In this, the first in a series of posts ahead of MIPTV 2018’s unprecedented focus on immersive content, we speak to Jonathan Flesher, Head of Business Development & Partnerships at Baobab Studios, one of the world’s leading virtual reality (VR) animation studios.
MIPBlog: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us what brought you into the VR/AR/immersive space?
Jonathan Flesher: I am Vice President of Business Development and Partnerships at Baobab Studios. What that means is that I handle most business-related activities for Baobab, including relationships with hardware and software platforms, distribution and licensing of our content, and co-financing of new projects. Before joining Baobab Studios, I worked for over a decade in the video game industry, primarily at Electronic Arts and Zynga.
I joined the VR/AR industry because I’m convinced that we are seeing the next evolution of the computing interface, often called visual compute. VR and Baobab specifically allow me to combine my love of animated storytelling with the interactivity of video games. I also had the opportunity to join a team I know and respect: Maureen Fan (CEO and former head of the Farmvilles at Zynga), Eric Darnell (CCO and former writer/director of Dreamworks’ Madagascar movies) and Larry Cutler (CTO and former global head of character technology at Dreamworks). There is no better place to be than doing something you truly love that is at the centre of a technological evolution with a great team.
> What are the biggest challenges VR producers and content creators are currently facing?
Right now, the VR industry is facing two main challenges: broad consumer adoption of headsets, and a large catalogue of high quality content. It’s the classic challenge of launching a new platform. Headsets are getting better and cheaper, but are still early on in the technology curve and consumer adoption. I’m really excited for the new stand alone headsets – Oculus Go & Santa Cruz, Vive Focus and Lenovo Daydream. These will help make VR more accessible in terms of cost and ease of use, where you don’t need and aren’t tethered to an expensive PC. On the content side, we need to see more creators getting into the space, especially the big media companies, to delivering the types of experiences consumers want, creating a large library of content to choose form.
> How easy or difficult is it currently to sell immersive content? Do VR/AR entertainment companies have dedicated buyers yet?
For creators of high quality content, it is relatively easy to sell directly to consumers through the major VR platforms. Great content will always find an eager audience. However, selling immersive content to media buyers is still in its infancy and still has a way to go before it starts to resemble the mature markets of film and television.
It is heartening to see some recent activity in the space with million dollar acquisitions of VR projects. Much of the focus of the industry right now is driven by interest in location based entertainment, often called LBE or VR theatres/arcades. LBE is providing access for consumers to VR headsets without having to make an upfront investment. It is a good way for consumers to try out VR, as headsets are still relatively pricey.
> Could you share some of the key learnings from your own VR projects?
VR is a brand new narrative medium that necessitates a completely new language for storytelling. The language for film and television has been developed and refined over the past century. If you go to any film school around the world, you will learn the same things – hard cuts, soft cuts, pans, zooms, etc.
In VR you have no frame, so much of that is thrown out the window in your production. The viewer determines when and where they will look in a 360 degree environment and as a director, you have to encourage the viewer through things like staging, lighting, sound, and character interaction, to look at what is important. Pacing is different because you need to give viewers time to get accustomed to the environment and explore, which may feel frustrating for directors from other mediums.
> What are the three most impressive VR/AR/immersive productions you have seen recently and why?
I’m a fan of the projects that Chris Milk’s Within and Felix & Paul have been bringing out. They are mainly live action with strong stories creating compelling experiences. I also really like what French director Mathias Chelebourg did with his immersive VR theater piece Alice at the Venice Film Festival this past year. It combines VR technology with traditional immersive theatre, including mocap actors and objects, to create a truly wondrous experience.
> Some may fear VR is the new 3D, i.e. that it will never catch on for widespread domestic use. Why do you think it’s here to stay?
3D glasses never held the broad ranging promise to fundamentally change how we interact with computers, so in my mind is not a valid comparison. Visual compute on the other hand, which includes VR / AR / MR (mixed reality) or as some are now saying xR, has tremendously broad reaching applications for both consumers and enterprises. I believe that visual compute will eventually have an order of magnitude greater impact on our lives than what mobile phone have had. For me, it is not really a matter of if, but a matter of when, VR headsets will reach mass adoption with consumers, which brings us back to your first question.
Jonathan Flesher speaks at the “True VR: Gearing up for an Interactive Watching Experience” panel at MIPTV, April 10. Full details here…