Filmmaking School

Q&A with New York Film Academy (NYFA) BFA Filmmaking Alum Ilya Rozhkov, Director of the Groundbreaking VR Film ‘Agent Emerson’

 Ilya Rozhkov Agent Emerson

NYFA BFA Alum & Filmmaker Ilya Rozhkov

New York Film Academy (NYFA) BFA Filmmaking alum Ilya Rozhkov moved to Los Angeles from Russia to follow his passion. He always knew he wanted to direct films, and he’s always been hungry to learn and expand his horizons, but it wasn’t until he experienced VR for the first time at a convention in Las Vegas that he realized the amazing potential virtual reality holds for the future of storytelling.

Rozhkov is putting that lesson to action, literally, with his new groundbreaking VR film, Agent Emerson. New York Film Academy spoke with Ilya Rozhkov about his film, the vast possibilities of virtual reality and VR filmmaking, and about how his studies at NYFA gave him the tools to evolve into a whole new kind of filmmaker:

New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy? 

Ilya Rozhkov (IR): I was born and raised in Moscow and all my life I wanted to direct films. In 2014 I was honored to be inducted into the Directors Guild of Russia as one of its youngest members. In 2013, after extensive research, I was excited to go and become a part of New York Film Academy in Los Angeles because of its intensive, practice-driven approach to studying film. LA has been my home since. 

While at NYFA I shot three short films (We Are Enemies, Dying to Live, and Sabre Dance, starring Greg Louganis as ‘Salvador Dalí’) which have been distributed worldwide, featured on NBC, and screened at over 50+ festivals winning numerous awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. 

I was also very fortunate to have met a lot of my collaborators at NYFA. I have been working with amazing alums—producers Radhika Womack and Jane Kapriss, and colorist Roy Sun—since my first short films. 

I have had the honor of being selected to participate in the coveted Oculus Launch Pad VR Bootcamp at Facebook headquarters and be a recurrent guest panelist at Digital Hollywood. 

In 2016, I set out to make on my first VR Film, Agent Emerson, and partnered with Academy Award-nominated veteran production studio CTB, along with The Rogue Initiative—a leading entertainment and technology studio driven by multi-award winning industry veterans.

Ilya Rozhkov Agent Emerson

Lyndsy Fonseca & Ben Aycrigg filming ‘Agent Emerson’
Photo Credit: Billy Bennight

NYFA: Your background is in traditional filmmaking. Why have you decided to focus on virtual reality?

IR: VR is a creative challenge, a whole new way to experience cinematic storytelling. With my knowledge of film and passion for technology I was truly excited to take on this challenge. And this wonderful medium is just beginning to grow—the current state of VR content feels reminiscent of the early 1900s in the history of cinema: so many things yet to be discovered. 

The future is happening today and cinematic entertainment is evolving to be bigger than movies, both artistically and as a segment of the entertainment market. 

NYFA: Can you tell us more about Agent Emerson? 

IR: Agent Emerson is an immersive 360 degree first-person POV VR film. It utilizes breakthrough technology—the Identity Capture Camera®—and other proprietary innovations to drop the viewer into a visceral, action-packed 3D cinematic experience unlike anything the medium has yet offered. It is a cinematic experience we are used to seeing in movie theaters, only this time YOU are the action hero.

We follow CIA Operative David Emerson, who awakens to find himself a subject of an experimental program with his body under complete remote control of the imperious General. With the aid of a rogue operative named Alexandra, David has to retake charge of his own actions and fight his way through the top security facility inside the most complex live-action VR film ever made. 

Directed by me, Ilya Rozhkov, and starring Lyndsy Fonseca (Kick-Ass, How I Met Your Mother) and Tony Denison (Major Crimes, The Closer), Agent Emerson was shot in Los Angeles and in Louisiana.

 


NYFA:
What inspired you to make Agent Emerson? 

IR: Virtual Reality itself is quite an inspiration. When I studied at NYFA I visited NAB Convention in Las Vegas to explore the latest technology of cinema, and this was where I experienced VR for the first time. My mind was blown with its storytelling potential. The moment I received my first Oculus VR kit, I stepped inside the virtual reality and took off the headset only after exploring all the content available. 

