Forging a narrative
VR Film Pro speaks to Michael Conelly, president of Blackthorn Media, about the company’s work on Virtual Reality films including The Abbot’s Book and changing perceptions of VR film.
When was Blackthorn Media formed and who by?
MC: I founded Blackthorn in November of 2013, and was quickly joined by Keith Goldfarb, Will Telford, and Lyndon Barrois to form the core of the company.
How do you see the potential for VR film and animation (as oppose to games)?
MC: Most of our efforts are geared towards long-form narrative in VR. We’re hugely excited about the potential for the medium. We all come from a feature film visual effects background (we’re all alumni of Rhythm & Hues studios), so the marriage of CG/animation with storytelling is very natural for us. We distributed our first narrative project, a demo for The Abbot’s Book, a couple months back, and the user response has been phenomenal. We’re not a passive movie experience, and we’re not a fast-action game – we’re somewhere in the middle, and our users are starting to get the vibe. We’ve got 95% positive reviews in the forums. It’s hugely gratifying to see, and we’re looking forward to the full release of Episode One later this year to really crack things open and run.
Do you think we’ll get to a point where VR moves much more into the mainstream of filmed content?
MC: Absolutely. It’ll take time, but the medium is so powerful when used right, it’ll happen without a doubt. In fact, there are movies and TV shows I look at today, and just get dizzy thinking about how much better the experience could be as a VR experience. When story tellers really start to hit a stride with authentic emotional involvement and great story telling, the total experience is going to draw people into stories in ways they’ve never experienced before. I don’t mean to sound grandiose – to folks who haven’t yet had their VR ‘ah-hah’ moment this must sound like posturing – all I can say is ‘just you wait – this is going to be spectacular.’
Do you think VR shorts will eventually become a staple part of the promo and marketing mix for Hollywood movies?
MC: I think VR shorts are already a staple part of the promo/marketing mix for movies. Stop treating VR as a second-class citizen and embrace it as a medium. To the extent that VR is serving as a mere advertisement for movies, it fails to develop into its own medium. Some stories are better suited to VR than to movies or TV (obviously not all of them…). Anyway, sure, let VR be a fancy advert for movies for now – as an on-ramp to a mass market of its own.
How were Blackthorn’s films received at Sundance?
MC: My favorite reaction at Sundance came near the end of the festival when a viewer took the headset off, looked me in the eye, and said “this is the best thing I’ve seen at the whole festival.”
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
MC: We’re going 100 miles an hour racing to get the first full episode of The Abbot’s Book ready by the end of the year. We’ve also got a huge amount of activity on the VR arcade front for Dragonflight. Too much to do – we’re aiming to grow the company quite substantially by year’s end.
What technology and software do you use to develop your VR films?
MC: The usual suspects: Maya, Unity, Photoshop, Zbrush, Houdini, Mari – we’re writing a good chunk of our own software as well.
What is the biggest challenge for VR content producers such as Blackthorn Media?
MC: For us, there have been two tracks to this question: From a business development front, the VC community has only recently warmed up to the idea of funding content development – that was a tricky field to navigate for quite a while, but things are coming into focus now. From a creative standpoint – and this is the real hat trick – the hard work is in inventing a new set of tools for story-telling, and doing so with a tiny crew. Happily, both of these tracks are showing lots of growth for us. We think 2016 is going to be a pretty great year.