Poster of the Firekeeper. Photo from Artlord China.

“It’s time to get into VR for new experiments in storytelling”

Q&A with Eddie Lou, co-founder of Artlord China

Founded in late 2015, Artlord China is a new VR film studio based in Beijing and Kaohsiung. Artlord China recently launched an interactive VR video demo, “Firekeeper”, which is a romantic and futuristic animated video adapted from a fairy tale by award-winning Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin.

Being highly curious about the up-and-coming team, AllChinaTech invited Eddie Lou, Co-Founder of Artlord China, to discuss the current market and future of VR content development in China. Eddie is also the organizer of the Global Innovator Conference VR Summit.

ACT: Artlord is from Taiwan. Why did you choose to set up a mainland branch and focus on VR only now?

Eddie: My partner, Mike Yang, grew up in the U.S. and returned to Taiwan not long ago to help Rhythm & Hues, the visual effects company known for its work in Life of Pi, set up their Taiwan team. Apart from the film Life of Pi, Mike also participated in shooting and post production on Matrix 3 Revolutions. So our founding team has a strong background in visual effects.

In Hollywood, most visual effects production on films is outsourced to different studios. These production houses don’t have many chances to engage in the planning and early stages of film development. They only work as vendors with very limited power over production. VR provides a new chance for these creative teams — like us. It has a much shorter and simpler production cycle, which makes it possible for teams like us to engage in the full process. We have years of experience in visual effects that can be used to produce a great VR experience.

Artlord already has two teams based in Taiwan and India. We’re building up our mainland team right now, but our Beijing team will focus on early-stage development first, such as planning, script writing and shooting. We will slowly build our post-production team over the next year as talent in the field is still lacking.

ACT: Speaking of recruitment, some VR content creators told us that it may not be the perfect time to start a VR business because of the high cost of recruiting proper talent at the moment. Those established teams were founded about two years ago. So it’s risky for newcomers considering the high cost.

Eddie: Two years ago might be a bit too early since there weren’t even any applicable devices yet. This year, at least some VR headset manufacturers, like Oculus, HTC Vive, and GearVR, have begun shipping their products. The number of buyers may not be that decent, but at least we are starting to have a user base for VR now.

Indeed, as far as monetizing business, it may not be the best timing for content developers at the moment. But for developers, there is always a learning curve, especially for new technologies. We content creators need time to learn, to explore, and to experiment. You can’t wait until the ownership of VR reaches tens of millions to get into the market. Of course, I believe late comers will have their chances then, but we want to push the boundaries of VR by creating something that’s unique in its early stages.

ACT: Your debut video Firekeeper is a short VR fairy tale. It’s also targets a relatively niche market compared to other types of VR content. Why did you choose to develop a story like this?

Eddie: Firekeeper is a full CG narrative. Strictly speaking, it’s not a movie, but it’s not a video game either. It’s an interactive VR experience, a direction that we want to explore.

Yes, it’s relatively niche in China. But it’s niche not because the market doesn’t accept content like this, but because it has its own barriers of entry.

ACT: What kind of barriers are you referring to?

Eddie: Well, firstly, there’s a technical barrier. But more importantly, it doesn’t have a clear monetization model compared to games.

You see, most content developers in China focus on VR games, because it has a clearer and more obvious business model. Oculus Share and Steam were originally game platforms. So to many, video games seem to be a more natural choice. It’s a more comprehensible business model for investors as well.

We, in contrast, want to develop content based on our advantages: we were a visual effects team. We want to see how CG and interaction in VR can change the way we tell a story.

We are one of the very few studios creating content in this form worldwide. There are more teams doing this overseas, like Oculus Story Studio. They already launched their narrative short story Henry. Other pioneers include Baobab, Penrose, and Wevr. These teams are related to Pixar and Dreamworks. And most of their team members were originally working on visual effects or animation, which is pretty similar to us.

Compared with these companies, we also have more experience creating content that is live action CG. My opinion is that VR is a new medium, so we should explore new possibilities for storytelling based on the characteristics of VR.

ACT: Does it mean investors and entrepreneurs in the field may have concerns about how to monetize the business?

Eddie: Just as I have said, it’ll be hard for content creators to make good profit returns quickly because we’re at a very early stage of development. Now everyone has different price projections. Penrose, for example, launched a short video named “The Rose And I”, adapted from the Little Prince, on Steam at the price of five dollars, but no one was willing to pay five bucks for such a short video, so they had to take it down and release it for free. Meanwhile, some content creators have made a good profit already.

So I think both consumers and producers are bidding on each other’s expectations. I can’t say at which point everyone will be willing to pay. But I think after consumers get access to good products via film festivals or game platforms, they’ll adjust their expectations and will make their own judgements on the value of VR content. After that, as VR content creators, we will then have a better sense of how to adjust our pricing strategies.

ACT: What’s your plan for Artlord’s next product? Will it be similar to Firekeeper?

Eddie: Firekeeper is a special project for us. It’s low-poly art-styled, and it’s full CG. We chose to develop a full CG film because it has relatively fewer limitations in production. And it’s developed for HTC Vive, which enables us to explore more aspects of VR interaction.

We chose Firekeeper to be our first film also because it’s a very special piece by Liu Cixin, the renowned Chinese sci-fi author who recently won the Hugo award. This is his first and only sci-fi fairytale. Our team really liked it, so we picked it for our debut. We’ll finish the film in Q4 this year and then present it at international film festivals to show others that Chinese teams can also produce really good VR stories.

