VR films

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.

Virtual Reality Film Festivals to Keep an Eye On

Now that more industries and artists are exploring virtual reality technology, they are also showing off their work and products at conferences and festivals. One of the best ways to keep up with what is going on in any industry is attending events such as these where you can hear from the pros, take workshops, see films and test equipment and new products. While there aren’t many VR-only festivals, several of the major film and entertainment festivals are devoting time and space to VR practitioners. Here is New York Film Academy’s roundup of festivals to put on your list:

VR Fest

From the website: “The Virtual Reality Festival (VRF) is a community based organization dedicated to the development and expansion of virtual reality, augmented reality and other immersive entertainment technologies for use by both studio and independent artists, technologists, content creators, game designers and their audiences.”

Found by Christopher Crescitelli in 2014, VR Fest is a fully-curated touring Virtual Reality Film and Immersive Technology Festival. The festival co-sponsors with Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) and MaiTai Global on a the global VR competition called the Extreme Virtual Reality Challenge, where VR/AR pioneers and entrepreneurs compete for a cash prize and a chance to display their work at the VR Lounge on Sir Richard Branson’s private Necker Island during the XTC Finals Event.

Tribeca Film Festival — Festival Hub

While the Tribeca Film Festival has film screenings, musical performances, and other events around Manhattan, the future of filmmaking is discussed and innovative work is on display at the Hub. In addition to Storyscapes, which features VR films, the Hub is also where you can learn about the intersection of art and technology in media, gaming, music, and documentary filmmaking.

On the festival’s website, Festival Director Genna Terranova explains, “Our experiential program is what happens when artists create wildly different adventures that go outside traditional methods. Here, stories are not passively watched, they are actually ‘experienced’ — you are a participant. Today, virtual reality offers a new landscape for creating worlds and stories. At its best it can be a powerful vehicle for magically transportive explorations that test the limits of our imaginations and psyches.”

SXSW

Founded in 1987 in Austin, Texas, SXSW is best known for its conference and festivals that celebrate the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. The SXSW Conference provides networking and educational opportunities as well as entertainment.

From the website: “Featuring a variety of tracks that allow attendees to explore what’s next in the worlds of entertainment, culture, and technology, SXSW proves that the most unexpected discoveries happen when diverse topics and people come together.”

The 2017 festival sessions included panels on funding VR projects, production in extreme environments, how VR and documentary filmmaking connect, using VR in live events and for global engagement, and several mentoring sessions  as well as demos and screenings.

Kaleidoscope

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Kaleidoscope produces events around the world that showcase the best in virtual reality from independent artists. Each season Kaleidoscope produces curated, traveling exhibitions of work from VR creators around the world. The 2017 Showcase Vol. 2 will be organized by local VR creators in the following cities: New York, London, Berlin, Sydney, Kyiv, Los Angeles, Paris, Leipzig, Seoul, and Hong Kong.

Sundance

The New Frontier section of Sundance features innovations in film and art. VR filmmaking has had an increasing presence at the festival. In addition to showings of new VR films, there are now panels about crafting narratives and audience interaction with VR films. On the festival website, you can also find a selection of films that were featured at the 2016 festival that can be viewed using Cardboard. From the website: “The line up represents some of the most compelling narrative and documentary VR storytelling being independently created today.”

SF Indiefest — CyberiaVR

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Imagine a film festival that you can attend from your own living room. That’s what the Cyberia Film Festival does for VR fans and filmmakers. The free, three-day festival allowed viewers from around the world to watch scheduled films and participate in Q&A sessions with filmmakers without having to travel anywhere.

From the website: “The CYBERIA Film Festival is the first conventionally-styled filmfest to be held in a Virtual Reality environment. CYBERIA seeks to explore a new frontier in cinema appreciation, reaching across the globe to bring together an audience as diverse as its content.”

VR Days Europe

Held in Amsterdam this year, VR Days Europe is a four-day festival that includes workshops, lectures, and demos that explore everything from feature film storytelling to business applications for VR filmmaking. The festival currently has an open call for the October 2017 event.

Dubai International Film Festival

The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) launched its VR program, DIFFerent REALITY, at the 2016 festival. The DIFFerent REALITY program offers festival goers an international selection of VR films, including fiction, documentary, and animation. There is also a business hub of the festival that includes panels with VR creators, interactive installations, and the chance to network.
On the festival’s website, DIFF’s Chairman, Abdulhamid Juma commented: “We have always been committed to discovering new talent and original storytelling to present exciting content that will entertain, educate and inspire DIFF audiences. VR gives filmmakers a new, immersive medium which is an exciting new direction for cinema and our compelling and engaging line-up of VR films push the technological boundaries of storytelling. We are extremely excited to bring some of the best VR experiences to DIFF this December and invite film fans to experience the future of storytelling firsthand.”

Raindance

Now in its 25th year, the Raindance Film Festival is the largest and most important independent film festival in the UK. In January 2016, the festival announced it was launching Raindance VR, a section of the festival dedicated to VR filmmaking. The 2017 festival takes place from Sept. 21 to Oct. 2 and is accepting submissions.

