26 Nov 2018

Behind the scenes of NZ's VR film for Sundance

10:45 pm on 26 November 2018

Imagine putting on a headset and being transported to Rotorua and engrossing yourself in an emotional drama between two characters, only to then be sucked into the abyss of a blackhole.

It's an ambitious 18-month project, but researchers and students at Victoria University of Wellington's Miramar Creative Centre are creating a virtual reality experience called Minimum Mass which will be part of Sundance's New Frontier programme in 2020.

New Zealand filmmakers are no stranger to the internationally-renowned Sundance Film Festival, but for the first time ever they'll be playing a New Zealand film in VR.

Love, loss and blackholes is the tagline for film and director Raqi Syed said Minimum Mass will cover an emotional storyline about a couple experiencing the grief of miscarriage, but with a sci-fi twist.

Raqi Syed said viewers will be able to experience the film both as a spectator and as a main character.

"It's what I'm calling the Quantum Leap effect, where you can jump into someone's body and experience all of the emotional turmoil and the satisfaction that results out of that," she said.

Using inspiration from 1940s light artist, Thomas Wilfred and Rotorua's steamy thermal pools, they're creating a blackhole or void that the viewer will travel through alongside the lead character.

However, the toughest task will be getting the computer generated characters as realistic as possible.

Richard Roberts is in charge of the technology behind the VR experience and said a big challenge for him and the team will be to get the character's faces just right.

"So the challenges are around the rendering, how to get the lighting and quality of the skin looking realistic, as well as the animations, so the face needs to move in a way that's convincing.

"Unfortunately for us people are very adept at being able to see when something is wrong with facial expressions," he said.

Areito Echevarria was making sure the characters don't just look right, but feel right as well by playing with personal space.

"You can meet someone for the first time, there are these thresholds of closeness that you can experience with them, but if they start to move closer into your personal space that feeling changes quite dramatically, that's something we want to play with," he said.

Minimum Mass will be New Zealand's first Virtual Reality film to feature at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020.

Photo: Miramar Creative Centre

Regardless if they're created by computer software, every good film has needed good actors.

One of the school's Summer Scholars, Sean Pickersgill will be acting out the entire film in motion capture, and said acting for VR uses a mix of traditional film acting as well as stage acting.

"More traditional acting on screen you can get away with a lot more of your face, but theatre you've got to think about how you show those emotions with the body, you never know how far back the theatre audience will be," he said.

This film is only going to be 15-20 minutes, but in the VR world that's a massive undertaking.

VR experiences such as this could one day be as long as an hour as the technology improves - meaning this film is just the beginning of a whole new cinematic experience.