Interview with Jared Sandrew - The future of Film and VR

At OSSIC we recently sat down with Jared Sandrew, a creative and visual effects guru, to talk about the future of Cinema within Virtual Reality. As Jared highlights some of his past experiences and how they correlate to the modern progression of VR technology, he delves into some of the challenges that the technology has to overcome in order to create a heavy impact in a digitally saturated entertainment world. Will VR grow to replace traditional cinema or will the technology only reinforce current trends in film making? Read what Jared Sandrew has to about the future of Film and Virtual Reality!

  • Q) Can you give our readers a brief background into who you are and your work?

 My name is Jared Sandrew and I am a Creative Executive & Visual Effects Supervisor. I am most well known for building a successful pipeline and team at the beginning of this decade at Legend3D. That was during the wild west period of stereoscopic conversion. In addition to team mentorship and pipeline development, I was also a Stereoscopic Visual Effects Supervisor on over 2 dozen blockbuster releases such as "Man of Steel", "The Lego Movie", and "The Walk". Since leaving Legend in 2015, I have been working as a virtual reality and augmented reality supervisor and consultant for several studios and startups. Virtual Reality production reminds me a lot of the early days of stereoscopic conversion. There’s a whole spectrum of interesting problems to solve, but like stereo conversion, creating compelling immersive content is most effective after it’s been thoughtfully planned out during pre-production.

  • Q) What is a typical day in the life for you while working on a major motion picture?

A day in the life, changes over the run of the production. In the beginning, I am meeting a lot with the Director, Director of Photography, Visual Effects Supervisor, and VFX Producer in an effort to plan the best possible 3D film possible. A lot of planning can go into a film prior to the shoot. Usually I will act as a resource for the Director and Director of Photography when trying to plan shots on the fly for stereoscopic composition. 

Once the footage is shot, and the edit is underway, I spend a lot of time with my teams making sure that the scenes are cast appropriately, as well as working with my stereo producer to insure we are hitting schedule milestones. As the shots start coming in, I spend a lot of time in a theater environment reviewing individual shots in continuity to provide direction towards a cohesive look based on what was agreed upon in preproduction and in collaboration with me, the filmmakers, and the studio. If it is a heavy VFX film, I'll build a relationship with the VFX vendors so we agree on a workflow that will allow the stereo vendor to take advantage of the work they have already done, for high quality 3D.

  • Q) We noticed you've worked on several VR productions in addition to film. How has your workflow differed, if at all, between the two?

Virtual Reality headsets are by design, stereoscopic devices. However, just because you have a 360 degree view of a scene, unless it's produced in stereo 3D, the content will be flat.  Obviously, the effect and medium of VR works best when the content you are producing has been designed to be stereoscopic from the beginning... Meaning that your are producing, for a display, a left and right eye image that has pixel separation called disparity, much the same as the way we receive input from the real world with our two eyes that are displaced by approx 63mm. A lot of what goes into creating comfortable and engaging stereoscopic films is transferable to creating a VR experience, but it comes with different challenges. The VR filmmaking language is only now beginning to be defined, and just when it is defined, somebody breaks the rules again, proving everybody wrong. I love that.

  • Q) How do you feel storytelling as a whole has changed, if at all, when working in VR? What are some things you've personally learned over the past few years? 

Viewers still want to see a gripping story regardless of the medium. The challenges that filmmakers face now, is guiding a viewer through the story they are trying to convey, with out making them feel constrained. When experiencing a 360 video, or VR experience with 6 degrees of freedom, the objective is to allow the viewer as much liberty as possible to explore the VR environment while still being able to engage them in the story. Various tricks have been developed to make this work effectively, however, once they are used, the community quickly sees how the sausage is cooked and it becomes harder to use that technique again. Everyone is attempting to study the medium so that storytelling can be effective and fresh each time.

  • Q) It seems like the movie industry is dipping their toe into VR, quite often for promotions and marketing purposes. Do you feel this trend will continue?

I see studios using VR as a way to extend their properties and market their films. It won't be long before you get exclusive sneak previews of films on a VR platform, or go to the theater and experience an extension of the latest superhero film from the lobby or attached to the seat in front of you. With movie tickets (potentially) on the decline, the theater chains and the studios are looking for other ways to get movie goers back in the theaters. VR is one of several strategies to revitalize the movie-going experience.

  •  Q) What are some of the challenges VR faces today?

Live action VR is an issue due to the physical limitations of VR cameras today. In CG, you can create virtual cameras that defy physics, however in live action, there are constraints that the industry is just starting to understand. Historically, the availability and small form factor of GoPro cameras has worked for most situations. However, while GoPro is actively working to advance their product, they have in the past been somewhat unreliable. They have tended to over heat, they aren't easily gen-locked, and the post production process is difficult for anybody that doesn't have a workflow laid out ahead of time. I believe GoPro is working on these issues and will resolve them. 

The all-in-one cameras are too expensive for many productions, and typically have similar problems, or are too large with too much parallax at the area where the images overlap causing issues in post production, especially for stereo.

More important however, is the fact that the consumer is expecting feature film quality experiences, or high-end gaming experiences, and current budgets just don't appear to be adequate. This is especially true for those that additionally aren't working with marketing budgets. There doesn't seem to be much ROI (yet) for creating VR cinema, and a lot of people don't understand that this content minimally needs to be 4k+. Adding stereoscopic content in the mix creates a set of 2 4k+ images (left and right eye).  Those files need to be compressed down to fit within the bandwidth abilities of of a headset, or a they have to be created with quality that is considered worth while for streaming.

Advances in bandwidth and compression will help, as well as the development of physical cameras with a small enough form factor that can mitigate the amount of post production time & effort necessary to finalize this work. I am hopeful this will be resolved in future camera releases.

Q) What does the future hold for VR and film?

I think the entire VFX workforce is optimistic and enthusiastic.  The new industry of VR production requires the same skill set and moviemaking and seems to be bringing some jobs back to Southern California from Canada. I haven't heard of a tax incentive in Canada for Virtual Reality production yet and I am seeing small VR shops popping up all over LA.

My prediction is that VR in the form of 360 video will fall-off fairly quickly in the coming year or two, as viewers start to feel constrained to a single nodal point in space, and as companies like Facebook enable your grandma to make 360 photos and videos of her knitting group, playing bridge, in the round. 

My hope is that consumers will start to recognize the difference between monoscopic vs stereoscopic content, and 360 video vs the more powerful game engine content that provides the user with 6 degrees of freedom. I believe it will eventually become clear to the consumer which material has high production value and what does not. That's when the various distribution entities and optics platforms or head mounted displays distributors will discover the best partnerships and fully understand the equation for creating immersive content and how it can be monetized.

Thanks for the amazing opportunity to learn more about Virtual Reality and it's potential impact on the future of entertainment! If you enjoyed reading this interview with Jared Sandrew, check out some of our other interviews with industry leading sound designers and audio engineers !