Director Jon Clinkenbeard discusses our new VR film “First Date” and the future of virtual reality
The distinction between 360 video and VR needs to be erased, says Jon Clinkenbeard when I sat down with him to discuss all things VR. We also hit on the topics of his VR origin story, how we overcame the challenges of making the groundbreaking VR film “First Date” and where he thinks VR is headed in the foreseeable future (think Game of Thrones in VR!)
ER: What is your background?
JC: I started out at Second City Chicago with improv and sketch, then moved deeper into writing fiction and directing theatre and commercials. My main focus is telling a good story, and each story has its own needs as far as direction, talent, and even the right medium to do it justice. So I’ve done a ton of different things for different projects.
ER: How did you get into VR?
JC: I started working at Relevent Partners, who made one of the first big VR hits “Ascend the Wall” with Framestore for HBO’s Game of Thrones, where you ride the elevator at Castle Black. They originally hired me to be their Video Creative Director for traditional 2D stuff, but when I stepped out of that experience, I said “that’s what I want to do. I want to make that. Whatever I have to do, I’ll do it.” And I think about 5 months later I was working on my first big VR project for Marriott.
ER: What is your specialty in the field?
JC: I’m really focused on creating emotional experiences with more immediacy, and on finding ways to collaborate with the viewer as they go through their experience. As an actor and director, I know firsthand how different it is to have an actor directing their raw emotions at me as a human being, versus trying to pick up that intensity with a camera. We’ve found all these techniques through the years that we can use to cheat it—close-ups, framing, edits, music, etc.—but VR gives us a completely new toolbox for transferring those emotions directly. I want to find all the powerful new ways to inspire love, fear, joy, terror… you name it. And we have a real opportunity to build stories with the viewer, to plan for their possible reactions and offer them different paths to explore that they might not even know they’re venturing down. That’s the stuff that gets me fired up, so that’s what I keep pushing deeper into.
ER: What is this First Date about?
JC: Well, on the surface, First Date is about… a first date, haha. A man and a woman meet up for the first time, and you get to hear their thoughts versus what they’re actually saying. So we have a bit of fun with that. Just a little deeper, it’s about the snap judgments we make, and how very small ripples can create much bigger waves, both within and outside of ourselves. But mostly it’s about a first date.
ER: How did we do it?
JC: We found a few incredibly talented actors, we shot everything from each perspective on a 4k stereoscopic 360 camera, we did a ton of takes all the way through, and then we built everything together with our partners over at Wonda VR and Sonic Union.
ER: What were some challenges about this project?
JC: Well, it’s not an overstatement to say we’re attempting things that are pretty difficult to pull off. Letting the viewer jump seamlessly back and forth between two streams of video, the complexity of allowing them to make choices that affect the outcome of the story, teaching them in-headset that they can do all of those things and how, and doing it in as elegant a way as possible… all of that is pretty challenging. So technically there are very different challenges than film and theatre. But we solved all the problems we could, we put our faith in our actors, and I think it paid off.
ER: Would you consider this project 360 or VR?
JC: Both. I’m trying really hard to erase that distinction. Eventually we’ll be filming video that’s completely interactive and indistinguishable from a game engine, or we’ll be creating CGI environments that are lifelike enough to be indistinguishable from video, so it doesn’t make sense to me to keep them in separate categories. 360 Video is typically emotionally engaging, but it’s passive and you can’t affect anything, and CGI VR is extremely interactive, but it doesn’t hit me emotionally at all. In my opinion, we have to merge the best of each.
ER: What were some things that you learned during this project?
JC: That’s a good question… I think I’ve been really surprised by how well people have received it. It’s a culmination of a lot of things I’ve tried piecemeal in other projects, and even though it’s such a simple concept, the execution of it is fairly difficult, so to see this positive response encourages me to go even bigger and more complicated next time!
ER: What was it like working with the Russell Brothers?
JC: They were really great. Unlike other producers I’ve worked with before, they took the time to learn a bit about the ins and outs of the medium so we’d have some common language. We still had moments when they didn’t understand certain aspects of VR, but they always trusted me 100%, offered great suggestions, and rolled up their sleeves and got to work to make this project come to life.
ER: Where would you like to see VR in the next 3-5 years from now?
JC: I want to see the first big VR show like Lost or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Something amazing that gets everyone into a headset because it’s way too good and way too unique not to watch. And because I think interactivity is crucial for “true VR,” part of what will make that so special is talking with each other about which decisions we made at various points.
ER: Does VR scare you at all?
JC: Not any more than a book or a film or a TV show. It has the potential to change lives for the better or worse, but it’s just a tool. I guess what scares me is that people already plunk down in front of the TV for hours and hours every day…
ER: What's next for you?
JC: Oh you know… making that first big VR hit show, becoming the Stanley Kubrick of VR, no big deal, haha. Actually, I’m working on a few concepts with Neurable at the moment. Their tech allows you to control the world around you in VR with your mind and it’s just as incredible as it sounds.
ER: What's a VR experience that I have to check out immediately?
JC: Honestly? I keep going back to Google Earth on the Vive and exploring our pale blue dot.