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Q&A: James Hay & Patrick Malley, How Koncept VR Pushes Boundaries in VR Filmmaking

Last week, Storyhunter had the opportunity to chat with two virtual reality producers from Koncept VR, the creative arm of Freedom 360. The…
Q&A: James Hay & Patrick Malley, How Koncept VR Pushes Boundaries in VR Filmmaking
James Hay (left) and Patrick Malley (right) with the Mantis 360° in WeWork Dumbo.

Last week, Storyhunter had the opportunity to chat with two virtual reality producers from Koncept VR, the creative arm of Freedom 360. The company, which specializes in cinematic 360° video and VR, was on a shoot at WeWork Dumbo, where the Storyhunter East Coast office is located. When we saw them driving the new Mantis 360° rig, we naturally had to stop and ask them all about it. James Hay, a VR Specialist, and Patrick Malley, a Production Specialist, spoke to us about the rig and how Koncept VR is pushing the boundaries of virtual reality cinema and production.

Storyhunter: Can you tell us more about Koncept VR?

James Hay: We specialize in live-action cinematic VR. We’ve done a number of shoots — everything ranging from rocket launches to Broadway musicals like School of Rock and Hamilton. But we mainly specialize in cinematic movie shots.

Patrick Malley with the Mantis 360°.

S: What’s on the 360° rig that you brought for the shoot today?

JH: We have the Mantis, which is a rover, and on that Mantis, we have a Kenyon Gyro, with a Freedom 360 broadcast rig that’s holding the cameras. We have six cameras on the rig and two cameras facing down to help us remove the floor in post-production. This rig has just recently been introduced and we’re one of the first companies to be using it. We’ve been doing a lot of rigorous testing with it.

S: So how does it work?

Patrick Malley: The broadcaster rig on the Mantis was designed for live streaming 360° content. Then we noticed in post-production that it has very nice stitch lines that are easier to correct for and it kind of became our go-to camera for moving shots.

The Mantis 360° rig from Freedom 360 in action.

JH: With the stabilized gyro on it, it allows us to get moving shots that are very stable, free flowing, eye-level shots as if you were walking down a hallway. You can have people in front of the rover, behind it, walking beside it having a conversations and you’re just basically walking next to them and it really gives you that sense of being there.

Once you learn the art of getting the shot and stamping everything out, it becomes a very fluid, smooth experience. You had asked earlier, does this make people nauseous, and actually it doesn’t. When we stabilize the footage, it’s a very clean experience.

S: How did you two get into VR?

PM: I got started in VR about a year and a half ago. I’ve been doing everything from production, post-production, to figuring out different equipment to use and different styles of shooting.

JH: I got into it ten years ago in the ski industry in Colorado. I started mapping out ski resorts in 360° video with the same technology that Google was using for Street View, so this was in 2007, and I launched a company called Slopeviews. Three days before we launched our first map, Google released Slope View, their ski version of it. It actually worked out well for us. They were still using their classic Street View technology…whereas we were using video. We were one of the early adopters of 360° video and I’ve been working with it ever since, kind of migrating from the ski industry to mapping out facilities, then that turned into extreme sports, and adventure sports in VR, and now I’m more on the creative side of the industry.

S: What are your days like at Koncept?

JH: I’m usually out on shoots every other week and in post-production every week. If I’m on a shoot, I’m doing post on the road, plus all the other tasks that need to be handled running a VR production company. I kind of float around. Since I’ve been in the industry so long, I have a good idea of its different segments. [At Koncept], we’ve got a very solid crew and the owners of the company were the inventors of the 360° line. So a lot of the cameras being used by all VR companies are our products. The camera mount that’s on that rig is ours — we create hardware and do production as well.

Produced by Koncept VR for Open Blue

PM: One day I’ll just be doing gear reorganization…while the next day I’m stitching a rocket launch, or going out to film in the Mediterranean, or Arizona. About sixteen people work for Koncept, so it’s a small team, but it’s really curated, well thought out, a lot of smart people that work here. And it really helps that Koncept was bought by Freedom 360°, which makes camera mounts. It’s nice to be able to just go next door and say ‘Hey, we want to build this’ and they have a whole bunch of parts. It’s like being a kid again with Legos and building everything and making all sorts of crazy things.

JH: Recently, I did two rocket launches down in Cape Canaveral.

S: Where did you put your cameras for that?

JH: We put them on the launchpad. We lost gear. It was to be expected. The forces that were in play — we had a camera next to the fire trench. I got a lot of cool footage, but they say those fire trenches get as hot as the sun for a second.

The last one we did was Delta IV Heavy. If you look down after the rockets launch, you’ll see the grass catch on fire from the gases still in the air. The reason why we place so many cameras is that we expect to lose some. It’s worked out most of the time. It’s just one of those environments that’s very hard and challenging to shoot in.

Rocket Launch 360 video produced by Koncept VR.

I think one of the big things about Koncept is that we’re always trying to push the boundaries of what we can do in VR and trying to get those shots that other companies are hesitant to get. One of my big things is trying to work in environments that aren’t friendly. I did a lot of shooting in the mountains in Colorado — just inhospitable environments and trying to get wider shots, and drone shots, and whatever we can that other companies aren’t doing.

S: How do you direct viewers to look where you want in a 360° video?

JH: I’m not a sound mixer, but they set up multiple mics — like five to fifteen mics — and they’ll map those out. We have a diagram of what the sound looks like, then we map the sound to the video. Then we have another thing called forced perspective, so if you’re watching a video and we cut to another scene, we can reorient the video to start at where you are looking. Some people call it action scripting, but we call it forced perspective. It’s an art that’s still being developed. I think we’re doing a pretty good job.

S: What other techniques do you use to direct viewers’ attention?

PM: The more centered you make something, the more likely they are to follow that. And by placing things in smart ways, such as bringing your main action closer while your background is a little further. Or your main character is dressed in more vibrant colors. Doing simple stuff like that can draw the viewer’s attention without detracting from the story.

In terms of color correction, we’ll make a spot a little bit brighter than the rest, which we dim down just a little bit, so when you’re watching it you don’t notice it. But naturally you drift towards something that’s a little different. So little tweaks that can center a viewer, but also allow them to explore the world.

Koncept VR was commissioned to do post-production on this New York Times video.

S: What are your favorite parts about working in VR film production?

PM: Each day you’re rewriting the rules…I attribute a lot of it to the early days of film. A lot of those films were bad, but it was the fact that you could do it, that you could make a moving picture. Now it’s a lot of the same things — the stories are not always the best, but it’s the fact that you’re able to do it. People are starting to expand creatively and are working on really wonderful pieces in VR…I always have the hope and dream that VR, as it progresses, eventually gets to the Star Trek Holodeck.

JH: As fun as entertainment is, there’s a million things you can do in VR. At the end of the day, it has the power to invoke empathy and different feelings within people, and I think capitalizing on that is a huge thing. And it’s something that I personally want to take on. I want to leverage it for the greater good. There’s a lot of good that can come out of VR, a lot of awareness. It’s one thing watching something on standard video, but when you’re thrown into an environment, it’s very powerful, you really feel it, you really experience it. I think journalism and documentaries are a natural fit for it, but nobody has it down perfect. There’s a lot of room for growth…The exciting thing about this industry is that it’s still being defined.

By D. Simone Kovacs and Jindalae Suh, Writers at Storyhunter