I kept thinking, what makes VR different as a storytelling medium? A theatre performance shot on a film camera does not become a movie. And in exact same way a movie shot on VR camera doesn’t automatically become VR cinema. So what type of storytelling is possible only and exclusively in VR?

Agent Emerson was one of my answers to that question. And finding tools to direct the audience within VR Film was a challenge I was excited to take on. 

NYFA: What are some difficulties of shooting in VR as opposed to traditional filmmaking that you didn’t anticipate? 

IR: It’s hard to anticipate every challenge when talking about a territory as uncharted and unexplored as VR from both creative and technological point of view. Before shooting the film on set with our amazing cast and crew, the majority of the film was shot and tested in a lab. We prepared and primed everything and were ready when unexpected challenges presented themselves. 

The biggest challenges were definitely in post-production. Every aspect of post was affected: CGI, editing, sound, color, and even music. A lot of the techniques and the toolkit used in traditional film were not enough. My team had to think bigger and beyond, creating new solutions which would allow us to make a better film.

To achieve the artistic goals of the film and the highest possible level of quality, many tools and workflows had to be created by us from scratch. It was like creating a painting and inventing a paintbrush at the same time. 

Not only does VR make the complexities of film more challenging, but also it introduces entirely new challenges, some of them from the world of game design. It’s an adventure which makes me thrilled to be a modern filmmaker. 

Ilya Rozhkov Agent Emerson

NYFA BFA Alum & Filmmaker Ilya Rozhkov

NYFA: Did anything surprise you when putting together Agent Emerson? 

IR: From the many discoveries and surprises there is a clear “top three” list:

1. VR can be considerably more intimate than film, especially when it comes to acting.

2. Understanding game engines and software optimization plays a big part, even though it is a film, not a game.

3. There is a saying that sound is 50% of the film. When it comes to VR and making a convincing Virtual World, sound might be even more than that. 

NYFA: What do you see for the future of VR in entertainment? 

IR: The potential of VR in entertainment is enormous and the medium will evolve in many ways we can’t even dream of today. It is the fastest growing segment of the entertainment market. 

We’re dealing with something completely unprecedented—humans as a species have been telling stories on a flat surface since cave paintings. But VR allows us for the first time to tell stories through worlds which are seemingly real. AND this is mass-accessible. 

Think about it—looking at a flat surface with moving images is amazing , it’s a great art form, a fun entertainment, and it is here to stay. But it’s not a natural way to perceive information. In VR we perceive information the same way we do in real life: it’s set in space around us, it is three dimensional, and we can navigate through it. Considering this, I believe VR will become a normal way to consume new forms of entertainment content, both interactive and non-interactive. 

Moreover, I believe that VR and AR are going to affect not only entertainment but a great many things. We might be looking at the new age of computing here. 

NYFA: What other projects are you working on or do you plan to work on? Are you looking to stick to VR-only content? 

IR: Under my Serein banner we have several VR titles in the works. My focus in storytelling is modern cinema which incorporates traditional mediums like film and TV, and cutting-edge technology like VR and beyond. 

I believe that to become a market leader one must bring impactful storytelling together with innovative technology. And that is the key to the future of cinematic entertainment. 

NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that you applied directly to your work on Agent Emerson or your work in general? 

IR: Shooting on 16mm and 35mm film at NYFA was a phenomenal experience and, ironically, working with this wonderful and more-then-a-century old technology affected my work with a less-then-a-decade old generation of VR. 

Not only does working with film introduce one to a proper filming discipline, it also taught me that live playback is not a necessity. It gave me the ability to see the shot by seeing the blocking, the camera positioning, the lighting in the scene and knowing the lens specifics. That came in extremely handy when working with virtual reality where we had no technology for a live VR playback. 

Ilya Rozhkov Agent Emerson

Ilya Rozhkov directs stuntman Ben Aycrigg for ‘Agent Emerson’
Photo Credit: Billy Bennight

NYFA: What advice would you give to students just starting out at NYFA? 

IR: BE CURIOUS. Enjoy learning, because learning doesn’t stop after graduation. Keep reading, follow the directors, producers, and content creators you admire. Always be expanding your knowledge on film industry, technology and beyond. You are as valuable to the industry as what you know and can accomplish. Grow your value all the time. 

