For more than 20 years, director Doug Liman has been trying new things with how to tell stories on film, which has led to a filmography that includes everything from Swingers to The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith to 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow.
Now, Liman and his production company 30 Ninjas is making a big-time foray into 360-degree VR along with Jaunt, Samsung, Lexus, and Condé Nast Entertainment in the form of a new scripted series called Invisible. Starring Sofia Black-D’elia (Ben-Hur, The Night Of), Olivia Boreham-Wing, Michael Siberry, Austin Cauldwell, and Louis Cancelmi, it tells the story of the wealthy New York-based Ashlands family. They have their hands in every aspect of corporate America, but they also have a secret that certain members of their clan are able to literally turn invisible. When the family patriarch dies, there’s a power struggle where those invisibility powers come into play.
Previously, 360-degree VR has been used mostly for first person point-of-view type experiences, often tied to various studio movies, and it’s also been used in more artistic ways that allows the viewer to enter a piece of CG-art.
Invisible is a different experience, as it’s a dramatic mini-series like something you might see on TV or streaming but filmed entirely using Jaunt ONE VR camera, which creates a similar 360-degree experience where you’re able to feel as if you’re in the room with the characters as they interact. For instance, when a character walks toward the left, you can follow them by turning your head left. You can decide what portion of the room you will watch during any scene.
Last week, Den of Geek went to a post-production facility in New York City to watch the five episodes of Invisible and also had a chance to grab Liman for a quick interview in between the two movies he was in the midst of editing.
Den of Geek: I’m pretty familiar with VR but I’ve never seen anything like that where you have actors and edits. What got you into wanting to do something in that world?
Doug Liman: Ever since I first experienced VR a few years ago at Sundance, it’s so extraordinarily immersive, and in my 2D movies and my TV shows, I try to be really immersive. When you watch Bourne, you’re in the car, you’re in those countries with him. I was inclined to really fall in love with the immersive nature of VR, and obviously, I’m not a documentary filmmaker. I’m a scripted filmmaker, storyteller, and I thought, “Could this work in VR? Could scripted storytelling work in VR?” The fact that it hadn’t been done successfully before was automatically appealing, because I tend to look for the hard way to do things and look for challenges. It was a particularly exciting challenge, so I like physical danger and emotional danger, and to try something knowing [that] you can fall flat on your face is appealing to me.
What was different when you were on-set working with actors and what were some of the things that you had to immediately change?
Long before you get to set, you gotta’ change how you think about this. Melissa Wallack, who is a brilliant screenwriter, Academy-nominated for Dallas Buyers Club, we partnered on the storytelling, and we shot tests for about six or eight months before we started production, and one of the main things we discovered during those tests was that traditional scenes and traditional writing doesn’t work in VR.
You end up feeling like you’re watching a bad recording of a play. I started off talking about how I thought VR could be so immersive, and our initial tests were the exact opposite. You felt like you were watching a video recording of a play. You were not immersed at all in the emotion of what is happening.
Is that because of the lack of movement? What I liked about it was that it was more dynamic, and you have to follow the action with your eyes and head movement.
We really had to think about how you write scenes that will play well in VR and try them out. The difference between the tests and where we finally arrived is night and day. That’s one of the things that I do in my movies and made me very predisposed to doing VR at this stage is that I jump into new genres with each movie, and I don’t necessarily know how to make a film of that genre when I start, and I learn. I shoot and I watch what I’m shooting, and I re-edit and I re-shoot.
By the time I’m done making a movie, I know how to make that kind of movie, hopefully. Sometimes the movie doesn’t work, then okay, I didn’t figure that one out. VR was that on steroids, where we would shoot and we would edit and go, “What’s working? What’s not working?” And we’d reevaluate almost in real-time. Even the initial production, which was going to be done more like scripted television and movies, where everything is block-shot, and you find a location and shoot many things around that location, we were going to group the locations together, because that’s what you do in traditional film and television. You put some flats up, and then you’re somewhere else, so when we were at the Ashland Estate, which is a big estate with lots of room, we were going to build lots of other sets into that location.
We were going to use the basement, use the garage. We were going to build other sets. What we discovered is that idea that works so well in 2D doesn’t work in VR, because the audience can choose to look straight up and see the ceiling and realize, “Oh, you’re in the garage. You’re not in Haiti.” But in 2D, I could put a flat up of half the tent and suddenly I’m in Haiti…
Because in 2D, you can’t look behind you.
