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VRML and Hollywood - Acculturation
by Tiby Kantrowitz

The first big step towards impressing upon the film industry the value of investing time and resources into creating VRML worlds is educating Hollywood about the potential of multimedia. As pervasive as multimedia may seem to those whose lives are submerged in it, it is still terra incognita to many others, including those in the film industry. The Information SuperHighway may in fact run between the film and VRML industries, but there's an Information Tollbooth creating one hell of a traffic jam at the Bridge. And the price of passage, it seems, is a lexical one.

As Mark Meadows, Chief Investigating Officer at Construct says, "Information design is a very fractured kind of thing" best achieved by finding the "synthesis between the graphics, concept and the technology."

"The best travelers I've ever met are people who are not necessarily fluent in the language of the country they were in but knew enough of it to get where they wanted to go. [At Construct], we need to speak across disciplines, so we speak a wide variety of languages." He ought to know, his narrative VRML narrative, Crutch, placed third at the VRML Excellence Awards at the 1997 World Mover's Conference.

The film industry may not speak VRML yet, and perhaps many still have not even heard it, but the acculturation process has begun. In fact, not only are filmmakers, some film studios, and even television networks continuing or initiating VRML projects, but entertainment agencies have also begun investigating the possibilities of multimedia. One agency, Creative Artists Agency, has even created a Media Lab in a joint project with Intel in order to demonstrate to their clients the creative possibilities of multimedia.

"The ubiquitous connected PC is changing the nature of media," said Andrew S. Grove, president and chief executive officer of Intel. "The creative talent who are the first to embrace this change will lead it."

The idea, according to CAA agent Andrea Marozas, is to "introduce our traditional clients to non-traditional media. We want to show them where it's heading and get them to think about it." The response so far, she said, has been very positive.

Companies which provided resources to the lab include Adobe Systems Incorporated, Compaq, Kodak, GTE, Intergraph, Kinetix, Microsoft, Sony Electronics, Superscape and others. CAA hired L2 Entertainment to create the IS?TV Virtual Studio Tour, a 20 to 45 minute interactive showcase which exposes the viewer to three dimensional animation, live visual effects, among other techniques. The tour stars Danny DeVito and includes interactive parts which later will become accessible for viewing on the Internet. The project was directed by Brett Leonard, who also directed the films "Virtuosity" and "Lawnmower Man." The plan is to take IS?TV to the Internet later this year. While all of this is not VRML, it signifies that mainstream Hollywood is taking the first steps down the brick road towards VRML.

Even the Writer's Guild has packed a suitcase. In February, the Guild helped sponsor the Milia International Publishing and New Media Market in Cannes, France to discuss the future of digital storytelling.

In one session, rather ominously (and lengthily) entitled, "Storytellers have been around for ages. Will your new media company be around as long?... Storytelling into the 21st Century," international panelists gathered to compare their interactive writing experiences and viewpoints. The panel members included Guild members Douglas Varchol, a filmmaker, screenwriter, interactive writer and author of The Multimedia Scriptwriting Workshop and Matthew Costello author of the script for the best-selling CD-ROMs, The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, from Virgin Interactive Entertainment and Trilobyte. The Guild also attends special events at other interactive industry trade shows, including the Computer Game Developers' Conference which took place in April.

Under Guild Interactive Program Contracts, employers can hire WGA writers on a project-by-project basis. The contract, which covers interactive productions for CDROMs, set-top games and certain online distribution, also enables writers to join the WGA, based upon their employment.

Computer Science can even win Academy Awards. This year Ken Perlin, Associate Professor of Computer Science at New York University, Director of the Center for Advanced Technology, and Director of the Media Research Lab, won a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Perlin Noise, for which he won the award, is a set of algorithms for synthesizing natural textures using noise functions. The technology pervades the entertainment industry and has been used in feature films and commercials as well as 3D modelling packages.

This is also not necessarily virtual reality-oriented. But, it demonstrates the mainstream entertainment world's passage from awareness, to emerging fascination with the possibilities of the new technology. From there, it is open road to VRML.

So why should anyone in the VRML industry care? The "killer app." That one VRML application that pulls in users. What VRML authors such as Mark Meadows and the Construct team have realized is that developing the killer app requires a lot more than a great idea, a designer and a programmer. When, as Meadows explains, cyberspace is a collage of "anything that can fit into binary data," the Internet itself becomes a medium.

But even proficiency at interdisciplinary communication and understanding the capabilities of the technology do not guarantee the production of exciting content. The relative complexities involved in writing VRML have, until recently, made it a tool most attractive to the technically apt. Now, however, the availability of sophisticated VRML authoring tools (especially ones similar to those they already use) has begun making VRML attractive even to more traditional artists.

Interesting traditional artists in VRML is important because, although they may be helpless in the face of an unfortunately recurring algorithm, when it comes to debugging iconography and metaphor, they can kick butt. And, if the key to the killer app is figuring out how to use technology to implement creative abstractions, then exciting the non-technical world in the possibilities of VRML matters big-time.

The next installment of this series on VRML and the film industry will describe some of the various projects underway, ranging from the large and well-funded, to the small and independently (or un-) financed. It will also cover more on some of the evolving technologies which bridge film, multimedia, the Internet, focusing of course, on VRML.

Tiby Kantrowitz (tiby@opus1.com) 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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