A pair of VR directors trying to understand what this new medium could become.
Video games and Film don’t always get along. As two of the world’s biggest industries, they have much in common. But while film is almost universally respected, it often looks down sneeringly on the younger, more commercially successful medium. The games industry built itself on many of the storytelling principles developed in film. And now it’s matured into one of the world’s biggest entertainment industries, the language of games has its own lessons to teach.
Horton de Rakoff may sound like an aristocratic vampire hunter from a Hollywood action romp, but it’s actually a duo of British directors on the UNIT9 roster – Alex Horton and Alex de Rakoff. With experience spanning the worlds’ biggest video games, VMA award-winning music videos, Hollywood feature films and commercials, they’re a unique partnership, keen to draw from these different areas in their work. There’s a lot of talk about virtual reality in advertising at the moment, so with their combination of film and game experience they’re naturally poised to get involved.
De Rakoff began as a music video director over 20 years ago, when it was still glamorous and lucrative, before moving to the even more glamorous Hollywood, to be a writer in the studio system. He even directed a couple of feature movies, starring talent including Orlando Bloom and 50 Cent.
Horton approached directing from a completely different angle, working for many years at Rockstar Games, the infamous developers of the Grand Theft Auto series. His job was animating the cutscenes in between the main action of the game. “I was obsessed about giving it legitimacy in terms of its presentation, the way it was costumed and the way it was shot,” he says. Essentially, he was directing the bits of film that moved the games along, fleshed out the characters and created context for the action that was the main meat and potatoes of these experiences.
The pair had been friends for years before they first worked together, when de Rakoff got involved with the games industry. “Games started tapping up Hollywood writers to bring narrative, context and characters,” he says, “because they felt like a lot of the people they’d brought up internally didn’t want to create those kinds of narratives.” EA hired him to help with this stuff and write scripts for a racing title, Need For Speed: The Run.
EA decided to shoot a test and asked de Rakoff to direct it. It involved a lot of motion capture though – something he’d never worked on before. He knew his friend Horton had shot more mocap than most in the game industry, so got him involved.
They soon realised they had a productive partnership together, but Horton had a change of heart about the games industry. “I lost patience,” he said, “and went into a corporate job [Chief Creative Officer at Jagex, who make the popular game RuneScape]. I moved from Brooklyn to Cambridge, thinking I’m growing up, I’ve got children; I should behave myself and settle down in a proper job.”
Jagex were working on a new game called Transformers Universe, a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) based on the hugely popular Transformers franchise. Horton got de Rakoff involved to work up the story and characters of the game and together they worked on all the film media around the title. When they were done de Rakoff went off to do his own thing, directing and writing.
Trying to get back into directing commercials, de Rakoff went round the big production companies. “It felt quite stale to me,” he says. He started looking into the more innovation-focused companies, discovered UNIT9 and realised it was a good place for his experience in film and games to converge.
Meanwhile, Horton was still working in Cambridge. “It was really cool,” he says, “but being an exec didn’t suit me. I bring vibe, like Al does. I got tired of all the nonsense and a bit disillusioned with where games have gone.” They decided to get the band back together as a duo on UNIT9’s roster.
VR became the natural focus for their work there. But they realised they had to specialise if they were going to make it work. “As a director you’ve got to invest the time and energy if you want to work in VR,” says de Rakoff.
They’d picked the right company to support them in this. “UNIT9 got into VR from the jump when the VR work wasn’t there,” explains de Rakoff. “Now it’s coming through the door like the Dambusters and they’re positioned with the infrastructure and experience to deliver.”
The pair are thoughtful about the interplay between games and film and where VR sits in between. Much of it is about simply bringing the discipline and language of filmmaking to another medium, like Horton’s cutscenes in Grand Theft Auto, which granted the game legitimacy. “The execution was slave to film techniques,” he says. “Games are very cinematic. The games industry has embraced that aesthetic.”
There are ways in which VR can use film language too, but there are ways in which it differs vastly. VR is immersive and interactive, and the challenges of a 360-degree, real-time experience can’t be solved with filmmaking techniques.
They also differ in terms of motivations. A film is a defined length, usually topping out at around three hours if you’re Martin Scorsese or Peter Jackson, TV series are bite-sized but can be binged on. “Games want to keep you up all night,” says Horton. “A lot of games are based around compulsion. Between boredom and frustration there’s a cash channel and they’re trying to keep you within that.” Where VR sits between these is yet to be defined. “If Blade Runner is an Arthur C. Clarke novel that’s 200 pages long, how short is that one page that’s the ideal VR experience, that gives you something you’ve never done before? I don’t want to sit with a headset on for an hour yet. No bloody way! It’s got to find its new form.”
The pair’s dual background makes them well suited to this. “Look at film people who write in games,” says Horton. “A lot of them fundamentally don’t understand how or why a game works.” And it goes the other way too. “Everyone who works in games watches films more than I ever could. They’re encyclopaedic on films, but they don’t have any common sense on set. Knowing and understanding is different.”
“There are a lot of ‘experts’ in the VR world now and it’s such an undefined medium,” says de Rakoff. “People are looking at it and figuring out the new language of it and we are a couple of guys working in that industry.”
Part of this process is learning when something won’t work in VR, though. “There’s an argument,” says Horton, “that if you can do it in a 16:9 frame, why do you want to do it in VR? Because so many more people can see a film. VR is harder to consume. It’s more demanding.”
Finding the right approach is simple. As de Rakoff puts it. “The technology should support the creative, not lead it. Some people are looking at VR and leading with the tech because it’s new and exciting, but the creative doesn’t fit.”
They’ve noticed the superficial experiences this mentality has led to. It’s notable that the genres of porn and horror, with their animal directness, have done well in the medium. “There’s a moment in some things that is interesting,” says de Rakoff, “when you go into one and look around for 15, 20 seconds. But then what?”
To find experiences that are right for this new medium, directors like Horton de Rakoff need to be very careful with how they treat an agency’s idea. “We feel a big responsibility to do something that won’t make you sick,” Horton says.” It’s their job to tell people what they think will or will not work in VR.
Fortunately, the pair’s backgrounds allow them to experiment with the new medium easily. Horton’s computer animation background means he’s got the abilities and tools to test ideas. “If someone has an idea we can quite quickly jam on that, build it up and see if there’s a way of doing it,” he says. “You can come to us with something batshit fucking crazy and we could probably find a way of doing it.” Horton has a studio in Cambridge where the pair is playing with this new medium, working on experiences that can tell stories in unique new ways.
They encourage agencies and their clients to be experimental too, because nobody has sussed this new platform out yet and if a brand manages to crack it, that will be a powerful coup. “Anyone who tells you they’ve figured it out is a liar,” says de Rakoff. “We’re trying to be honest about where the industry’s at and where we’re at with it. But we’re pushing to get a handle on it because it’s a really exciting medium and as filmmakers there’s great stuff to do. We’re defining it as we’re making it, which is really challenging. But it’s really exciting.”