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Meet The D.W. Griffith Of Virtual Reality

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”  — Arthur Schopenhauer

This post was originally featured on Forbes.com on August 24, 2017

Like all geniuses, the CEO & founder of Penrose VR animation studio, Producer and Director Eugene Chung, says he stands on the shoulders of giants like legendary filmmakers Irving Thalberg, Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, and Hayao Miyazaki. I was blown away by his sixteen-minute narrative VR masterpiece Arden’s Wake at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Immersive Arcade in April so I jumped at the chance to meet Chung at Penrose’s San Francisco office, and to experience Arden’s Wake and its critically acclaimed predecessor, Allumette, again.

Eugene Chung, Founder & CEO of Penrose Studios, and Producer & Director of its “Allumette” and “Arden’s Wake” narrative VR experiences.

Arden’s Wake was even better the second time I saw it. It’s a completely new, original approach to immersive storytelling that makes us think differently about how third person narratives will work in this new medium. I saw something revolutionary like this once before, in this very same city, in 1986, when Pixar’s “Luxo, Jr.” was first screened. It re-defined animation. We had never before seen anyting like it. Twenty years later Disney acquired Pixar for 7.4 Billion dollars.

If you’re making VR experiences, or are a theater director, film maker or interactive media producer interested in immersive storytelling, you MUST experience Allumette and the upcoming Arden’s Wake for yourself to see just how Penrose is innovating in this new medium and finding solutions that have eluded others who are pandering to a family audience with the techniques of 360 videos.

Arden’s Wake takes us inside a Waterworld-like post apocalyptic world, where a teenage girl lives in a Nemo-like lighthouse built atop a decaying underwater skyscraper. When her inventor father is lost while diving, she takes his underwater vehicle into the ruins to find him. The 3D animation is simply amazing. We follow the tiny characters and their narrative as if we are giants looking into a dollhouse.

 Penrose Studios posters try to convey the epic scale of their VR experiences.

Allumette was the talk of the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016. Wired Magazine declared “The stunning Allumette is the first VR Film masterpiece!” This fifteen minute narrative VR experience is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Little Match Girl”, but set in a a Venitian floating world. Overall it has the feel of a popup children’s book, which makes it all the more shocking when Chung soulfully and unflinchingly executes Andresen’s tragic ending. In Allumette we first see the VR storytelling techniques Chung and his team poineered to give the viewer control over scale, perspective and presence, replacing the traditional cinematic language of intercutting and parallel action invented by D.W. Griffith in 1908.

Critics raved about Penrose Studio’s VR featurette “Allumette”.

As in the early days of film, or motion pictures, or movies, we are so early in the development of this medium we don’t have words to describe it, even to other people inside the industry. Arden’s Wake is not a film. It’s cinematic, but not live action. It’s a story. A narrative. It has main characters, though they are stylized like the stop motion maquettes featured in the movies Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Certainly, like all VR, we experience it, though experience doesn’t quite capture it, either. Escape Rooms are experiences, too. “Sleep No More”, the smash hit New York show now entering its sixth blockbuster year, is called immersive theater, which Chung says strongly influenced him, along with the operas in which his father performed. He says he is also inspired by video and strategy games, whose miniature style suggested the god-like perspective of his narrative VR experiences.

The epic success of “Sleep No More” in New York represents a tipping point for Immersive Entertainment.

Chung’s eclectic background uniquely suits him to this moment in time. He grew up in suburban Washington, DC. His mother was a CPA and his father a professional opera singer. Chung told me “the duality of art and commerce is in my DNA”. One thing was always clear: he liked to make things on computers, and with video. Chung wanted to tell stories. He was valedictorian of his class and went to Cal Berkeley, a tech hot bed, all the while nursing film projects on the side. After a four year stint it in investment banking, Chung attended Harvard Business School, where he took advantage of Harvard’s media center across the river. Chung was angling for a career in movies, not finance. He moved back to California to work at Pixar. Later he landed a gig as head of Oculus’ early, pre-Facebook acquisition, content efforts, which is where he acquired his passion for VR. “The definition of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled. And in regard to this, I think that creating an independent film is almost like creating a startup — you have to find resources, recruit a team and motivate people with a vision,” Chung said.

An encounter in the deep while searching for father in “Arden’s Wake” by Penrose Studios.

The idea for Arden’s Wake started with Chung’s original idea: “a boy in a fishing village builds a submarine to look for his lost parents. He shows dedication in the face of ridicule”. The team refined the story, changing the protagonists and setting. “We want to convey the real human experience,” he said. “We want to tell stories in the most honest way we can. The audience can smell inauthenticity.” Before the Penrose team could tell the story in VR, the characters, model sheets, storyboards and settings were painstakingly designed, just as they would be in traditional animation. “It turns out story boards are a bad way to illustrate a story in VR. They lead artists in the wrong direction,” Chung told me.

Penrose created a tool artists can use to collaborate inside VR called Maestro.

“For designers and animators to collaborate to build a 3D VR world and tell a story within it, they need to be inside it, not looking at a 2D storyboard sketch”, said Chung. To solve this thorny problem, Penrose built a collaborative, social space in VR (accessible anywhere in the world) called “Maestro”. “This allows us to collaborate inside a fully virtual space. With our Maestro platform, we dive into VR every day where we can have direct social interactions to create and review our work with unprecedented perspective.”

Chung and his team also had to solve what he calls “the identity issue”. Inside a VR experience, the audience has to know who they are in the VR world, what to do there and how to relate to the characters. “Scale is the solution. It makes tech more intimate and allows you to build a relationship with the characters, which are designed to be very fragile looking while at the same time being capable of conveying their humanity,” Chung explained.

“Allumette” (2016) directed by Eugene Chung for his Penrose Studios, presages the style and themes of loss and humanity of his next VR narrative experience, “Arden’s Wake” (2017).

Chung says his team is excited by the opportunities presented by Augmented Reality (AR). “While things from VR don’t translate directly to AR, there is a lot that we can learn from one medium that guides us on what we do in the other. VR has been a great learning ground for AR.” AR is slowly coming to new Android phones, and is a highly anticipated new feature of the iPhone 8, which will be introduced later in the fall. Chung says it’s possible, even probable, that Penrose will produce content for AR in the future as it grows and improves. “It’s easy to come back to the worlds we create and reuse them for other stories.” The settings and characters Penrose creates are now assets that can be redeployed as needed.

For Chung and Penrose, 2018 will bring the next installment of Arden’s Wake, which ends with a cliff hanger as our heroine is swallowed by a sea monster the size of a skyscraper. “No one knows the ideal length of the VR experiences of the future,” the director said. “What we’re doing is not glamorous. It’s just the hard work needed to move the medium forward.”

Allumette is available on Playstation VR, Oculus Rift, Steam VR, and Viveport. A release date and platforms for Arden’s Wake have not yet been announced.

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