Google ATAP & The Mill – Help 360º VR Film

March 23, 2016
by Tim Rabjohns

So, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, it’s no surprise that one of the big topics at the South By South West (SXSW) festival recently was Virtual Reality – VR.  As with most technologies there needs to be a close collab between the people making the tech and the people with interesting stories.  This latest intermingling of The Mill, Google ATAP (Advanced Technology and Projects group) and Director Justin Lin into a 360 degree film called “HELP” seems to have done just that in an explosive way.

The most important thing for me is that they have found a way to incorporate longer narrative techniques into a 360º environment, and side stepping the problems of motion sickness that are inherent with prolonged VR headset use.  By using the motion sensor on the mobile device , you can move where you want, but you don’t have to be wearing a headset.  Cracking a way for people to be able to plug into a 360º narrative piece for this extended time has been puzzling those that want VR to go mainstream for a while.

Starting at the beginning – Google launched “Spotlight Stories” in October 2013 as a new storytelling platform for the mobile audience. ‘HELP’ is the fourth story in the series, and is a classic tale of explosions, aliens, heroines and heroes. The difference with this format is that like any VR the audience can look around them 360º while the story is happening, set the pace and frame the shot.

This is pretty cool in itself, bet then if you get the visual wizards at The Mill involved you get a new layer of technical ability – they worked out how to combine live action and computer graphics in a 360º environment, creating an action-driven story with cinema quality visual effects.

To achieve this The Mill had to come up with some novel solutions (you get a good idea from the “making-of” film above).  They created ‘Mill Stitch’ (TM pending) –  a proprietary software solution that takes images from multiple cameras and then stitches the output into a continuous 360 degree view.  This on-set solution provided the director and director of photography with the unique ability to dynamically move the camera to follow the high-intensity action that is the dramatic hallmark of ‘HELP’.  During post-production, a more refined version of ‘Mill Stitch’ was used in tandem with several other proprietary Mill software tools to rebuild a seamless drama combining live-action and vast CG environments.

Alongside the new pipeline and desktop tools, The Mill created an app that allowed for daily viewing on a tablet so Justin and the Google ATAP team could review the film.

Help Google ATAP The Mill on dotmogo

‘HELP’ is already available for free with the new Google Spotlight Stories app on Android and iOS via the App Store.

Another piece of the jigsaw was having a camera rig that could shoot in 360º.  Collaborating with Google ATAP’s team of experts allowed The Mill  to solve this new challenge by creating a totally new piece of tech to do this.

If this short film packed with all these new ideas can take off – then I’m excited to see what’s next for 360º dramatic narrative – combine this with binaural sound and you won’t be sitting in your chair any more, but really feel like you’re in the action…

VFX & Design: The Mill, Exec Producer: Sue Troyan & Reece Ewing, Producer: Leighton Greer
Assoc Producer: David Lawrence & Alexandra Paton, Creative Director: Gawain Liddiard, Senior Research & Development: James Studdart, Research & Development: Timothy Wernette & Andry Jong, Technical Innovations Manager: Tawfeeq Martin, 2D Lead Artist: Daniel Thuresson, 3D Lead Artist: Gawain Liddiard, Animation Lead: Jacob Bergman, Lighting & Rendering Lead: Sean Durnan, FX Lead: Ashraf Ghoniem, Production Company: Bullitt, Director: Justin Lin, Exec Producer: Todd Makurath, Producer: Diane Castrup, DOP: Claudio Miranda, Phedon Papamichael
Creative Director: Philip Chung, VFX Supervisor: Alex Vegh, Production Supervisor: Taylor Steadman, Asst. Production Supervisor: Michael Cheng, 1st AD: Kirk Rogers, 2nd AD: Jeb Barrows

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