Festival organizers see VR presenting opportunities for low-budget independent filmmakers.

Raindance Founder Elliot Grove says, “We believe VR is the most exciting change in cinema and filmmaking since the onslaught of internet distribution which started with Youtube in 2005.”

FIVARS

FIVARS is the first Canadian festival dedicated solely to VR storytelling and filmmaking. The festival was started in 2015 and is the first VR festival to be listed on WithoutABox.com — a marketplace for filmmakers to submit their works to film festivals, owned by Amazon.com

VR filmmaking continues to evolve as the audience for it grows and the technology improves. Filmmakers and other creative professionals are exploring ways to use VR storytelling to expand the way they communicate and share ideas with an audience.

Whether you are interested in film, game design, or other ways to use VR technology, the New York Film Academy likely offers the perfect course or workshop for you. Start exploring our programs here. Who knows? We might see some of your work at one of these festivals in future!

CoSA, Zero Effect, Brickyard, & Beyond: VFX Studios to Know

Of all the computer technologies that you have to try for yourself to truly understand, virtual reality is the king. Unless you put on a VR device and find yourself in a completely virtual world, you’ll never understand the immersive power of virtual reality, and why it’s poised to play such a vital role in the futures of many industries.

In the past, attempts to make VR something the average consumer can enjoy at home failed due to technological limitations and high costs. But today, many companies are investing in devices that most people can afford to purchase. 

Among these companies are Sony, Google, Microsoft, Oculus (Facebook), tech and video game companies, and communications/media companies like Time Warner and Viacom. Communications and media companies like Time Warner and Viacom are also investing in VR/AR. But without talented VFX companies to help create captivating experiences, the devices are all but useless. The following are some of the most talented VFX companies that have a future creating amazing VR projects:

CoSA VFX

The Company of Science and Art was a founded by Tom Mahoney and Jon Tanimoto, two guys who previously worked together in post-production and broadcast design. They served as VFX artists and supervisors on big films like “Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Now, as VFX studio CoSA, the duo has grown a team that serves various clients. Working with the likes of Marvel, Warner Bros, Disney, and more, they’ve worked on popular shows and movies like “Gotham,” “Minority Report,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” If there’s anyone who could provide ground-breaking VR scenes for film and television, it’s CoSA.

Framestore

Founded way back in 1968, VFX studio Framestore has grown to become an award-winning company that uses creativity and technology unlike anyone else. In collaboration with some of the best directors and producers today, they’ve helped provide visual effects for films like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Doctor Strange,” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Even more exciting is the fact that Framestore is very interested in VR, enough that they’ve already developed experiences for many devices. These include HTC Vive, Oculus, and Samsung’s Gear VR. They are also currently working on exciting projects for the popular PlayStation VR and anticipated Microsoft HoloLens.

The Endless Collective

Some of the former Framestore folks, award-winning game developers, and VFX artists have joined forces in a VFX studio called The Endless Collective that’s been doing some very cool stuff. Their company mission to push boundaries on the edge where technology meets the impossible is reimagining commercial campaigns.

With a client list that runs the gamut from Warner Brothers studios to the Hubble Telescope, credits have included “Gravity,” “Inception,” and “Batman Returns.” The Endless Collective was part teams that won two Academy Awards and two BAFTAs for the film “Gravity.”

Zero VFX

Starting out in a basement in 2010, Zero VFX has since grown to become one of the most artistic and innovative technology companies around. They also developed the world’s first fully cloud-based rendering solution, which Google eagerly purchased in 2014.

In five short years, Zero VFX already has an impressive resume of projects where they provided ground-breaking illusions. These include: “The Magnificent Seven,” “Ghostbusters,” “Southpaw,” “Black Mass,” and countless other films and commercials.

Industrial Light & Magic

ILM is a giant in the film industry. The acclaimed special effects company was founded 40 years ago by George Lucas to create all the illusions we know and love from the original Star Wars. Since then, ILM has amassed an incredible resume of award-winning projects.

It’s no surprise that ILM is interested in the virtual reality space. In mid 2015, it was revealed that a new division called the ILM Experience Lab was formed to focus on virtual reality. While they have worked on any retail projects, many game-like experiments have shown off that feature interacting with Jurassic Park dinosaurs and even speeding through a Star Wars battle.

Brickyard VFX

Brickyard Pacific Works began in 2004 at the helm of industry leaders in the visual effects world. As one of the top VFX companies, especially in the advertising trade, chances are you’ve seen one of their many commercials.

Their clients include everyone from Disney, Doritos, and Carl’s Junior to Puma, Cadillac, and LEGO Systems. If the day comes where we’ll be watching television on VR devices, you can bet Brickyard will be responsible for many of the immersive commercials you see.

This is only the beginning of the list of companies joining in the quest to advance and develop exciting new virtual reality technologies. It’s an exciting time and an exciting industry, which is why the New York Film Academy is pleased to now offer three innovative and unique workshop programs to bridge the worlds of VR, filmmaking, and game design.

Learn more NYFA’s new VR workshops, and let us know which VR developments you are most excited about in the comments below!