Director Jon Favreau explains the joys of virtual reality
Jon Favreau has done it all in Hollywood. The actor/writer/director/producer has succeeded across the entire film spectrum, having written and starred in hits like Swingers and more recently Chef in the indie world, while also orchestrated special effects-driven spectacles like Iron Man 1 and 2, Cowboys and Aliens and The Jungle Book.
Favreau recently added virtual reality creator to his list of accomplishments, teaming up with technology startup Wevr to create Gnomes and Goblins. This original fantasy world was conjured in Favreau’s mind after getting an early look at the recently released HTC Vive room-scale virtual reality platform. The $800 home VR system allows users to walk around and explore in the real world, while visiting virtual worlds like the tiny village inhabited by goblins. Gnomes and Goblins was built using the same video game technology that powers Gears of War 4, but the fantasy world isn’t a game. It’s an experience that allows users to connect with the inhabitants of this fantasy world as if they’re real.
Though still in the demo stage, Favreau says a complete experience will be available later in 2017. We spoke to him about his foray into interactive storytelling.
THE RED BULLETIN: Can you give us a sense of how big the world is in your head that eventually will come out in this Gnomes and Goblins experience?
JON FAVREAU: It’s going to scale with time. And if people continue to be enthusiastic about that experience I think there’s room for growth. What’s nice about it is that it’s an interaction back and forth between the user and the creators, so we could constantly check in and modify and build out as we determine how people are reacting. And because it’s such a young medium the feedback system is imperative because we ultimately are trying to create an experience that’s satisfying to the people who are adopting this technology.
How has your experience as a director of a lot of really big special effects-driven films like Iron Man and The Jungle Book helped with you bringing this VR world to life?
It gave me a language with which to communicate with the animators and artists. That was very helpful. A lot of the technology and motion capture is shared with VR. And what’s exciting is that the technology that was only available in expensive facilities is now available in your own home. So being able to use these professional facilities – and now they have the consumer grade product that had similar aspects to its pipeline – gave me insight into how to create for this medium. A lot of the people who were involved in the motion capture in Jungle Book were also involved in VR. That’s how I was introduced to it, through the motion capture people going over to Wevr. Andy Jones, our lead animator who had worked on both projects, ours and TheBlu; we went over and that’s when I first explored it. They were looking at how Valve was doing it and how Oculus was doing it.
How’s all of this exploration impacting how virtual reality is progressing?
Everybody is exploring using similar tools to use as both a storytelling tool and in our case a filmmaking tool. And as we’re moving forward into working on Lion King, you have all this technology available for us to customize our filmmaking pipeline taking full advantage what’s out there. Even in the consumer marketplace, it gives us tremendous options and flexibility to create a very customized filmmaking experience that fits into the way I like to work creatively.
With The Jungle Book you were able to explore VR through 360-degree video. What do you see the experience you’re having working on Gnomes and Goblins opening up as you look at VR for The Lion King?
It more speaks to the filmmaking process aspect that might be invisible to the viewer. But in the way we organize our pipeline leading to the way the images are ultimately rendered will give it more of a naturalistic analog filmmaking feel even though it’s ultimately digital. So there’s a lot of room for human input for scouting or creating locations and having game engine aspects to the pipeline. The creation of the film is going to have aspects that feel like a very complex video game in the way we actually arrive at the final film. As a storytelling tool it’s very helpful to have those technologies available to us to help us put together a new framework in which we can make movies. As far as the experience of working in VR on Jungle Book, we used assets that we had created for the film and were able to export many of those assets over to get a VR experience that felt very consistent with the movie. By the time Lion King comes out, I think there’s going to be avenues for you VR to be part of the theatrical experience. From what I’m hearing from people who are in the industry, there’s going to be more of a connection between the film experience and the VR experience because VR is now going mainstream as its own medium, as opposed to just a marketing tie-in in order to promote a film, which I think is limiting as far as the scope of what people see as the ultimate goal of that content.
We’re starting to see players like IMAX and Starbreeze get involved in location-based VR entertainment and VR arcades are starting to open up around the world. What opportunities do you see that opening up for your Gnomes and Goblins IP, or in general, as a storyteller?
It’s wonderful that people who aren’t in a position to make an investment on what’s required to be an early adopter for the technology, that they will still get the opportunity to experience all of this by just paying some sort of a rental fee. It feels more like going to a pool hall or a bowling alley. And that’s ultimately going to be very good for the technology because, as people become comfortable with it and we get feedback on those experiences, it will ultimately be like what video games were like when I was growing up. I started off with playing Space Invaders at the pizza shop and then I got the Atari at home eventually and now most gaming is in the house as prices came down. The technology got better and people became comfortable with the technology.
Invasion! from Baobab Studios was created purely as VR and then got optioned as a movie out of the blue. Have you thought at all about Gnomes and Goblins working in traditional storytelling as well?
Yeah, I think it would lend itself very well, but in a way it might short circuit the creative process because it was designed around exploring what VR does really well. Because it’s such early days in VR and it’s so hard to set up a strategy in which to explore VR content, what’s more exciting about Gnomes and Goblins is to continue to develop it as it’s geared towards this specific medium. Whereas it would be very easy to jump into a path that has been fully explored, and I enjoy animation and movies that are CG-based. But I feel like we need to see what this full experience feels like and then at that point we’ll see what the state of the industry is as far as VR goes. And hopefully we’ll be at the right point as this technology expands and captures the imagination of people, and Gnomes and Goblins will become one of those worlds that can grow and expand with the technology.