DON’T BE AFRAID TO EXPLORE. Film school is the safest possible environment for that and NYFA will be there for you to lean on and learn from. Exploring is the only way to prepare and be ready for everything when it comes to the constantly-evolving landscape of cinematic storytelling. 

NYFA: Anything I missed you’d like to speak on? 

IR: With all its challenging complexities and unprecedented potential, I find it mesmerizing that VR is just a certain number of still images creating an illusion of motion. 

New York Film Academy thanks BFA Filmmaking alum Ilya Rozhkov for taking the time to speak with us, and encourages everyone to check out Agent Emerson when it is released on Oculus Rift (Go and Quest), HTC Vive and Cosmos, and PSVR on November 22.

7 Must-See Films of Pedro Almodóvar

Whenever anyone talks about Spanish cinema, it’s impossible to ignore the achievements of Pedro Almodóvar, one of the most internationally successful Spanish filmmakers of all time. Born in 1949, Almodóvar has won countless awards for his work, including two Oscars, five BAFTAs, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globes, nine Goya Awards, and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the French Legion of Honour and the Gold Medal of Merit in the Fine Arts from the Spanish Ministry of Culture. Recently, he was awarded with an Honorary Golden Lion at the 76th Venice International Film Festival.

Barely 18 years old, Almodóvar moved from his rural hometown to Madrid to pursue his passion for filmmaking, and worked several jobs to support his art. Interested in experimental film and theatre, Almodóvar became a key figure in La Movida Madrileña (the Madrilenian Movement), a cultural renaissance that followed the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. 

Here is a look at some of the most important films of Almodóvar’s decades-spanning, award-winning, groundbreaking career as a director:

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Pepi, Luci, Bom was Almodóvar’s first feature as a director, but it was 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that launched him into the cinematic pantheon. The dark dramedy starred Carmen Maura and was an early breakout role for Antonio Banderas, who has remained a collaborator with Almodóvar to this day. The film, about a woman who is abandoned by her married boyfriend, was nominated for the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won five Goya Awards.

 

All About My Mother (1999)

In the eleven years between Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and 1999’s All About My Mother, Almodóvar continued to make films that were critical and commercial hits, including Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), High Heels (1991), and The Flower of My Secret (1993). All About My Mother is his best known film from the 1990s however, and opened the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, where Almodóvar won Best Director. The awards kept coming for the film, which explored themes of sisterhood and family, and earned Almodóvar his first Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as a Golden Globe, two BAFTAs, and six Goya Awards.

Talk to Her (2002)

Talk to Her received nearly universal critical acclaim when it was released, employing unconventional cinematic techniques for mainstream films like modern dance and silent filmmaking. The film tells the story of two men who bond while taking care of a comatose woman they both love. Almodóvar won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and was nominated for Best Director, cementing his status as not just an internationally respected filmmaker but one of the best in the industry.

Bad Education (2004)

Starring Gael García Bernal and Fele Martínez, Bad Education was a drama about child sexual abuse and mixed identities, and employs unconventional storytelling structure in its screenplay. The film opened at the 57th Cannes Film Festival and, among other awards, won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film – Limited Release, in part for its deft portrayal of transsexuality.

 

 

Volver (2006)

Volver was a very personal film for Almodóvar, who used elements from his own childhood to craft a story about three generations of women as they deal with sexual abuse, grief, secrets, and death. The film was anchored by a powerful performance by Penélope Cruz, who earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, the first Spanish actress to do so in that category. 

The Skin I Live In (2011)

The Skin I Live In was Almodóvar’s first foray into psychological horror, and is loosely based on a French novel by Thierry Jonquet. The film stars Antonio Banderas as a plastic surgeon haunted by tragedy who is obsessed with creating burn-proof skin, and ends up keeping a prisoner in his mansion to achieve this. The film reunited Banderas with Almodóvar for the first time since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and employs a variety of cinematographic and editing techniques inspired by genre filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and David Cronenberg. 

Pain and Glory (2019)

Almodóvar’s latest film was released earlier this year and debuted at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or. Pain and Glory tells the story of a film director whose career has peaked, and again stars Antonio Banderas, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his work. The film was unsurprisingly a critical hit, and became the highest-grossing Spanish film of the year.

