VR Visionaries #8: Brett Leonard, Film Director, The Lawnmower Man

Brett is the visionary film director behind ’90s classics The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity – both of which envisioned advanced VR technology. He currently serves as the Chief Creative Officer at Virtuosity VR, a VR/AR platform and content studio based in Los Angeles.

Tell me about Virtuosity VR…

Virtuosity VR is my partnership with Scott Ross, who ran Industrial Light and Magic and Lucasfilm for George Lucas. He also co-founded Digital Domain with James Cameron. He won nine Academy Awards under his auspices at those companies for films like Titanic. He’s a legendary executive in this digital media space. We joined forces with a man named David Goldman, who was an uber agent from William Morris and ICM, and became a digital media entrepreneur. The three of us decided to create a company that could provide solutions for brands and studios – in a sense a VR agency – that can then implement those solutions.

There is so much hype and misinformation out there about VR / AR / MR – which, by the way, I’m calling VX (virtual experience). I believe that VX is coming at us like a giant tsunami. The exact form of the technology that will deliver this is going to shift and change for a number of years now. But one thing isn’t going to change - we are going to be interfacing with data; with ourselves; with others; with anything that deals with computational platforms, in a virtual world.

The main vision of Virtuosity is that of creating what I have been calling for over 20 years now ‘multi-participant, interactive virtual story worlds’. That is to bring the quality, expertise and discovery of narrative found within cinematic craft, along with discovery of, and interaction with characters. However all of that has to happen without leaning on cinematic language; because VR needs more than just cinematic language. There has been a bit of cognitive dissonance within Hollywood studios and Hollywood people in general because creating VR is not the same as what they have been doing for a hundred years – it’s very different.

Right now I’ve been thinking about the idea of true interactive narrative in virtual story worlds, and have left cinematic language behind quite a while ago. At the same time, you can’t leave behind cinematic craft. You need cinematic expertise to create mise en scène: to create emotional engagement with characters and with story. That’s still part of what I believe the interaction will be in a virtual story world, it’s just through a different language.

So will we move towards more of a VX language that will be a kind of version of cinematic language?

It’s really not a version of cinematic language. As a matter of fact I’ve had to go back in time further than the abstract modern media forms that we sit back and watch on a screen. Virtual experience isn’t as abstracted as media that you consume on a flat screen. It’s much more real. It’s much more immersive. You really have to go back to things like tribal ritual to inform structure in order to see how humans will navigate through and experience virtual worlds.

There has been a lot of anthropological research on the structure of tribal ritual or ritual in general; we need to really mine these ideas when creating true virtual experience and interactive narrative. This new medium really necessitates thinking outside the box significantly, and really putting aside cinematic language. I love cinematic language – it’s basically my religion – but it’s not what really applies in a virtual experience.

What are the biggest limitations for 360 degree video and how will we overcome them?

I give keynote speeches all around the world, and one phrase I return to time and again is this: “looking around is not enough”. Watching a video with a static screen around you is not enough of a compelling experience. That’s a novelty experience. That isn’t going to create the emotional engagement that is necessary, especially for the millennials and Generation Z.

Millennials and Gen Z require agency and interactivity. Because of that a lot of the outlets for virtual content are now shifting to produce something that works within a gaming engine environment to enable both agency and interactivity. That may still use 360 degree video as an element, but the most successful VR implementations are not just static 360 degree video.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been some really good pieces done in 360 degree video – it’s not that it’s not a valid step or thing to do, it’s just not enough to really create what we think of as true virtual experience. By necessity we need to include interactivity and agency on the part of the participant.

How do the current VR devices on offer compare to what you envisioned in the early ’90s?

Some of the experiences out there are kind of aping what we put in films like The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity. In a sense art imitates life, and life imitates art. There’s a stylisation in those films that to a certain extent is still being used in VR demos today. The limitations we had back in the ’90s to create in a feature film context are still limitations that exist for much of VR today. It has been an interesting time for me – it’s a lot like walking into a movie you made 25 years ago.

What I’m focused on is taking the next step, to shift the paradigm towards the world building economy. This is beyond a simple tech gadget or a device. This is the way that human beings are going to relate to data. It’s about building worlds for B2B, for B2C and for consumers to create for themselves.

I am totally tech agnostic – I use whatever is the best in class at any given moment to create the things that I am working on. That’s what I think all of us have to do right now because the process of creation is much more important than focusing on one particular technology. The process of human interaction with a virtual world – that human behavioural psychology aspect – has really been the blind spot in the industry. Many people were moaning that it was going to take too long for smartphones to penetrate the market. People were playing around with the palm pilot and the Blackberry, but then Steve Jobs came along with Apple and created a connectivity between the technology and the content itself. Once that happened, smartphone adoption went through the roof.

