Talk to anyone in the virtual reality (VR) industry, and the first buzzword you hear is immersion. Talk to Patrick Milling-Smith of VR production studio Here Be Dragons, and you hear presence, empathy, experience, agency. It is clear that Here Be Dragons is after something bigger than immersion.
It’s an ambition, goal, destination and result that becomes apparent as soon as one of Dragons’ works begins to play. It’s the vivid presence of a Holocaust survivor as he makes his final visit to the concentration and extermination camp where his parents and sister were murdered, in “The Last Goodbye.” It’s the horror of watching the man in art installation Real Violence take a baseball bat to a dummy’s head before proceeding to bash its lifelike face in. It’s the breathless drama of an all-night crime spree as experienced through the viewpoint of the 911 operator in VR miniseries Dispatch.
“We don’t want to make tech demos,” Milling-Smith says. “Our goal is to move people—make them feel something.” When it comes to VR, the moment Milling-Smith felt something was the first time he saw “Hello, Again.” In the interactive film, 360-degree cameras, 360-degree binaural audio, facial tracking—and more than 160 musicians—bring Beck’s cover of the David Bowie song “Sound and Vision” to life. “It was a light-bulb moment. It felt as close to an amalgamation of live theater and the craft of cinema as I had yet seen,” says Milling-Smith—high praise considering that he helped bring the Tony Award–winning musical Once to Broadway.
Today, Milling-Smith is chief executive officer of Here Be Dragons, which has offices in Los Angeles, New York and London. Formerly known as Vrse.works—which Milling-Smith cofounded with Brian Carmody and Chris Milk, the Henry Ford of VR, in 2014—Here Be Dragons may sound familiar to those who love old maps; the phrase refers to the uncharted territory beyond the mapmaker’s ken. Along with sister company Within, Here Be Dragons is pushing hard to explore that new territory and tell the truth, whether it be from the slums of Liberia or the streets of New York.
But if you want the truth, prepare to work for it.
IT'S HARD WORK TO MAKE A WORLD
Stop reading for a second. Take a look around you. Your binocular sense of depth perception is created automatically thanks to stereopsis, when your brain integrates the differences between the left eye’s image and the right eye’s image. Replicating your sense of depth in VR requires thousands of separate photos all stitched together into a seamless whole using a technique called photogrammetry. The result fools the brain and creates a believable sense of space—one that you can move through in VR with an accurately rendered perception of depth. For Justin Denton, technical creative director at Dragons, the payoff comes when VR “mimics our expectation of the real world; so if an actor drops an object, you can look under the table to see what it is.”
Kate Wurzbacher, Dragons’ head of camera, helps make that possible. The custom 360-degree stereophonic camera rigs she designs resemble Hydras with wide-angle lenses. They enable Dragons’ filmmakers to venture below the ocean and above the atmosphere.
Ola Björling, creative technical director at Dragons, says, “This is not good old storytelling. You are entirely inside the medium. VR is happening to you in the here and now. It’s a fundamental difference. The story becomes an experience. When you add the concept of agency,” in which a viewer’s actions or intention produces a particular result, “the viewer becomes a participant.”
“It’s a false assumption that VR will follow cinema and cinematic storytelling techniques,” Björling says. “But, for now, that is our toolkit. So we need to look to computer games and immersive theater and pick out the jewels.”
Created to support the United Nations’ advocacy to build resilience in vulnerable communities, “Clouds Over Sidra” follows Sidra, a twelve-year-old living in Jordan in the Zaatari refugee camp, a place that displaced Syrians call home. The immersive VR storytelling puts you in Sidra’s world as she takes you through the camp. Milk created the piece with Gabo Arora, a creative director and senior advisor at the United Nations. By using Vrse tools that Milk helped invent, they removed the frame, eliminated the TV set and created an experience that takes you there, to Zaatari. You sit in a tent with Sidra. You’re there with her during class, on a soccer pitch, at a meal. The result is a deep, profoundly felt sense of human connection.
“Clouds Over Sidra” premiered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2015. When it was shown later that year at the seventieth session of the United Nations General Assembly, Milling-Smith remembers that 85 percent of the attendees who tried the pop-up experience were moved to tears. “And the rest were heartless bastards,” he adds, only half-jokingly.
NEW RULES FOR A NEW MEDIUM
On a brilliant fall day in Manhattan, there’s a palpable sense of ferment among the creatives at Here Be Dragons’ office near the Flatiron Building—a feeling that each new film is a chance to invent something new and push the medium forward.
“We’re at the Lumière brothers moment,” Milling-Smith says, “the moment when the train comes into the station.” Despite the roster of breakthrough experiences the company has made—for the National Geographic Channel, the New York Times Magazine, Oculus, the United Nations and the USC Shoah Foundation—Milling-Smith says that Here Be Dragons is just getting started. “We’ve only used ten percent of the capacity of what VR can accomplish.” As more tools are developed and new display technologies are rolled out, VR creators will be able to tap into the remaining 90 percent—not that Here Be Dragons is waiting.
“In a world where people are doing tech demos, we work with Kathryn Bigelow,” says Edu Pou, executive creative director at Dragons. Bigelow, the Academy Award–winning director of The Hurt Locker and Detroit, worked with VR creator Imraan Ismail to tell the story of the rangers who defend the elephants of a national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo against deadly ivory poachers. “The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes” premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival as National Geographic Channel’s first-ever VR documentary short film.
Milling-Smith is talking with movie studios that need marketing pieces, along with a handful of brands—including banks, credit card companies, AT&T, General Electric, Nike and Samsung—helping them understand how VR can help them reach consumers. He also had the strategic vision to bring on Allese Thomson as head of the fine art experiential division at Here Be Dragons. Thomson, a former associate editor and contributor at Artforum.com, has already made her mark at Dragons, helping to produce Real Violence, artist Jordan Wolfson’s groundbreaking—and notorious—VR installation at the Whitney Biennial. Working with artists isn’t just good for art’s sake. It’s also good business and a powerful vehicle for research and development. “Artists think in mediums, while filmmakers think in narrative,” Thomson explains.
Her job, as she sees it, is to put the tools of VR in the hands of visionary artists “whose minds exceed their mediums” and then ask them, “If you could do anything, what would you do?” What’s amazing to Thomson is that she can work with artists to develop ideas and then turn to Pou and the engineers at Dragons to “transform [those ideas] into VR that makes sense for a brand.” “When we’re together, everything falls into place,” Pou says. “We’re stronger together. Like the Avengers.” If there is a secret sauce at Dragons, Pou may have captured it best.
“Everything we do is at the service of our creative team and the story they want to tell. If a director says, ‘I need to get closer to create a sense of empathy and intimacy,’ we’re not going to tell them, ‘Well, the best practices say to set up your camera rig six to twelve feet away, then get out of the line of sight.’ We’re going to build our own camera that gets them closer,” Milling-Smith says. “On the other hand, if a director says that we need to tell a story with a big-picture perspective, we rig a camera in a helicopter and shoot over Manhattan to take it all in.” That’s just what Here Be Dragons did for “Walking New York,” a VR film that shows how French artist JR created a 150-foot-tall art installation for the cover of a special issue of New York Times Magazine. In the film, a helicopter eventually takes you above the Flatiron plaza, where the installation was pasted, so you can peer down at the piece yourself.
As Milling-Smith says, “There is nothing more exciting than telling directors new to the medium what they can achieve with it.” ca