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VRML and Hollywood?
by Tiby Kantrowitz

Part 1 of a 3-part series

It's been a long time since shark's guts burst from the screen onto audiences wearing funny glasses and watching JAWS-3D. But however good the producers may have been at instilling fear, 3D film superimposed clear limits. Without serious digital wizardry, they had a narrow field of techniques from which to choose in their quest to traumatize audiences into the night with dreams of monstrous creatures, swimming beneath their feet cruising for snacks.

Sega and Nintendo outgrossed the entire motion picture industry in 1995, and cable companies, such as @home, tested ultra-high speed connectivity in select markets in 1996. It's 1997, and now MCI, Sprint, and AT&T vie with local companies for our ISP business and interrupt the X-Files in the meantime. Industry moguls have definitely caught on to the financial possibilities of the web. But, based upon some recent conversations, this writer opines that agents would rather pitch concepts something along the lines of 'silent movies for the blind' rather than VRML projects.

Technological issues are only one reason why the industry has not become involved. You have to know something exists in order to judge its possibilities. The difficulty is most film and video directors/writers have not heard of VRML, or perhaps think themselves not ready to hear.

Hollyworlds

For example, although helpful and interested, some agents at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and International Creative Artists (ICM), two of the largest entertainment agencies, feel convinced that their clients know nothing about 3d or VRML, are uninterested because they believe it will not generate revenue, and/or just do not care. They gave this opinion even though CAA and ICM, both front-runners in the hunt for interactive media clients, have already signed on producers of such mixed-media, web projects as The Spot, and have clients who have participated in the creation of 3D PC games. On the other hand, according to Alex Lightman, CEO of Hollyworlds and also one of the producers of Paramount's Star Trek site, he is the only person to his knowledge "who has successfully pitched VRML, related to a feature film, and gotten the contract."

First Contact

But whatever reasons LA may have for its lack of interest, a few visionaries in Hollywood are shoring up a sort of VRML fifth column within the borders of the mainstream. For example, the web-site Paramount built for its release of Star Trek: First Contact included VRML recreations of the bridge, engineering room, and several other well-known Enterprise sets. The interactive first-person VRML game they designed with Shout Interactive enabled "cadets" to prowl the hallways of the Starship armed with phasers during a Borg assault. Nearly six million hits came in every day, making the Star Trek: First Contact site one of the most popular film websites in the web's short history. The film's projected gross domestic revenue: $157 million, according to MovieReel Newsletter. Not surprisingly given this experience, Paramount has chosen to create another VRML site which will accompany the release of its upcoming feature, The Flood.

Disney Online
ParaGraph

But Paramount is not the only major studio quietly beginning to investigate VRML's creative and revenue-generating possibilities. According to February's 3D Design magazine, Disney Online, the Internet subsidiary of The Walt Disney company, has licensed a broad range of Internet software technologies from ParaGraph, International.

Sundance

The independent film community has also begun to take notice. In 1995, the Sundance Institute, a non-profit corporation Robert Redford formed to discover ways to enhance American film, and artistic programmers of The Sundance Film Festival, began its New Media Initiative program. Aided by Rockefeller Foundation support, in March, 1995, the Institute held a retreat at Sundance including many of the leading evangelists of interactive fiction.

This retreat laid the groundwork for creating a future interactive lab which will encourage experimenting with this narrative form. Following the early phases of the program, Sundance established a New Media Center at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival which also played part in this year's festival. Sundance has also signed co-production agreements with Illumina Productions and Viacom New Media to design and produce two interactive projects adapted from plays.

Even film industry magazines such as The Independent have started reviewing CD-ROMs and film-oriented websites, ("Media Over-Loader: A Documentarian Goes Digital" by Sue Young Wilson. The Independent, January-February, 1996). Film critics are plugging videogames in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. ("A Videogame to Tempt The Sundance Cineastes," by Todd Krieger. The New York Times, January 21, 1997.)

This is just some of the evidence that VRML has the potential to attract viewers who will buy tickets to movies or products from advertisers. Despite their doubts, the movie industry is starting to recognize VRML's possibilities. Even so, whether informed about the rest of the industry's activities or not, VRML remains a non-issue to most of the film/video community, which for anyone outside Hollywood makes putting together a project in LA that much more difficult.

And so, VRML auteurs are not waiting around for Hollywood. The net houses a growing collection of VRML films or theatrical projects and has begun recognizing its own.

Floops
Cicada
Construct

David Blair produced "WAXWEB - or The Discovery of Television Among Bees," a multi-media and VRML project which, in 1994, became the first feature film released on the Internet. In 1997, at the first VRML Excellence Awards held at the 1997 World Movers Conference, Brad DeGraf, Emre Yilmaz, and Bay Raitt of Protozoa accepted Silicon Graphics' awards for not only best Entertainment world, but Best World of Show for their episodic VRML cartoon, FLOOPS . Protozoans also created the Second Place Entertainment winner, Scary Spider. Mark Meadows of Construct, Inc. wrote, produced and directed Crutch , which won Third Place in the Entertainment category. Cricket , a VRML animation produced by Cicada Web Development also placed in the top ten.

VRML animation projects such as these are not the only ones getting recognition and financial support, however. Actually, they constitute a small constitute of the kind of work being done. The assortment of topical side dishes being served with the VRML entrees is as vast as the kinds of kitchens presenting them. Digital auteurs are stirring such things as interactivity, non-linearity, theatre, interactive film/video, cinematography, digital actors, avatars, psychology of non-verbal language, immersive environments and computer-generated narrative, in with their VRML and 3D-animation. And, not only are universities such as the University of Geneva, MIT, NYU, Stanford, and University of Virginia sponsoring related projects and research, but game companies, such as 3DO and Byron Preiss Multimedia, have also joined the few film/video production houses, VRML software companies, and individuals who are working on developing VRML and web-geared 3D animation.

Regardless of the difficulties in getting money for VRML projects, what everyone does seem to agree is that VRML is the Internet's "killer app." As Lightman admits, the biggest problem with VRML is "nobody knows how to make money on it." The first people to succeed in VRML, he says, will be those people who can think like producers and directors and figure out how to pull together the artistic, marketing and business lessons of independent film. These lessons, after all, were learned from observing how the major studios conduct their businesses. As one example, similarly to the way in which feature films use product placement as a way to get funding from advertisers, he predicts VRML will one day include viewer-specific advertising seamlessly woven into the architecture and story of the worlds themselves.

When it comes to the film industry, the question of whether or not VRML has evolved to the point where it can do enough, fast enough is no longer the primary roadblock to movie-related VRML projects. VRML may not be the Enterprise's holodeck but it is a long way away from paper glasses, something even Hollywood recognizes. The question is how to get VRML worlds to pay for themselves, and that is a question which has barely been explored.

Tiby Kantrowitz is the writer/director of Brave New Films' Not It, shown in the 1995 International Arizona Film Festival and at (not in) the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. After the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War made her research position redundant, the search for professional stability led Tiby to the independent film industry. Currently, she is producing an interactive multimedia comic book incorporating 3d animation and VRML.
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