I think we’ve experimented enough in this direction, so for our next project, we want to try something we’re more familiar with, which is the combination of CG and live action. We’re also open to commercial collaborations so as to maintain a fair income. We will develop some content for VR experience centers/VR theme parks as well content to test the possibilities of this specific channel. The primary direction for us is to explore all possibilities of VR storytelling as a new medium.

We talked to some experience center platforms and they were also excited about this. They’re very willing to know how we can develop new narratives where you’re not just sitting there, but also walking around and experiencing the entire story in a distinctive way. This is also our focus for the latter half of this year.

ACT: Some also argue that VR may just become an adaptation for game consoles. It doesn’t sound good to video production teams like Artlord. What do you think of this?

Eddie: I don’t really agree with that. I think consumers of VR content won’t be limited to gamers only. Although gamers are right now the core user group, it’s still a relatively small community.

Statistics show that videos, not video games, are the most desired content for VR now. About 40% of interviewees want to try VR videos. Video games represent most of the VR content on the market right now because the earliest developers of VR content are game developers. Video and film makers may still need time to catch up.

And I don’t think the driver of VR will be games either. Video games may drive the development of VR in terms of technology, but for the adoption of VR, the driver will be videos, or that is to say narratives. Compared with games, videos have fewer limitations: you don’t need to rely on specific input devices, and you won’t need high-end computers. Experiencing VR will be very accessible from as simple as a cardboard box for your smartphone. So I think videos may play a more significant role in promoting VR to the general public.

Right now, all the six major film production companies are creating VR content along with their new movies. I think parallel stories and alternative endings for films will become popular in VR, and they are important for bringing the technology to the masses. If all your favorite movies have an alternate ending in VR or have a branch-out story in VR, all you’d need is just some cardboard, and you would love to have a go with it.

ACT: Then what do you think will be the tipping point for VR before 2020?

Eddie: I discussed this with a lot of people at the VR Summit. I think there will be a phenomenal event for both software and hardware to bring the VR market to a larger scale.

For software, it’ll be the killer app everybody is talking about. But personally, I don’t think it’ll be a video game. At least it won’t be a game with deep interaction. It may be a movie or, very likely, a social app.

ACT: Why social app?

Eddie: We may need to expand the concept of social apps a little bit. A social app may not be just an IM app. It can be a poker game. Imagine a group of people playing poker together in VR. These players may invite more people into the game, and then create a platform. Such an app may not emerge immediately. It may take time. But an app like this may change the landscape of the industry.

For hardware, I think it’s essential to bring down the cost of VR headsets to make it more accessible to others. I’m not that concerned with the issue of wireless transmission, as I know several significant manufacturers are researching wireless solutions right now. I even know a manufacturer that claims their wireless product will be launched in the latter half of the year. If so, it’ll make VR even more attractive to consumers.

ACT: Speaking of consumers, what are the features of Chinese consumers? Are they price-sensitive?

Eddie: I don’t think price is the ultimate determinant right now. The key is still accessibility. Still, very few people have tried VR. I used to bring my GearVR headset with me all the time and ask my friends who have never experienced VR to have a try whenever I could. These people aren’t savvy game players, but all of them turned out to be very interested in VR after their first trial and would like to buy one themselves. So I think the key will still be accessibility: whether they have access to VR and good content.

ACT: Is there a significant difference between the Chinese and overseas market?

Eddie: Oh, I think there are quite a number of differences.

First of all, more Chinese companies are making hardware. Many foreign teams think that it’s impossible to surpass Oculus so we shouldn’t be making headsets. It’s totally different here. Even after the bubble of VR hardware busted, there still exist many VR headset manufacturers.

But on software, overseas teams are making far more diversified explorations than we are here. For example, at the VR Summit, you could find foreign teams developing social platforms, healthcare applications, education applications and space exploration apps. In contrast, most Chinese teams are still developing games, some are doing real estate related projects, but not many different directions.

It’s pertinent to the different business atmospheres in different countries. In the U.S., investors have more patience for an early startup, allowing them to explore more if they have a clear understanding of the industry and a longer vision. In China, early investors have less tolerance and are always trying to cash out as quickly as possible.

Also, some research projects overseas are backed by big brands. Compared with their overseas counterparts, Chinese big companies tend to be less willing to invest in early stage projects that are not easily monetized soon.

ACT: Last question: Artlord has made many explorations in VR content development. Is there any tip you’d like to share with our readers?

Eddie: To be honest, I wouldn’t dare say we really have anything to share because VR is such a new medium, which has no established rules to adhere to. The only tip to share is to be bold and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Even renowned directors, like Steven Spielberg, are experimenting with VR with The Virtual Reality Company. No one can say their methods are 100% right or are the only right approach. Everyone is at the same starting point. Also, because the entire industry of VR is evolving, solutions we have now may not be the solutions for tomorrow. So as I said, everyone is trying.

One thing I’m sure about is that for VR content, the role of a scriptwriter will be more significant. For VR stories, you can have more than one plot. And because of interactive scenarios, for each plot, there will then be numerous branches. You can see how the workload of playwrights add up here in accordance with the interactions you want to achieve. So I think the scriptwriter will play a key role in developing VR storytelling experiences in the future.

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