Virtual Reality and the Future of Filmmaking

We recently sat down with visual effects legend Phil Tippett and learned his perspective on how virtual reality could change the way films are made. 


Phil Tippett is no stranger to innovation within the film industry. As a veteran in the film industry, he’s used many modes of filming and photography to animate and shoot the many creatures and monsters he’s had appeared in films over the years, including films like Starship Troopers, Jurassic Park, and the original Star Wars trilogy.

But recently, he’s found a brand new creative avenue that he considers to be a new frontier in filmmaking: virtual reality.

Phil Tippett at Tippett Studios.
Phil Tippett at Tippett Studios. 

Those who are familiar with VR are undoubtedly aware of its current gaming applications. In some cases, it’s a fascinating new feature that adds a heightened sense of immersion to first-person games in particular, while in others, it’s a more expensive version of the VR we used to play in arcades in the ‘00s.

But VR is more than just a gaming peripheral; it’s a new piece of technology, bringing with it an entirely new creative outlet for many different fields, not the least of which is filmmaking.

Tippett’s company Tippett Studios has recently acquired several headsets, including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and the Samsung Gear VR. While touring their offices in Berkeley, CA, I saw the bay they had set up to allow for the use of each headset, nestled in between work stations and sculptures of various creatures the studio has created over the years. They’ve been toying with the tech, creating short films and other experiences who uniquely use the 360 degree angles of a VR headset.

Several sculptures and major awards on display at Tippett Studios. 

“You’re never going to tell a story with a three-act structure better than a movie or a book. But what the VR stuff gives you is like a 360 degree dance field surrounding you,” Tippett says of the tech. “And all the stuff you can do in a world as opposed to a two dimensional thing is hugely exciting.”

In addition to making short films, Phil’s company has also been working with Happy Giant studios on a game called HoloGrid, which utilizes augmented reality and takes heavy inspiration from the Star Wars holo chess game seen in A New Hope. A scene Phil knows all too well, since he was the one who made it.

Using old creatures from Phil’s storage as the main characters, HoloGrid engages the AR capabilities of smartphones and tablets using cards that can be scanned in and seen as three-dimensional models existing in the real world through the device’s camera. It is also being developed for the Microsoft HoloLens, which projects the game into a room and allows one to play it on any surface. It is essentially creating a way for people to re-live that iconic scene in A New Hope, decades after first seeing it in theaters.

Original Tauntaun concept sculture and the skeletons of the creatures seen in the Dejarik game in A New Hope. 

Filmmaking in VR is still very much in its primitive, formative years, having had very little produced for it when compared to the massive number of traditional films released over the past few years. To Phil, this is only a good thing; because nobody has really figured it out yet, there’s a veritable arms race between creators to make something different and unique, something that harnesses VR’s unique capabilities to create something nobody has experienced before.

“The whole AR and VR experience thing is such a great place for creative entities to tromp around in, because nobody knows nothin’,” he says coyly. “It’s the Wild West. So creatively, you could make a whole bunch of stuff, and nobody can tell you that you've done anything wrong or other kinds of things.”

It’s the freedom VR presents with telling wholly unique stories that Tippett finds most encouraging.

“In cinema, what you totally rely on is the editorial process to advance your narrative. And that--in a 360 environment--can be very jarring. If you orchestrate that to a particular effect, it can be cool. But just in general, as like an experience, it can be really difficult.”

HoloGrid, the AR game inspired by Star Wars' Dejarik. 

Aside from a surrounding camera view, Tippett is also excited about some of the other audiovisual aspects of VR and AR. While discussing it, he specifically mentions the way audio could potentially be used for interesting results.

“I didn’t know anything about this binaural sound,” he remembers. “Once we started to get into this stuff, I was like ‘Holy sh*t...I totally get it.’ Now, I know to use sound as an editorial device and use the 360 degree field.”

During out chat, one of Phil’s employees commented on the fact that with VR, you can’t cheat like you could in 2D.

“Of course you can,” Phil says coyly. “You can always cheat.”

“Yeah, but you can’t count on hiding equipment and things in the background like you could with 2D,” he says.

Shrugging, Phil smiles. “That just makes it more fun.”

Contributing Editor
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