In early 2018, Intel Studios launched with the modest proposal that it would revolutionize the art of visual storytelling. Located near LAX, the 25,000-square-foot Intel Studios contain a cavernous, metallic ring that looked like some kind of covert alien technology. It also has a 10,000-square-foot capture area for volumetric video, where actors can perform movements rendered holographically on computer screens for VR and AR.
Over the next two years, Intel Studios recorded a music video for VR evangelist Reggie Watts, and partnered with Paramount on an ambitious promotional video for the 40th anniversary of “Grease.” They were entertaining projects, but Intel Studios director Diego Prilusky said the company has grander ambitions.
“VR is a window that allows you to get into an alternative dimension,” Prilusky said. “I know that sound a little sci-fi. But we should very soon be in a position where technology is not the main conversation when it comes to the experience itself… The technology is not the reason to be here.”
At this year’s Venice International Film Festival, the company premiered two projects produced in its lab that point to the types of storytelling the company wants to produce. “Queerskins: ARK,” the second installment of a four-part project, follows a Missouri woman’s experiences reading her son’s romantic memories of an old relationship after he dies of AIDS. It’s a powerful, immersive combination of live-action 360 video, volumetric capture, and animation, with a Catholic woman immersed in her son’s intimate memories of rolling with his lover on the beach; in its closing moments, the scene transforms into a lyrical dance number.
With “HERE,” director Lysander Ashton adapts Richard McGuire’s graphic novel that takes place entirely within one corner of a living room in New Jersey over the course of millions of years (tmost of the story is set in modern times). “HERE” gives viewers a collage-like experience as they peer around the room and various windows expand and contract to show how one timeline can alter a single space.
“This is where we see the technology and content production coming together,” Prilusky said. “McGuire is an illustrator who was exploring his ideas with 2D tools. These tools can take those ideas and make them more engaging and communicative.”
While Facebook continues to lead the charge in VR (the second generation of its Oculus Quest headset set comes out this fall), Intel is one of several companies doubling down on content production. At Venice alone, “Queerskins” and “HERE” were joined by three Oculus projects. “While the market is still evolving and traditional media investors can be reticent in financing VR, it’s essential to have the support of these companies,” said Liz Rosenthal, who co-curated Venice’s VR selection.
Prilusky acknowledged that Intel Studios “is very small compared to the size of the corporate company we’re under.” However, as a well-financed early adopter it has all but boundless room for experimentation, and many excuses to invite more artists. “We need VR to mature not just on the technology side, but on the narrative experience side,” he said. “We can talk about how the technology was used to achieve this type of filmmaking. But when we talk about traditional filmmaking, there are a lot of conversations about how we do these amazing shots with a type of camera rig or lens. I’m very much looking forward to the film world looking at this content and offering some constructive criticism.”
Prilusky was just getting into VR while working on effects for “Gravity,” which he said utilized aspects of the moving-image experience that spoke to the new medium’s potential. “The opening of the movie is one single long shot that moves through space in real time,” he said. “That kind of continuous timeline relates very much to VR, where you as a spectator are in a single environment.”
To date, most daring VR experiences were limited to curatorial spaces. That may change; with Venice and VR showcases like Cannes XR making work available online during the pandemic, interest in the medium is high. Last month, the online VR version of Burning Man — hosted by VR social platform AltSpace and called “the Multiverse” — found thousands of people congregating online as avatars, engaged in complex social experiences for hours at a time. That success also speaks to uptick in users who are comfortable with the hardware. “Now we’re seeing an advancement into creating fully immersive spaces and removing some of the nausea in the headset, your being becomes very much a part of that story,” Prilusky said.
Intel Labs takes a multidisciplinary approach to its studio, collaborating with theater directors and video game designers in addition to established VR storytellers. It’s also working on capturing musical performances with AR technology that would allow users to project concerts into their homes. Sports and athletic instruction videos are also in the works. Prilusky said VR has been more successful than many understand, since it’s hard to appreciate its potential without trying it. “Listen, it’s challenging,” he said. “It’s almost like trying to critique a movie on a black-and-white TV with an antennae that has bad reception.”
The company sees real potential in the midst of the pandemic. Prilusky declined to offer specifics on upcoming Intel Labs projects, but noted that one of them draws on the traditions of film noir while embracing the potential of VR and live actors. “This technology is a manifestation of the film camera of 100 years ago,” he said. “It just has an additional dimension. We’re just touching the surface in terms of how we can content with that.”
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