Creating the Authentic Experience of GIANT in Virtual Reality

By Milica Zec and Winslow Porter of New Reality Company

GIANT is now available on Within. Below, we share stories from its creators of its inspiration, production and festival reception.

Milica Zec, Director & Co-Creator:

When I was seventeen, bombs rained down on my hometown of Belgrade, Serbia. War felt like an abstraction gone personal; at the time, I never believed it could happen to me.

Flash forward to fifteen years later. I was working as a filmmaker and editor in New York City when I met screenwriter Lizzie Donahue and opened up to her about my experience growing up in a war-torn country. We decided together to create a short film that would speak to war in a Western context, reaching those viewers who had never experienced its wake. The script, set a few years into the future, depicted a fictional family and conflict loosely based upon my own experience. Lizzie’s first draft was powerful, aching with the familiar story of protecting a loved one from an external threat. Upon my initial read, I decided it was crucial to place the audience directly inside of the story, surrounded by its raw emotion with nowhere to escape. That’s when I realized it had to be VR.

Winslow Porter, Producer & Co-Creator:

My long-time friend and collaborator Milica called me in summer 2015 with an idea for a new project called Giant, which would immerse users into a suburban family’s basement turned makeshift bomb shelter. At the time, I was a creative technologist and interactive producer with a few VR and many large-scale interactive installations already under my belt. Milica and I left our full-time jobs to create Giant, which — unbeknownst to us at the time — would change our lives for the foreseeable future.

We knew we believed in the idea, but it was ambitious to be sure. Luckily, Jess Engel and David Mullett were as resolute in our vision as we were and signed on shortly as co-producers. With them on board, we fleshed out the idea to create a familiar basement environment in Unreal Engine with video of real actors. That aim required us to transpose live-action footage into a game engine environment, a task requiring a great deal of technical innovation. To that end, we brought in Jack Caron, Todd Bryant, Juan Salvo, and Omer Shapira, four tech-savvy artists with a penchant for pushing boundaries in interactive storytelling. This core team helped us implement DepthKit volumetric capture and playback in Unreal, allowing us to imbue our actors with depth and body.

With Team Giant in place, we developed a plan to bring the idea to life. After that, it was time to begin filming.

Creating an Authentic Experience

Our first shoot in VR meant venturing into uncharted territory. The actors, none of whom had personally experienced war, had to generate cathartic performances on a fully-lit green screen stage. To bring them closer to the situation, we played sounds of bomb blasts to emulate a conflict zone. Altogether, it was a single day shoot with about twenty wide-shot takes, all of which the actors performed from beginning to end much like a one-act play. We give so much credit to our actors Clem McIntosh (Josh), Zoë Winters (Clara) and Jordana Rose (Rose) for expanding their horizons and opening their hearts so profoundly in their roles.

Throughout the process, we were fortunate enough to partner with leaders at NVIDIA, HP, Epic Games, Microsoft, Framestore and Comcast Ventures, all of whom helped us corral the inventive hardware and software to bring our vision to life. The final element to secure was sound; because we wanted Giant to be a fully immersive experience, and for viewers to fully suspend their disbelief, it was crucial for us to craft a powerful multi-sensory experience. Our sound designer Aleksandar Protic, who also lived in Serbia during the bombings, added an extraordinary authenticity to the piece. Scott Gershin of Technicolor Sound Lab designed our 360 and VR sound, including finalizing audio for the 360 export. The piece was completed in January 2016 and premiered at Sundance New Frontier, later making its way to GDC, Cannes, NYFF and nineteen other festivals all over the world.

Changing Perspectives Across the Globe

The reactions to Giant thus far have touched our lives more than we could have ever imagined. While some festival-goers removed their headsets with tears streaming down their face, others were somber, noting it changed their perspective on war. Most people said the experience demystified warzones by bringing them back to the simple power of a family in peril. We want all viewers to access that same feeling through Giant.

We’ve long admired the creative and curatorial work of Within and its commitment to innovative storytelling, which is why we’ve chosen their app to share our piece across the globe. It is an honor to bring you Giant, the work of an unbelievably dedicated team and the story of over a million families in conflict zones today.

With love,

Milica, Winslow and Team Giant

Milica is a film and VR director, editor, producer, and screenwriter.

Winslow is a Brooklyn-based film and virtual reality director, producer, and creative technologist.

Co-founded by the two, New Reality Company is a creative studio dedicated to synthesizing storytelling, art and technology into groundbreaking and emotional projects; Giant is one of the first VR projects to combine semi-volumetric live action video with game engine software.

Read more about Milica, Winslow and New Reality here.