Especially when looking up, because normally flats are eight-feet high. Here, eight-feet wouldn’t get you to the ceiling. Look at all the crap that’s on the ceiling.
I was looking up a lot during the show to see how 360 the VR actually was.
We didn’t cheat. Because people like you are going to look, so you realize that we have to shoot this all on location. There’s no cheating. We literally shut down the production and reconfigured it a couple days in. That was the first of many re-conceptions.
How did it work having different directors on each episode? Obviously, the Ashland estate is being used a lot in each episode.
There were many directors, but there’s no one episode that was shot by one director. It’s more of a team effort. We had to put a different person’s name on each one. The whole concept of how we put this together—because this kind of work in VR hadn’t been done—I wanted to create a film school type environment. Film school to me is collaboration, and it’s filmmakers learning from fellow filmmakers, so I looked at and brought in Jerome (Sable) and Michael (Litwak), who had made short films that I thought were really creative and imaginative, and we became the first three students of a film school class.
They were on the set every moment I shot, and we brought in Simon Crane, somebody I had worked with, and Julina Tatlock. I think when people start a school, sometimes you just start with two students and then there are four students, and then ten students and 100 students. This school started with Jerome, Michael, and myself, and then we added a few more students like Simon and Julina, and we brainstormed all the time. They were on my set, I was on their set, and we were constantly talking about things that nobody has answers to when we started. “How do you do editing?” “Where’s somebody looking?” and “When and how do you move the camera?” and “What kinds of compositions are emotionally involving?” ‘Cause at the end of the day, we’re storytellers. There’s been a lot of stuff done in VR that showcases its potential, but we were setting out to tell a story, an emotionally engaging story.
Most of the VR I’ve seen has you in a room or a space and things going on around you, and some artists have done interesting things with VR using CG, but I’ve never seen any thing like this where it’s a TV show…
The thing I am most excited about, and why I’m so excited about Invisible, is that it is scripted. We are controlling your experience, but you have a level of control you’ve never had watching something scripted, because you get to choose where you look. You get to choose which characters you’re following. There are multiple scenes happening at the same time. The other thing is that a lot of VR, if it’s not written for VR, you’re going to end up with situations where you’re like there are two actors performing, and if you choose to look the other way, there’s just a wall.
How did the actors deal with this film school and having that going on while they’re trying to get into the characters?
I think my actors are always used to sort of work-shopping it, and trying ideas out. Yeah, I should mention that the actors are part of the film school too. Plus, this kind of directing harkens back to what it used to be like shooting on film where you don’t really know what you’ve gotten till a few days later when it’s been processed. We’re shooting blind. The technology was evolving while we were shooting. I shot the first two days. Originally, we were going to position it so I shot the last two days, so that my stuff could be the best, so we would benefit from all the institutional knowledge that would be acquired.
Eventually, I had to check my ego and be like, “No, I’ll go first.” Over the course of the shooting, the technology was catching up to us, so that when I shot, I was shooting completely blind. I couldn’t even see what it was I was shooting, because there’s no way to monitor what you’re shooting in real time. You think you’d be able to.
I remember when they started filming in 3D. It took them a while to be able to have 3D monitors on-set.
Towards the end, we at least had better “witness cameras,” but sometimes you just have to hide yourself on the set or figure out… the one thing about VR is that it’s very visual FX intensive. Even there’s this thing about “where’s the crew and where are the actors?” but we quickly figured out that what’s happening in front of the camera and behind the camera don’t have to be shot at the same time. You can shoot this direction… you have to motion-control the camera so the move can be repeated, and if the actors are crossing from here to there, they have to cross at exactly the right moment, and it’s very technically precise.
When I started out making movies, you had to be that technically precise. Now, these days, you can be loose about visual FX, you can be really loose shooting traditional film, and VR really took me back to my early days of film where if you’re doing a visual effect shot, you had to be really, really precise. Now you just shoot whatever you want to shoot, and they track the shot in post-production. There’s basically nothing they can’t do.
You’re busy editing two movies here, and you usually have a gap between films, so do you think you’ll have two out next year?
A lot of great material came in, and I can’t say “no” to something I’m passionate about. I just couldn’t say “no” to Invisible. If I really love something, I’m just going to find a way to do it.
Do you think you might try to do something else using VR?
Oh, yeah. We have a new series we’re developing, and I don’t think we can announce the star yet, but it’s a pretty big star, and it’s technology we don’t even know how to do yet, but we’ll figure it out.