Featured, Interviews

Meet the Team Behind Banana Republic’s Virtual Reality Commercial

In this exclusive interview, Annie Lukowski and BJ Schwartz of Vanishing Point Media, one of the most successful virtual reality firms in the business, share their experiences as creatives working with virtual reality in the spheres of entertainment and advertising.Annie has directed ads for Jeep, teenVogue, the USA Network and received critical acclaim for her short films at TriBeca Film Festival. In addition, BJ is an award-winning writer and director, whose Wolves in the Woods received immense acclaim at the Telluride Film Festival.The duo recent made headlines for writing and directing virtual reality advertisements for Banana Republic and Stan Lee’s Comikaze.

Q1. Can you please introduce yourself to our audience?

VPM is a virtual reality production company committed to creating and cultivating high quality immersive content. We are storytellers pushing the medium forward and filmmakers with the technical expertise to help others create top tier content in this exciting new space.

We came to VR from a background in filmmaking — having met at USC film school as graduate students. Annie brings years of business experience to the venture and BJ his Stanford Law Degree — but fundamentally, this endeavor is all about telling compelling stories in an exciting new medium.

Q2. Walk us through the step-by-step process that you both went through to get to where you are today. What was the first thing you did?

VPM was born of necessity and a conviction that you can only learn by doing. We were given an opportunity to develop a slate of VR projects as writer/directors and knew we wanted to experiment with the medium and technology. One of the things that has defined our work in VR is our conviction that you can only figure out what works through experimentation. So, very early on we found ourselves in possession of a 360 rig and the skills to stitch footage. Next thing we knew, we were being hired to work on projects and VPM was born.

Q3. How do you complement each other to become a leading virtual reality content production company today?

The basic answer to this question is “we’re the band.” We split some duties but by-and-large our creative process is messy and 100% collaborative, fun, and undefined. We know how and when to make the concrete decisions that must be brought into the room with a client or actor. But when we’re creating together, there really are no defined roles. We co-write. We co-direct.

Q4. Can you talk us through your experience of writing and directing virtual reality advertisements for Banana Republic, Stan Lee’s Comikaze and Jimmy Kimmel’s VR experience?

Creating all of these experiences involved a lot of collaboration with absolutely fantastic clients. The Banana Republic commercial required us to reimagine how we would capture and finish the project. For that shoot, we didn’t even use a vr camera. BR is a fashion brand with specific visual needs and a desire to hit a lot of eyeballs (rather than dazzle smaller audiences with new technology). So we created an experience that would work in the headset but would be undiminished if viewed in a desktop browser, and we shot with a 4k Sony PXW-FS5. The structure of the experience is that the 360 world is broken up into 7 sectors — each a different slice of historic Charleston, South Carolina. A beautiful model walks between the different slices of reality and each time she steps into the next, her dress instantly changes. So it looks like she’s walking out in a yellow dress and stepped in wearing a pink one. We shot all the “slices” separately, built the ground and the sky from plates and married it all in post. We had a protractor on set to help with all the math, it was quite a hoot. So technically the shoot wasn’t even VR until we brought it into post.

 

With Kimmel, the demands involved shooting in front of a live audience and creating an experience that was both awe-inspiring (“holy moly I’m actually a GUEST ON KIMMEL!”) and also laugh-out-loud funny. It was amazing working with the incredible folks on the show to achieve that and create a short piece that really shows off where VR shines — transporting the viewer somewhere they might never be able to go and creating a sense of intimacy with others in the virtual space that is impossible in any other medium. Yes, you’re on stage. But even more, Jimmy Kimmel is talking to you. It’s pretty compelling. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that Mr. Kimmel is as charming and funny as he is. That you can’t fake with any piece of technology.

As for Comikaze (now Stan Lee’s ComiCon) — the main challenges were simply capturing and boiling down an incredible multi-day event into a short, compelling experience. We shot over 5 terabytes of footage on multiple rigs for that shoot. The data management was a beast and editorial was daunting. But, in the end, the product really captured the fun and excitement of the festivities (which are not to be missed).

For now, VR and 360 degree filmmaking remain a wild-wild west. Everything is new and making sure you start from the right place is critical. It’s just a blast to work with this stuff. It is also an incredible amount of work and the more experience you have, the better you are going to be — regardless of what technology you use.

Q5. What is your biggest challenge and accomplishment to date and why?

The biggest challenge in this space is managing resources and time while working in a quickly evolving, highly technically demanding artform — all while always keeping an eye on what matters: the final experience. We are very proud to have created a successful business that both pays the bills and gives us the room to develop our skills as storytellers and push medium forward.

Q6. What advice would you give a young person who aspires to work in the virtual reality industry today?

Do it. Go out and shoot stuff. Don’t expect to be great at first; in fact, strive to have a few failures. We certainly did. That’s how this works. Just get a camera and start experimenting. Experiment a LOT. Have no preconceived notions, watch as much content as you can, work on as many projects as you can. And don’t let the technical challenges grind you down (sometimes easier said than done).

Q7. Looking out 3 to 5 years, beyond the obvious trends, what do you think will be the next major innovation in virtual reality?

There are so many technical advances on the way — from the introduction of social, to improved cameras and headsets, to the arrival of Augmented Reality — that it would be hard to pick one piece of technology. But all of that will be for not without innovations in how we tell stories. We are confident that in the next handful of years, there will be breakout pieces of content that do for VR what Serial did for the podcast. That’s the kind innovation that will really change the game.

Previous ArticleNext Article
Thanks for reading this article. If you're new here, why don't you subscribe for regular updates via RSS feed or via email. You can also subscribe by following @techsling on Twitter or becoming our fan on Facebook. Thanks for visiting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Send this to a friend