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The future of visual effects and immersive content

The leading studio of digital effects and immersive experience look into the future and see VR, holodeck and mo-cap wonders

To celebrate the launch of our summer issue, Future Shock and the Barbican's Digital Revolution next month, we're devoting a day to the brave new world of digital. From the future of smell to radical Oculus Rift collectives, check back here throughout the day for more mind-bending glimpses into the future.  

"Wow, what does Framestore do?" Framestore's digital department founder Mike Woods is taken aback when I ask. It soon becomes clear that the better question to have asked would be what doesn't Framestore do? Traditionally known as being a visual effects studio, the 28-year-old company helmed by Sir William Sargent employs around 1,000 fiendish creatives who dabble in everything: producing content, creating visual effects for big-budget films (GravityAvatar), music videos (Pharrell's "Happy") commercials (Galaxy chocolate) and experiences (HBO Game of Thrones experience at SXSW), publishing apps, and forging new paths in the digital and immersive realm.

The day we arrive, they announce the opening of a VR and Immersive Content Studio. We grilled Mike Woods and Framestore's creative technologist Karl Woolley on what they see in the digital crystal ball.

With Gravity it kind of blew everything out of the water that came before it. Was there a secret to it?

Mike Woods: Alfonso Cuarón’s style is those long cuts. 3D films should be more like that because of the niceness of being able to look around. People come out of the cinema saying, ‘I don’t like 3D, it makes me feel sick.’ It’s not the 3D’s fault, your eyes are seeing in 3D right now. If you post-convert a film that was never intended to be shot in 3D – or didn't have a stereographer on set in what we call a depth script, which is looking where the point of focus is from shot to shot – you're going to feel sick. You're going to walk away thinking, ‘Eugh, that’s horrible’, and sadly the public equate that with 3D, not just a bad cheap film they’ve been to see.

That’s the great thing about Gravity, the way that the film was completely made in pre-vis form first before they even went on set to shoot is completely turning it around. And also the fact that it’s really difficult to pigeonhole. That was the risk that Warner Brothers took that really paid off – it’s not really Sci-Fi, it’s not really action, it’s not really romance. They were unsure where to position it. We didn't really know what it was and sometimes you’ve got to take a risk like that, people respond to that when everything feels different.

“If you post convert a film that was never intended to be shot in 3D, you’re going to walk away thinking, ‘Eugh, that’s horrible’, and sadly the public equate that with 3D – not just a bad cheap film they’ve been to see” – Mike Woods

Karl Woolley: There are a couple of rules with the 3D stuff that we’ve seen and we’ve learnt that make it work well. Why Gravity works so well in 3D is because a lot of the depth goes into the screen rather than popping out at you, which is the natural thing that everybody initially did with 3D. What almost very nearly killed it was the temptation to have popping, whizzing graphics, space dust and all this stuff coming out at you – that will make you feel sick.

Everyone seems to be jumping on the VR/Oculus Rift bandwagon. Is that the future of immersive visual content?

Mike Woods: I think that everyone else jumping on a good idea – we see that with everything. We're always aware of the dangers of too many people jumping on something for the sake of it. VR will go through that was well, like projection mapping when that’s all anyone ever wanted to do 18 months ago and now we don’t see a single request for it. The phone’s now ringing off the hook about VR and that’s what we’re prepared to put our neck on the line and say, ‘This isn’t going anywhere, this is just the start of a whole new way of doing stuff.’

Karl Woolley: We have a sense of responsibility with this. We don’t want to see what happened with 3D where it initially almost burnt out. There’s always that temptation with something new for a brand to want to create content and we’d like to work on everything creatively, but we also don’t want to see it suffer. So there are certain ways in which we only approach things, and if Mike says something is too out there and we think it’s damaging to the future of what we’re trying to achieve then we’d have to think about it.

What will be some horrible trends in terms of people embracing new technologies?

Mike Woods: I think there’ll be lots of entry-level rollercoaster type experiences for all the people that – it was like the first time you got your Nintendo Wii or your iPhone – there were things that best show off its capabilities first and foremost, and that is a wave that you ride out—

Karl Woolley: How many drinking pint apps were there? (laughs)

Mike Woods: Exactly. (mockingly) I’ve got something in my hand – what’s the best thing? Tennis! Let’s all play tennis, in fact tennis and bowling, they’ll come free with the machine!

So where are things headed?

Mike Woods: For us there are three or four things we’re doing at the moment, some of them involving live cameras which is super exciting, even potentially the ability to broadcast live into headsets, so the idea that you’re at a major sporting event – say, stood at the touchline – you’re actually sat at home with a headset on but I look out on to the pitch and I look around and up and I’m in the stadium and it’s just me.

That sounds insane but that’s not beyond the realms of very close possibility. The holodeck is something that we’ve already got working which is phenomenally exciting. So just with a Rift on your head tracking markers on the Rift, walking around a motion capture studio we can capture you fully. It's like Tron. We don’t have a commercial use for that yet. We haven’t got a client buying into that yet. That’s the eventual area this heads to; there are lots of genres it could work well with, and when I say genre I mean education or healthcare or anything, could get something out of it. That actual idea that you can walk around somewhere you’re not is super exciting.

“With a Rift on your head walking around a motion capture studio we can capture you fully. It's like Tron. There are lots of genres it could work well with, and when I say genre I mean education or healthcare or anything. That actual idea that you can walk around somewhere you’re not is super exciting” – Mike Woods

What do you think would be the next big feat that’s almost there but not quite?

Karl Woolley: No one's really done proper holograms yet.

Mike Woods: The holograms as they stand at the moment aren’t actual holograms, they’re Victorian 45-degree angle trickery. To project light and make it stop in mid-air would be quite exciting. Not relying on tricks of the eye or screens to make a hologram but actually making holograms – that would be pretty amazing, if we could find a way to do that.

Can you tell me about any projects that you’re working on now?

Mike Woods: I’d love to but I’d lose my job! Needless to say, everything we’ve talked about: holodeck variants, walking around, VR experiences, different types of VR experiences other than Oculus Rift ones that rely heavily on either live events or film material as opposed to the game engine material. All of these things are there on the table at the moment. We’re struggling to keep up with all of it. It’s a super exciting time, hence the new department which we don’t really know what we’re calling it yet.