The same thing will happen with virtual experience. Groups like mine are starting to focus on the actual use case and human behaviour of actually getting people to interact in virtual worlds. In the past, any technology has been driven by content.

VR is currently split into two distinct categories - Mobile and True VR. Do you see a future where the two will merge?

Mobile VR and True VR are going to merge. In fact, further thn that, I believe that AR and VR are on a continuum with each other. People seem to think that AR is one thing and VR is another. However when you look at it in the context of VX, they’re all part of an overall spectrum of humans interacting with a simulated world, whether that simulated world is being laid over the real world or whether you’re going into a fully simulated world.
Generally people don’t care about tech – whether it’s a cool headset or whatever else. They just want to know that it works and that they will feel comfortable going into a simulated world experience.

I see VR and AR as pieces of the same pie. Segmenting them – thinking of them as silos – has been, and continues to be, one of the big barriers to reaching true mass market adoption. With VR we haven’t focused on what humans want to do, we’ve focused on what the tech can do, and that’s a problem.

It’s funny that a lot of the virtual projects – with some exceptions – have been very low cost things that have the budget of a 1970s corporate video. How do you define a whole new medium of human interaction with virtual worlds with those kinds of budgets? It can’t be done. Billions of dollars have gone into the tech, and very little has actually gone into the content.

What would your advice be for anyone looking to develop VX content today?

You have to know and understand the applied science of utilizing the technologies that exist. But everyone has to get out of their silos. Don’t focus solely on one technology or enablement. You have to look at it as a larger rubric. As a creator you need to understand that the context still needs to be set in the content itself – in the experiences themselves – for what this medium is and how humans will interface with it.

Another thing to consider is the ethical framework for this new medium. The truth is this is one of the most powerful mediums ever devised by humankind. It could be one of the most transformative mediums, but it also has great dangers.

I made a couple of films in the early ’90s about those dangers. I’m still sounding the cautionary alarm because unless we create true interactivity with humans in the context of virtual worlds, we’re going down a dark and dangerous direction. Content creators and enablers in this space, and even the tech platforms themselves, have a responsibility to focus this utilization in a positive humanistic manner.

You can’t just throw a new medium out there and let anything happen with it, especially one that hard wires neurotic pathways in your brain. This is something that is much stronger than any cinematic reality and it can actually change your mind. If that’s the case then we have to be very vigilant in how this medium gets utilized and adopted. I’m not talking about censorship, but we have a responsibility to bring this to use in a positive way.

Does that parallel in some ways to rules on subliminal advertising in broadcast media?

Exactly. Here’s the thing – all of the virtual world experience is subliminal manipulation. If you’re manipulating the human mind in a way that increases its efficiency; increases health and wellbeing, then you’re doing something that’s positive. If you’re not then you’re doing something that’s negative. It’s pretty much that simple. Especially as we start to get biometric interface with virtual worlds: truly connecting the human system to a simulated system.

Are there any short-cuts to creating exceptional VR content?

There definitely are short-cuts to creating VR content. Everyone is currently waiting for the tech to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect. Do you think cinematic technology was perfect at the birth of cinema? Yet amazing pieces of cinema and artistic expression were created that moved audiences worldwide.

We have to use sleight of hand techniques in the context of virtual experience, so I’m always looking for those kinds of technologies and those expertise because I feel that’s what it is going to take to create a compelling experience at this stage. That’s why I’m focussing on the process of content creation rather than technology – you can ride that surface tension as the technology gets better and better.

You have to think like a filmmaker, but without the film language of cinema because ultimately you don’t have the frame. It’s a very interesting combination of disciplines, including using the sleight of hand techniques we’ve always used in any art form.

How long will flat screens continue to dominate the film and media landscape?

There are going to be more and more immersive screens that will be all kinds of shapes and sizes. We are literally months away from that. The ability to create immersive spaces with next-level screen technology is going to be one of the things that will create the communal aspect for virtual experience.

We have to bring all of those things together into an overall process so we can have groups of people experience this in a communal sense. If it’s not experienced communally then I think it’s dangerous. We have to create something that actually has human connectivity.

I’m actually working on a number of projects in the EDM space, and the entire ethos of that scene is with the communal group mind. People that are into EDM all love this particular moment: when the drop happens. Well, I want to create the VX drop. I want to create a moment of human connectivity that can be felt in a large group, and then extended out beyond that through the use of technology.