Though virtual reality is taking the gaming industry by storm, the technology is also being explored by filmmakers who are interested in this emerging medium. One Atlanta-based studio, Disrupt!, is pioneering the field with its immersive, free VR experiences.
The concept was inspired by Oculus Story Studio, the VR animated film studio that was a division of Oculus VR (not owned by Facebook). Established by Pixar veterans in 2014, the studio wanted to pioneer this medium and even premiered a film at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Unfortunately, the Oculus studio was a bit ahead of its time — and closed its doors in 2017.
However, when Atlanta native Jak Wilmot witnessed the way they took the art form of animation and put it into a virtual environment, something clicked.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the next step in storytelling. I came across it on my iPhone while I was having lunch. It was one of those hair standing on the back of your neck moments,” said Wilmot.
Wilmot has followed that initial fascination up with his work at Disrupt!, which he co-founded with Jordan Warren. This “community for the next generation of creators” began as a graphic design-focused branding and product development agency, specializing in re-branding, web design, and animation.
But Wilmot was most interested in experimenting with VR. In 2016, following his high school graduation, Wilmot produced his first VR film. Please State Your Name features a charming robot trying to escape a garbage facility.
Two years later, La Camila made its debut. It’s a beautiful and heartfelt tale about a shepherd girl who lives in a village among the clouds.
Disrupt! films have appeared at many different venues, including the Atlanta Film Festival, VR LA, and VR cinemas in Beijing, China. As Disrupt! continues its work, the medium is slowly edging into the mainstream entertainment world. Award-winning producer Darren Aronofsky debuted a VR series that became the first — and only — VR film to land a seven-figure deal after debuting at Sundance in January 2018.
Wilmot acknowledges that, as the industry rapidly evolves, it presents its own set of challenges — firstly, technical obstacles.
“It’s hard to keep up with the pace of the industry. Right now, you have to make sure the content you’re creating is available on all platforms,” says Wilmot. “Hopefully in the future, the industry will have more of a standardized format. Right now, for a developer, it’s a race to release your stuff everywhere.”
From a socio-economic standpoint, there are still many barriers that prevent people from experiencing the wonders of VR.
On average, high-quality VR headsets cost upwards of $300 — and that doesn’t include the high-end PC needed to run the software. There are headset builds under $100 that can be used with a mobile phone like the Samsung Gear VR, but again, this does not include the cost of the phone itself.
Wilmot also notes a notable lack of diversity within those working in the field.
“There is inequality. But am I going to complain and let that be my driving voice? No,” Wilmot says. “I want to be an advocate in this industry without being described by an adjective. It’s about the message and that will always shine through.”
In an effort to expose and educate more people about the world of VR, this month, Wilmot has planned to spend an entire week in virtual reality. He intends to document the process by video to research the effects of long-term VR use.
“That should be an interesting, albeit nerve-wracking, dive into the unknown!” he says.
Viewers can follow Wilmot on his journey on the studio’s YouTube channel, Disrupt Reality.
“The greatest reward in all this is when someone is nervous before they put on a VR headset and the look on their faces after they take it off,” says Wilmot. “I think the headset is more than an entertainment device. It’s a dream machine. If an artist can give the viewer an experience that’s positive and makes them feel happy then that’s very rewarding.”