Philipp Maas is an up-and-coming Director of Virtual Reality Experiences, the creator of the first animated VR short film SONAR (which premiered internationally at Sundance 2016!), and SPIN Studio user. In 2016, Philipp worked as a Layout Artist on the Emmy nominated DEAR ANGELICA, an illustrated Oculus Story Studio VR Experience. Now back in Germany, Philipp has started his own studio, where he produces animated narrative content for virtual and augmented reality.
We sat down with Philipp to talk about screening SONAR on the film festival circuit, how he’s approached creating and monetizing indie 360/VR content, and advice he has for creators entering the VR space.
Pixvana: Can you talk a little bit about how working in the CG and VFX industry prepared you to move into the VR space? What’s surprised you most about creating virtual reality experiences?
Philipp: I was fortunate enough to study animation at the renowned Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Initially, I wanted to learn more about VFX and compositing for feature films, but the structure of the film school’s curriculum allowed for so much experimentation. Soon, I discovered my passion for storytelling and 3D rendering — and then I thought, why stop there?
In early 2014, when my brother bought the Oculus DK1, it was clear to me that VR is the ultimate experiment. Even though the school couldn’t prepare or teach us how to do VR, having a CG background helped a lot. Still, when we checked out all the available DK1 demos we realized that almost all of it was real-time, which had no idea how to do even though we had studied animation. That gave us the opportunity to push for something really unique and cinematic and to think about directing the viewer. That is actually what surprised me most. Back then there was almost no content that you would even consider calling an “experience” like we do today. My biggest lesson learned? Don’t take “Best Practice Guides” too seriously (still true today), because that 2014 Guide from Oculus was purely focused on real-time and game content.
Your VR film SONAR screened at both Sundance and Cannes in 2016 — congratulations! What kinds of responses did the film get from first-time users? How do you think the role of VR at film festivals has changed since then?
Screening SONAR at Sundance was certainly a dream come true. 2016 was really the first year that almost all festivals jumped on the VR train. SONAR was received very well. Part of the reason that it garnered such a great response is its opening sequence, the pacing of the edit, and ending scene, all of which serve as great introductions to VR for first timers.
Still from SONAR, 2015.
It’s awesome to see that VR has already established itself as a new art form and medium for storytelling at festivals around the globe. Every year the awareness for VR grows, and we see bigger and longer VR productions at festivals and bigger licensing deals. 2016 felt like everyone was waking up and testing the waters. Today, we are not even surprised to see big VR installations at film festivals. I think VR has found its place for now, although I imagine that as the medium matures, there will be such a wealth and variety of experiences that film festivals won’t be able to do everyone justice.
Philipp published Sonar on Steam with SPIN Studio – view the full experience here.
My idea to develop a 360 mini-series was greatly inspired by Neill Blomkamp’s short films. The ability to monetize these kind of experiments as an independent artist and bring it to a large audience on Steam is really exciting: Steam has some advantages for indies. I hope they push video more to the forefront so audiences can discover video content more easily. They could fund meaningful and cinematic content that go beyond games and scifi to increase the quality and variety of their library. User-generated content is great for communities, but to become a serious streaming service, it needs to find its focus and let everyone know that there is actually great video content on steam that you cannot get on Netflix. Coming up with stories and creating content is difficult enough. Utilizing Unity and SPIN Studio to create 360 episodes on a small budget and distribute it directly to consumers sounds very promising to me. Maybe 360 video will be the driving force behind the restructuring of the Steam Store!
You’ve also mentioned that you’re experimenting with real-time mobile VR. Can you tell us more?
I’m currently developing the story and workflow for my next VR experience, Mirage. It is set in the desert and asks whether or not life itself is just an illusion, playing with your perception of the world. My goal is very similar to that of SONAR: drag people in and let them forget space and time for a little while. For me, that means an easy entry for first timers and non-gamers. It will have subtle and subconscious interactive features but little to no UI or teleporting that in my opinion disrupts the flow of an experience. I may also create a completely non-interactive 360 version of Mirage, at least for a trailer.
Concept poster for Mirage, Maas’ upcoming VR film.
Mirage is still in the funding stage and I’m going to try to present it to as many people as possible at the upcoming Game Developers Conference. My ultimate goal would be to get it to Sundance and make that dream come true one more time.
What advice do you have for creators of all kinds who are considering taking on 360 video and virtual reality projects?
I would advise everyone to look at what is out there in terms of content, consider the direction in which technology moves, and then think about what you really want to do creatively. Now is still the best time to start making VR and no one should be afraid to experiment. If do you experiment, try to give yourself a timeline and deadline – your aim should be to have a presentable product. I know from experience that projects are never truly finished and what starts as an experiment can keep you busy for several years. It is a long path and you should be realistic about the complexity of a VR experience or game. Constantly lower your own expectations, pick your battles, and kill your darlings. This is what we hear all the time, but it’s so true and one rarely internalizes it. Stories are never set in stone and neither is the medium the stories live in.
How did you learn about Pixvana and why did you decide to use SPIN Studio?
I learned about Pixvana when I met VFX supervisor Scott Squires at a Twitter/Upload mixer at Siggraph 2016. As I mentioned in the beginning, I still am really into VFX — I recognized him from interviews at fxguide.
My experience with distributing my own VR app on Google and Oculus was not great since I’m not a very good developer and it seemed wrong to put my resources into maintaining an app that in the end just functioned to distribute a video. But unfortunately, this was the only way to put SONAR on the store front and try to make a bit of money instead of burying it under the thousands of 360 videos on Youtube.
SPIN Studio helps with the encoding and offers streaming capabilities that far exceed the maximum quality you can get from a sideloaded video file. My next VR video will certainly render at the highest affordable resolution and not just what the GPU of a phone can handle. Apart from the technical workflow, it is great to have a channel for monetizing video, and even though Steam is still starting out, I hope to see the platform grow as a VR streaming service.
About Philipp Maas
Philipp Maas is an up-and-coming Director for Virtual Reality Experiences. He created the first animated VR short film SONAR at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Germany in 2014. SONAR celebrated its international premiere at Sundance 2016 and went on a festival tour around the world. Before specializing in VR, he gathered experience working on commercials, feature films and short films as a CG generalist. In 2016 he was a Layout Artist on the Emmy nominated DEAR ANGELICA, an illustrated VR Experience created by Oculus Story Studio. After moving back to Germany, he decided to start his own studio to produce animated narrative content for VR and AR.