“When you are starting a company, you sometimes feel like you’ll never get another job, or you just want to make the client happy, so you say yes thinking that you’ll figure it out. […]It’s ok to be honest with clients and put your foot down in order to make the project better.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Celia the Managing Partner and Creative Director of Light Sail VR. He is a creative visionary with over a decade of experience spanning technology, film production and entrepreneurial endeavors. Celia fuses his knack for crafting authentic narratives and technical prowess across all sectors of VR production to create compelling cinematic storytelling. His work has amplified the impact of immersive content for such top brands as GoPro, the Soma Fashion Network, Dr. Phil and Google, Refinery29 among many others.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was born in Pasadena, CA but moved to the east coast at the age of five. I spent a few years outside of NYC where I picked up several child acting gigs and earned enough money to buy my very first computer. I’ve always been a really technical person and I love the power that computers give to people who want to create art, whether it’s a game, a song, a photo or a movie. When I was in eighth grade, I modeled the Globe Theater in a 3D program called Bryce 3D and rendered out QTVR clips that I hooked up via hotspots to create a virtual tour — I guess that was my first immersive project! It took about 2.5 months to render, but my teacher was pretty lenient about me turning it in late. Theater and music have always been big parts of my life, and although most people in high school assumed I would pursue a career in acting, I decided to head to film school at Chapman University and return to the west coast.
After graduating with a BFA in Film Production, my first gig out of college was with Warner Bros. in its Web2.0 division. My duties revolved around trying to figure out how to create dynamic web content for the studio (before webisodes were a thing). It was a great crash course in everything from working with a huge studio, to learning to be scrappy and wear a lot of hats. We wrote, shot, directed, produced, and edited a ton of content over two years. I really enjoyed how hands-on everything was and took that experience with me to my next gig at a commercial production company. Eventually, I ended up producing and directing content for brands and local companies in Los Angeles while filming a documentary with my wife. The film is called Off the Floor and Robert, now my business partner at Light Sail VR who I had known since film school, saw the film and thought it would be a good fit for Oxygen, OWN, etc. We pitched it around, but wasn’t getting a lot of traction. That’s when Robert suggested I check out virtual reality. I remember heading to VRLA the summer of 2015 and seeing a ton of interesting content, but none of it really had any storytelling to it. It was then I saw a clear vision for what I wanted to do as an artist. I immediately called Robert up and said “I want to buy a camera and start making 360 videos. Are you in?” That was the birth of Light Sail VR.
Can you share your funniest or most interesting story since starting Light Sail VR?
We were on set filming “Speak of the Devil” and our blood team had rigged our actor with a heart that pumped and sputtered blood. It was amazing. I was standing behind the camera and was so engrossed in Mick Ignis’ performance as our cultist that I began to shout some direction at him. I shouted at him to throw the heart down and roar at us, but I forgot that he was tethered to this pump! He threw the heart down and it disconnected the line. Blood went EVERYWHERE! All over me, the talent, the CAMERA (with its 16 lenses). Thankfully, it was the last shot of the day and we nailed it. Everybody was laughing, except for the 1st AC who knew he’d have to spend an hour cleaning it.
What do you think makes Light Sail VR stand out?
I think we’ve always approached projects from a story first perspective. I mean, we’re all excited about the technology, but we’ve often thought it better to make sure that technology is being used to support the narrative. In the early days of VR it seemed like people were trading mostly on the novelty of the technology and had forgotten that the best content (in ANY medium) is made up of compelling characters, an exciting conflict, and emotional resonance. Those are the three pillars of storytelling at Light Sail VR. People have gravitated towards this vision and I think our work speaks for itself. We also try to be nice people.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards, who helped get you to where you are?
I’ve been blessed in my life to know quite a few talented people who helped me get where I am. Most of our first projects came from friends of friends willing to take a chance on me, offering Light Sail the opportunity to prove our vision. It took a leap of faith from them and I am forever grateful. On the personal side, I really couldn’t have ever taken the leap of faith without the support from my wife. It’s scary to start your own business and at that time in our lives, I don’t think I could have done it without her encouragement.
On the business side, I learned a lot of how to work with brand clients from executive producers Preson Lee and Phyllis Koenig, whom I used to work for back when they owned a commercial production company. The knowledge I picked up by listening to directors field phone calls from agencies, write treatments, and create branded content that never felt like a commercial, I think has been key to Light Sail’s early success.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Tons of great stuff. A lot of it is not out yet, and I can’t talk about that, but I will say that we’re very actively involved in creating immersive entertainment centered around quality storytelling and answering the question as to why this content makes sense in 360 or 180VR. We’re also working hard on several training projects for companies. The emotional connection you can create in VR is very powerful and that’s giving companies a resource for internal education and sales. I’m personally really excited by how the fields of video and interactivity are merging in this new medium.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m not sure I consider myself successful, but I try and give back to the community as much as possible. Working in VR, it’s such a new medium. I think we have to share our successes and also our failures, so that we all can learn how to tell great immersive stories. I also am a big believer in trying to find and hire diverse talent. Mentoring people in the Women in VR programs, and always trying to give access to the technology to those who don’t have it via our internship program, are ways that Robert and I are trying to build a positive cultural impact with our company.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life?
I read a book called “The Art of Dramatic Writing” that really crystalized what a good story is made of for me. It was recommended by Andrew Stanton. In it, the author distills all good stories into themes and this helps you, as a creative person, filter out all the unimportant stuff and focus on what you are trying to say. I found it incredibly helpful in focusing my creative vision and funneling it into this idea that every element of a production needs to serve the thematic story.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why?
- “It’s ok to say no.” When you are starting a company, you sometimes feel like you’ll never get another job, or you just want to make the client happy, so you say yes thinking that you’ll figure it out. You won’t. Or if you do, it’ll be the result of a lot of stress and the final product won’t be what you thought. It’s ok to be honest with clients and put your foot down in order to make the project better. Wish I had learned that sooner.
- “Learn to delegate.” I’m someone who loves to do everything and learn everything. That’s great if you are a small one person company, but it doesn’t scale well.
- “Take the time to vet people you hire.” I’ve learned that you can only be as good as your team and finding that team is really important. Hiring people is hard, but finding the right people makes the project go so much smoother. It’s important to take the time to find good people and get recommendations from several people, not just one. We’ve been burned a few times with bad recommendations. Ultimately, I blame myself for not doing a good enough job vetting.
- “Remember to be patient.” I’m still learning this. I want Light Sail VR to be a big company with a dozen employees. I want us to be constantly cranking out the best and biggest projects. I feel like, even though we’re sometimes mentioned in tandem with much larger companies, we’re still really small. When I forget this, I become frustrated. But when I remember, I am grateful for all the success we’ve so far found and the amazing people we’ve already worked with. I have faith the next several years will be good.
- “It will be hard.” I feel like I knew this, but I think it would have been helpful for someone to come in with a reality check and remind me to make sure to spend time with my family and disconnect when I need to. Light Sail’s evolution has been very natural and organic. It’s been hard, but we’ve also been lucky.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Really tough question. My documentary background gives me this endless curiosity about people and worlds I don’t understand. My interests are so broad that it’s hard to pick just one! When I began answering these questions, Jonathan Gold (Pulitzer Prize winning food writer for the LA Times) was still alive and he would have been my choice. I’m really sad that he passed away, because his work was so important in helping me love this city and see Los Angeles as the beautiful melting pot of culture it is.