vocalist is Jesca Hoop, whose kind of a really up and comer, she just made an album with Iron and Wine, who’s doing all that jazz. But that song, in our world, has a backstory. And that backstory exists in prose form, right? Meaning, I’ve always cast my eye on how to expand this world.

So when it goes out, WeVR and Filmatics are ironing out when it’s going to go out, we’re not quite sure. We’re thinking Halloween but we’re not quite sure yet. When it goes out, depending on how many people interact and there’s a demand for further storytelling? There’s plenty of story left to tell. Believe me as a Creative, I have at least three or four more stories I want to tell in this space.

Ian: That’s fantastic!

Elia: Thanks for loving it, it means a lot to me.

Ian: It was good! It was very unique, very innovative. I have never seen anything like this before. It was a one of a kind experience, at least for now. Other people in the space are probably gonna come up with their own stuff, and I’m really keen on seeing all of this.

Elia: There’s some good stuff, like Google just announced yesterday that their platform called Daydream was going to come out on Androids. Which is sort of like a platform for VR. You know because they do the Cardboard which is the hardware. But now they’re gonna do the software. Which is the app, to go get VR content. So there’s big players in the game. It’s not going anywhere. It’s not a fad, I don’t think.

Ian: Facebook is running Oculus.

Elia: Yeah Facebook and Oculus, and Samsung, and Google.

Ian: Doesn’t Google have like a $500 million dollar thing? Like a VR space or AR space or something?

Elia: Yeah. I think they have something called storyteller spotlight, or story spotlight, something like that? I would encourage you, I mean it’s great to tell narrative in VR, and Filmatics is all about cinematic VR, but man there’s some fucking awesome tours in VR, there’s some awesome live music VR, Verse have an awesome YouTube music video on VR. YouTube 360 is amazing. The Martian is amazing. Try and get yourself like a Samsung Gear VR, and go explore, because it will blow your mind. You like video games, huh?

Ian: One more question. Where do you see the medium headed in the next five years? As more and more people pick up all these devices, like a Samsung, HTC, and Oculus Rift.

Elia: I don’t know about the next five years, but I see ultimately the metaverse will happen. Where you’ll spend as much time in VR, as not in VR. I think that might be Facebook’s REAL play, in that space.

Ian: Like Ghost in the Shell? Where everybody is seated around a virtual conference table or something?

Elia: Well yes. Skype will be a whole different thing with VR, and they already have communal VR hangouts. Where you can have an avatar and hangout in VR. It’s going there. So I think things like news and tourism and with the medical narrative, all of this are sub-VR. I think the big VR impact will be on lifestyle.

Ian: Like MTV’s cribs, right? You could do a virtual tour of somebody’s house.

Elia: Yeah. But also just like global. Imagine you and I, if we were hanging out in VR, we would hang out a lot. Like literally holograms. It’s unfair to say that, that line between augmented reality, where the reality impacts the space you’re looking at, and virtual reality, where you actually enter a new space, this is going to be interesting. How these two conversations, swap notes. Because eventually they’ll merge, or eventually one will overtake the other.

Ian: Like a hologram, or a virtual body or something like that.

Elia: Each one will find its place in the other. I think VR in terms of escaping to a whole new place and leaving yours behind, is very powerful.

Ian: That’s what video games are for.

Elia: Yeah. It’s not gonna like AR is gonna eliminate VR, and that’s just gonna be it. I don’t think that’s gonna happen. But it’s funny they both came out of the gate at the same time.

Ian: They did. The hololens was a surprise to most people because everybody is talking about VR, and then suddenly Microsoft said they’re gonna do a VR thing, and turns out that’s it not VR it’s AR.

Elia: If you read the Tipping Point by (Malcolm) Gladwell, they’ll talk about how fads and trends occur. Where we are in the tipping point of VR, is that we are in the early adopter phase. Everybody getting on board is early adopter. But soon it will tip, and it won’t be a early adopter thing. It will be a commonplace household thing. Like a phone. And I think that’s the next five years. Is the migration from early adopters, to large amounts of users. And the five years after that we’ll see. Then we’ll see. But that’s the first step. The first phase is to crossover into a big audience. Then the sky’s the limit.

Ian: We could do anything.

Elia: Is it a bubble? We’ll see.

