Bill Desowitz reports on the launch of last weekend's 5D conference in Long Beach, which offered "an overload of stimulus."
If the goal of the first 5D: The Future of Immersive Design conference, which took place last weekend in Long Beach, was to start a dialogue among experts to figure out where we go next with narrative media and what that does to the landscape of what designers create, then it was a resounding success. Attendance exceeded expectations with more than 800, and the buzz was very positive. "An overload of stimulus" seemed to be the refrain.
5D, which concerns the confluence of designing in virtual space in film, TV, animation, interactive and architecture, began last Saturday with MIT pop culture guru Henry Jenkins describing convergence. He said it's storytelling that plays out over every media platform to create a unified experience. He cited Heroes as the best trans-media success story, which expands and enriches the experience in this regard. Jenkins also explored the mix of manga and anime as truly immersive, and explained how the Studio Ghibli Museum utilizes the rich world of Hayao Miyazaki to convey the experience of moving from one space to another as world building at its best.
Meanwhile, Production Designer Rick Carter (Avatar and The Polar Express) concluded the conference during a session called "Design in Flux" with the notion of 5D in spatial terms: "Design is actuality perceived as reality," he noted. And when Carter thinks of 5D, he likens it to Robert Zemeckis starting with a whiteout, with blank space, and filling it up. "When you walk away, you know you have something you didn't have before," Carter added. To prove his point, Carter screened the end of Pinocchio as the most sublime example of creating life from nothing.
"With MoCap, Bob can go into a grid with nothing and imagine a scene," Carter continued. "Jim [Cameron] is character-driven and action-driven with character, but for Bob, it's like Dorothy in Oz without an Oz. Immersive is now an amazing thing. They're making the motion-capture space expressive."
Indeed, Carter wants 5D to sprout: "Story is design and design is the story."
Tino Schaedler, art director and architect (The Prince of Persia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), talked about choreographing virtual space on the same panel. EA Senior Art Director Habib Zargarpour demonstrated and discussed a future comprised of greater realtime interactivity (Need for Speed) and raising the bar with more complex innovations. (In fact, EA's Doug Church, who is collaborating with Steven Spielberg on LMNO, which involves advancing computer-controlled character behavior, was also on hand to discuss "Building Worlds," but is still sworn to secrecy about the project.)
And that's how it went throughout the conference: little philosophical threads leading back and forth about design and collaboration and greater artistic potential. It was as if Alex McDowell's Mandala about the new nonlinear workflow paradigm had sprouted wings. The production designer (Watchmen) and co-director of 5D, along with presenting sponsor Autodesk, couldn't have been more thrilled. "[We] are getting back intuitively to the creative process," McDowell suggested. "Design drives narrative… We're in a transition in realtime immersive… [but] we work in the same [virtual] space that the viewer will be into…"
Here are some other highlights from various panels and workshops:
In "Reality and Hyper Reality," which devoted a lot of the discussion to the "Uncanny Valley," director Gore Verbinski (Rango, Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) remarked that his goal with CG animation is the "pursuit of the awkward moment while swimming in this artificial world… We're getting further and further away from the human experience."
In "Pervasive Previs," which I moderated, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch, Day Watch) suggested that previs is a valuable collaborative tool, but that he wished there were a way of incorporating the actor as well. Cinematographer Eric Adkins (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) remarked that previs is extremely helpful in determining basic lighting info and showed some rare MoCap previs from Kerry Conran's aborted John Carter of Mars. However, Adkins and others (McDowell, Previs Supervisor Ron Frankel and Digital Effects Supervisor Peter Nofz) added that fully rendered previs goes too far. While previs allows you to make the movie before you make it, it's still just a starting point and should be treated as such.
Meanwhile, in the follow-up discussion about the ASC/ADG/VES joint previs committee (moderated by chair David Morin), a few definitions were unveiled: Previs: a collaborative process of cinematic discovery based in a 3D virtual environment; Pitchvis: intended for the purpose of pitching projects; Technical Previs: real-world camera and shot layout to streamline production; On-Set Previs: on location, on the fly, to respond to the needs of the director and crew, utilizing realtime techniques; and Postvis: Preemptive VFX in which previs assets are integrated into live-action plates and a director's tool for editing.
In "Bigger Bang," John Underkoffler, scientist and designer of human-machine interfaces (Minority Report), discussed design and world building in terms of using your hands for touch and intimate contact. "The language of cinema itself can be used to describe space, time and narrative," he suggested in envisioning an interactive, multimedia, realtime experience.
And in one of the best discussions, "The Evolution of Expression," which included VFX Supervisors Mark Stetson (Superman Returns) and Tim McGovern (Tron), Virtual Art Director Rob Powers (Avatar) and Kim Libreri and Jerry O'Flaherty, who have collaborated on a realtime proof-of concept for Thundercats at Digital Domain, there was a very lively exchange. How does technology, and realtime in particular, change storytelling? Will everything be photoreal in five years? Does the growth of vfx de-prioritize story?
And while this exchange was going on, each major point was visualized on a white banner strung along the back wall. It was a very prescient moment that anticipated Carter's discussion about Zemeckis using a whiteout: "The Unknown is revealed by the greater unknown."
If only Underkoffler's human touch interface could've been utilized. But we'll have to save that for another 5D conference.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.