 

What’s your favorite Pedro Almodóvar film? Let us know in the comments or @ us on your favorite social media platform! 

8 Things We’ll Never Forget From Alien Invasion Blockbuster ‘Independence Day’

independence day
Epic adventure film
Independence Day was a very big deal when it was released in the summer of 1996, with an emphasis on big. The alien invasion film, a modern take on a classic War of the Worlds scenario, featured city-sized spaceships laying waste to famous American landmarks. One of the last mega-sized films before CGI began to dominate Hollywood special effects, the destructive use of exploding miniatures—including the White House and the Empire State Building—were perhaps the epitome of the art form. 

 

 


“Welcome to Earth” Will Smith

Rapper and Fresh Prince of Bel Air star Will Smith had a few film credits under his belt, including a lead role in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys, but it was Independence Day that made Smith a household name, putting him at the top of an A-List he still dominates to this day. His charismatic personality was perfected in the quippy, frenetic role as fighter pilot Captain Steven Hiller. The precise moment Smith became a superstar might have been when he greeted one of the invading aliens with a punch to the face and the line, “Welcome to Earth.”

“We will not vanish without a fight!”

Bill Pullman’s young President Whitmore decides to fly along with the last of his fighter pilots in a last-ditch attempt to defeat the aliens before all hope is lost, but not before giving a rousing impromptu speech as dawn breaks. That speech, simple and corny, has since become legend, played frequently by numerous media outlets every Fourth of July. Pullman has even been requested to recite the speech in full on multiple occasions.

The arrival of the ships

The design of the invading spaceships are brilliant—a colossal, ominous, 90s modern stainless steel take on the classic flying saucer UFO. When they first show up over the coastlines of several major cities, they arrive in miles of flame and smoke, violently shaking the ground underneath and resulting in millions of strained necks as innocent bystanders can do nothing but look up in fearful awe. What an entrance.

“Is this glass bulletproof?”

Midway through the film, the surviving heroes visit Area 51, where an escaped alien takes out a group of scientists and reveals the secret plan of his species behind a wall of laboratory glass. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) hears enough and asks his military guard if the glass is bulletproof. Major Mitchell, played by Adam Baldwin, promptly replies “No, sir!” and opens fire on the creature in a hailstorm of bullets and broken glass.

Judd Hirsch

Oscar-nominated Judd Hirsch stole the show as comic relief in a film where nearly every single character provides comic relief. Only a few years off a multi-decade run as a sitcom star, Hirsch was old enough now to play the cranky father to Jeff Goldblum’s neurotic genius David Levinson. Hirsch’s character wasn’t just funny—he was smart, discovering the government’s secret base Area 51. “You don’t actually think they spend $20,000 on a hammer, $30,000 on a toilet seat, do you?” 

The canyon chase

After the massive destructive set pieces that saw Los Angeles, Washington DC, and New York City laid to waste, the United States strikes back with several fighter jets. The aliens surprisingly have smaller fighting ships themselves, defended by impenetrable shields. The pilots are quickly laid to waste, including Captain Hiller’s best friend played by Harry Connick, Jr. Hiller (Will Smith) is the last man flying, and leads one ship into the desert and a deep canyon where he’s able to out-maneuver and crash the alien ship in one of the most exciting chase sequences of the 1990s.


“Hello boys!”

In a film filled with memorable character actors, Oscar-nominated Randy Quaid (Vacation, Kingpin) makes his mark as a Vietnam vet traumatized by his previous abduction by aliens. In the end, he sacrifices his life to save his family and finally gets his revenge, but not before getting out not one but two quips before he goes. The first, and more crude of the two as he flies up the bottom of the ship to destroy it from the inside, is “Up yours!” (Remember this film came out right in the middle of the 90s.) The second, with a glorious grin on his face is: “Hello boys, I’m baaaaaaaaack.”

Jeff Goldblum

Oh yeah, and Jeff Goldblum stars in this movie right smack in the middle of transitioning from idiosyncratic and mysterious actor Jeff Goldblum to walking self-aware personality “Jeff Goldblum.” It’s glorious. He gives the aliens a cold. Need we say more?