Ian: I don’t think it’s a bubble. I mean like they called video games a bubble. Right? It crashed once, but that was because Atari was being stupid. But video games as a medium never actually died. They never actually went away. It just got better. It became too saturated at one point, but then it got better, you know. The good games, the Nintendo games stood out, and then the industry picked itself up and I think the same thing is going to happen here. It’s not going to be like 3D TVs. Those are gone, those are dead. They don’t even make them anymore.

Elia: I’ll tell ya, in the five years I think, just giving it some thought, what VR is really missing, you know I say this a lot but, I’ll say it again. What I’m hearing in VR is that there’s a lot of bottles and not enough wine. In the next five years, someone is going to make, both in video games – in each sector, video games, empathy, tourism – someone is gonna make wine. Like someone is going to make, some FUCKING great content, that supersedes, that eliminates the fact it’s on VR. It just happens to be great FUCKING content. You know what I mean? That’s going to create people, to go from early adopters into a massive audience, and to go see this content. You know, like word of mouth, and catching on. Cause it’s – people will just be like “I want to see it. I don’t care it’s VR. I don’t care that it’s VR. I just care that this content is brilliant.”

Ian: A killer app, so to speak.

Elia: Well yeah but like a killer movie, or a killer experience, or just something where people are like “You gotta see this.”

Ian: You gotta see this regardless whether you own this or not. To borrow somebody’s VR and that will force them to adopt it. They’ll experience that, and they’ll think “oh okay. This is good. I want more of this.” And then they’ll go buy themselves an HTC Vive, and then maybe by then you won’t need like a $1500 computer to run it. It will be a lot cheaper because right now graphics cards like the 1080 was just released for the PC, and it’s like twice as fast as the fastest card right now, and it comes out at the end of the month, and it’s cheaper than what’s out right now. So they’re making like incredible advancements in terms of technology, eventually phones will have that capability. In five years, phones will be as powerful as computers are today.

Elia: Yeah agreed. But also keep in mind you will start to see where the art drives the tech instead of the other way around.

Ian: Yeah, right. Right now it’s the tech driving VR, right? But you can start to see there are certain pieces of art right now that are driving the tech. Like Uncharted 4 recently came out for the Playstation 4, and you know it’s like a work of art. DOOM for the PC. You know it’s like the technology is already at it’s limit, but this game pushes it further. It’s like instead of just being a pretty game that’s kind of crappy to play or something.

Elia: Yeah I think that’s the next five years. At some point, Tarantino will make a piece of VR that will make people go “Holy FUCKBALLS let’s go!” Something will happen where the medium takes a backseat. That’s what I think, that’s my two cents about it.

Ian: It will become cheaper as they manufacture more and more of them.

Elia: Sure. Even the cardboard does. What is it? Two dollars, six dollars. Like each apparatus is more immersive. You know like, so the Gear VR is more immersive than the cardboard, or the Vive is more immersive than the Gear. I mean there are like you know hierarchy of immersion you know. But you can start at the bare minimum, is you can go on YouTube 360 and look at stuff in your laptop. So there’s all sorts of places for VR to end up.

Ian: I’m really looking forward to the future. I mean I wanna see what else comes. Not just in terms of video games, obviously. But in terms of movies, music, whatever.

Elia: There’s not much presence in Malaysia yet, huh? For VR?

Ian: Not really no.

Elia: Not really huh? Well that’s interesting too. You know these Prosumer cameras, you go buy a Kodak – they’ll ship it to you, it’s relatively cheap, it’s about $800, and it comes with 2 cameras, the legs, and the software for $800. Which is great, and you can just start shooting VR and put it up on YouTube 360. But there’s a difference between 360 and VR. 360 is simply the capturing of a space in 360. VR, like an Eye for an Eye, has like positional audio, that turns with your ear, that follows your ear. It has special effects, it’s been color corrected, it has sound design – the wind that goes through your ear and all that stuff is all. So ya know it’s the difference between a film and a movie: VR is more film, 360 is a movie, they’re both great and all, but like VR is just a little bit more complicated, it’s a little bit more immersive, it’s a little bit more emotional, it has a little bit more moving parts, structure and art form to it. Whereas 360 is 360, you can go shoot 360… shit we’re shooting a piece of 360 every week at Filmatics. So the sky’s the limit.

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