Video production company Sprocket Creative‘s office is reminiscent of Batman’s cave, filled with large comic book posters, figurines, and audio production rooms with themes like nautical monsters and Star Trek. Creativity is the name of the game here. With clients like Adult Swim, Adobe, CBS and more, this design-focused team makes damn good work happen (as their site states) through video animation, illustration, and sound design.
And behind many of these neat projects, there’s a group of apprentices serving as the muscle and manpower who learn while they work, taking in everything it takes to make art come alive on your screen.
When Dean Velez, creative director and partner, joined forces with Billy Reese to form Sprocket, his priority was to develop a solid training program for the company. The 4-year apprenticeship program (yes, it takes that long to learn these skills) is currently in its second cohort, helping traditional artists become tech-enabled illustrators and animators under Velez’ wing.
“Everyone in here comes in as a traditional artist and they are taught the skills needed to do motion graphics and animation,” says Velez. “Right now, the folks that are in here are all traditional artists. They have to paint digitally.” As an example, he points to one apprentice who came in as an oil painter.
Apprentices are expected to adhere to real deadlines, projects, and meetings to empower them to earn the money they are making (the apprenticeship is paid) and commercialize their talent. Velez says this also helps them have a real connection to their work vs. a non-paid or school project.
“When I started out, there was no school that you could go to for what we do. You had to get in somewhere as an intern and hope that someone taught you. That was really difficult,” says Velez. “For me, it took 6 years to kind of know what I was doing. No internet, no books. Just software that engineers wrote — I’m an artist. It’s a big hurdle. When I got into the industry, the problem still existed. Then it became a challenge, can I get you to 20 years of experience in 4 years.”
With the help of their apprenticeship program, Velez and his team have embarked on a journey into 360 video, using the interactive medium to tell a story that would inspire any comic book aficionado. Unlike VR, 360 video doesn’t require extra equipment or new technology — you can even view it with Facebook’s 360 camera. The Sprocket team wants you to think of it as a simulation ride.
“The hardest challenge selling 360 is the misconception of needing goggles,” says Velez of the VR vs. 360 confusion. “If you have a monitor, you’re ready for 360. It doesn’t have to be interactive.”
The team was able to join this year’s VR Day ATL to premiere their 360 experience, Victoria Frankenstein. Victoria’s story, the second creation of the same scientists that created Frankenstein’s monster, was developed by Velez and apprentices Amy Ashbaugh, Christian Velez, and REL Stott. Victoria gained much fanfare during VR Day ATL and beyond. After seeing the attention and potential of what started as an internal project to learn about teamwork and 360 technology, Velez decided to move forward with the product.
“The interaction that we had was phenomenal,” says Velez. “The questions that were being asked, wanting to know the story, wanting to know what we are doing next.”
They first tested the technology from the project with one of their big clients — Cartoon Network — during the Halloween season. The 360 video showed different characters running around in a circle; everywhere you dragged the video to, something was happening. Four hours later, the video hit all of the promised metrics and was viewed as a total success.
It was time to grow Victoria’s world.
Velez says that they did their research to see what Facebook was doing and what the numbers were on YouTube and they decided to pull Victoria and make her R&D. “Everyone seemed to be chasing tech first. We were building a car as we got to the race, but we were ahead of the curve. In our group of production companies, no one is chasing this.”
Victoria Frankenstein’s 360 experience is spooky, dark, and enthralling. The clues left in different corners of the room reel you in into a story with twists that you don’t see coming. No matter where you look, there’s something to entertain you — from flying skeletons to wolves and brains in neon green liquid — waiting to be clicked (they glow to get your attention) and take you to other parts of the world.
To appeal to everyone, the team tested the speed of characters within the game for those viewers extra sensitive to movement (often a complaint of VR sets). To complement the mystery, the game’s social media accounts add clues, extra story tidbits, and even videos of the team being attacked by the characters.
But how does the Victoria Frankenstein project play into the larger trajectory of the company? While the team is still working on monetizing and growing her presence through guerilla marketing, the technology has landed them some major clients for work on other projects. In a world where this technology is still not fully understood by all, having a 360 product that truly shows its utility and accessibility makes Sprocket stand out.
“For us, the biggest deal was we didn’t use Unity, we just used AfterEffects and Cinema 4D. Facebook is not promoting their 360 video because there’s not enough content out there,” says Velez.
“Until people start actually building content and caring about it, there has to be a story behind it. Don’t forget we are supposed to entertain.”
Sprocket has a whole host of applications for potential clients. Want to check out a city before visiting? Tourism boards could use 360 videos to show a particular neighborhoods and add interactive facts about the country and its culture.
For a Georgia Aquarium pitch, the team created a touchable 360 video for children to interact with the fish and learn more about them. Another use would be keeping track of your new home’s construction. Your contractor can share the progress of new additions without forcing you to take time out of your week or travel.
“360 is ready right now,” says Velez. “We don’t have to wait for tech, we could just start building stuff for 360. You just have to learn how to tell a different story. With VR, we are still looking for Unity operators and developers. There aren’t enough of them to actually make this content accessible for everyone.”