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Fake worlds: the future of visual effects

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Virtual reality, animation and visual effects are finding their way to all aspects of how we absorb culture, from TV shows and ads, to shopping and more. As head of VFX for Manchester-based television facilities company dock10, a specialist in VFX for producers such as BBC and ITV, Chris Baker has seen firsthand the seismic shift in the kind of projects the studio is being asked to create, and here shares his insights to how this might evolve in future.

I think a great sign of the times is an app game we made recently for The Furchester Hotel, the British spin-off of Sesame Street on CBeebies. Virtual reality has grown massively for us in the past couple of years, as has 360 degree video, but this particularly project stood out for me as it’s aimed at six-year-olds and younger.

Dock10 has a circular set, so we filmed the app in the round. We stuck a camera in the middle and added the ceiling with a bit of jiggery pokery, and created a kind-of peekaboo game with all the characters: Big Bird, Elmo, the Cookie Monster, that you ‘found’ just by looking at them. It uses gaze technology, which most VR relies on, and for kids it’s totally intuitive.

Most VR at the moment is for gamers, but most kids use iPads. In fact a recent report by the University of London said that 92% of toddlers regularly used iPads, which seems incredible but shows how the industry might change.

We’ve also been asked a few times to make a virtual store, and we’re working on one at the moment for a client. For example you might like to look at trainers in 360 view, swipe to see the next pair, see what they look like on you, in different colours. Amazon are already trying this out, as the New York Times reported in January, looking to install in-store VR hubs where shoppers can see what products might look like in their homes.

Already in existence, and being developed, are gloves to be used with virtual shopping, which could allow you to judge the weight and 3D space an object occupies. That gets you pretty close to the real thing, although it’s still missing smell and texture – but it’s not impossible.

Fast fashion brands are constantly on the lookout for the next thing, because the audience is attention-poor, so brands are looking for new innovative ways to sell stuff.

Topshop did a VR catwalk in its Oxford Street store a few years ago, and since then dock10 has been asked to take that a step further. One big fashion brand we’re working for has no seasons, they have a constant stream of new items being released every week, so they are less cyclical than traditional fashion, they are looking for instant communication with their customers.

They, like many others I’m sure, want to be the first to the next big thing, so it’s a race to get there.

I think a major change that’s happened recently is that 360 VR is widespread. It has been around since the 80s, but it’s the access to it that’s more mainstream nowadays. Plus video quality is so much better now, the price is coming down, and the cameras themselves are more accessible to smaller production houses, whereas it used to only be realistic for huge studios to buy them. Ten years ago slow-mo cameras were just for scientists, they cost quarter of a million quid. Now it’s tens of thousands.

For a long time the problem was matching the creative to the technology. What always happens with new tech is that people use it just for the sake of it. Now, as the audiences see it more, it has to progress into something more engaging, an output that genuinely heightens the idea. I think the now that smaller studios and creatives have access to the tech, it has put a rocket behind innovation in the field.

3D rendering, for example, is going through a big change. It used to take forever and use hugely expensive computers and large teams to render projects, but now people can do it in their bedroom on a laptop, as quickly as a post house. For the VFX industry, that means people like us need to offer something more, because of competition from smaller independents. Anybody can get the software, but we have the talent and experience, and understanding of how to do something new with it, to push boundaries.

Conversely, in reaction to the rise of VFX in every aspect of our lives, what I’ve noticed is a demand for ‘craft’, a handmade element to animation. dock10 does a lot of work for a sofa retailer, and they wanted the feel of a stop motion film with texture and character. The more 3D and photoreal things get, the more I realise there’s so much still we can get from 2D and stop motion. I was really inspired by Anomalisa, it’s an amazing film, and achieved so much more than a 3D animation could have done. I think, and I hope, that’s where animation moves towards.