12.8.2016

Unreal Engine 4 Propels ‘The Martian VR Experience’

By John Gaudiosi

When executive producer Ridley Scott and director Robert Stromberg teamed up to turn Scott’s Academy Award-winning The Martian movie into a virtual reality experience, they turned to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 technology to provide the necessary jet fuel to power the 20-minute-long interactive journey.

“The technology we needed to tell our story for The Martian was only possible to do with the fastest game engine out there, which is Epic’s Unreal Engine 4,” Stromberg said. “It was a necessary tool in order to accomplish our cinematic storytelling.”

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The Martian VR Experience, which is available now for Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and the HTC Vive, stands out from the crowd of Hollywood virtual reality offerings. It’s a combination of narrative and interactive mini-games that not only follow Mark Watney’s quest to return to Earth after being stranded on Mars, but puts users inside the spacesuit of Matt Damon’s character for first-person perspective action.

“Video games are getting better every year,” Stromberg said. “This experience is a blending of several fields that hasn’t been explored in VR before.”

In the experience, users can drive a rover across the Red Planet, pilot the escape pod toward the Hermes, and even play virtual basketball with potatoes in Watney’s makeshift garden. The experience offers a full 360-degree view of the environments that were designed from the sets of the award-winning film. And when the user looks down they see Watney’s arms and legs.

The project was developed at the Fox Innovation Lab in conjunction with 20th Century Fox, RSA Films and Stromberg’s The VR Company (VRC). 

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“It’s still the frontier with everybody jostling to discover how to make VR work,” Stromberg said. “We worked with a lot of companies like the Q Department for sound, The Third Floor for the hand controls, MPC VR worked on the three-minute trailer. You have to have the right companies and specialties in a specific order, and put together this bigger team just as you would put together production on a film.”

Mike Dunn, president of Fox Home Entertainment Worldwide, said filmmaking in VR is very interesting because the language is different than traditional film. 

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“In VR if you want the audience to follow a path for an emotional connection, it requires visual and audio cues of all different sizes and shapes to bring them with you,” Dunn said. “We’ve worked with DTS as part of our lab on object-based sound. It makes VR go to a whole new level.”

Using Unreal Engine 4, which was designed as a game engine but has expanded for multiple uses across Hollywood, enterprise and other verticals, opened the door for a new type of hybrid experience.

“I see video games as more pragmatic than film,” Dunn said. “The Martian makes the overall experience a little more pragmatic in terms of pure emotion. We’re blurring the line between games and movies because games are bringing emotion into gameplay, and we’re bringing some interactivity to our film VR experiences.”

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Stromberg said The Martian VR Experience wasn’t designed with gaming in mind, but the project evolved over time.

“At some point we decided we wanted to have interactive elements to highlight the fact that you were going through the experience as Mark Watney,” Stromberg said. “We started with three, but that led to five.”

Fox debuted the VR experience at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January, where the HTC Vive version received a boost courtesy of a D-Box rumble seat. When navigating the rover from the film to the Ares IV rocket across Martian landscapes brought to life using Unreal Engine 4, the full sense of immersion sets in. When users released the grip on the rover’s stick by letting go of the Vive controller’s trigger, the seat pulled them back to replicate the vehicle’s deceleration. Even without this bonus technology, the VR experience does transport users into this film world.

Stromberg, a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Art Direction (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland), sees virtual reality technology accelerating in the hands of video game and Hollywood creatives.

“When we started working on Avatar we were doing things that weren’t possible 10 years earlier, and by the time we finished the film five years later the technology had grown so fast we had to go back and redo some things,” Stromberg said. “We’ve finally reached a point in time where VR technology is ready, consumers are ready, and if it’s going to succeed now is the optimum moment where all things converge.” 

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Unreal Engine 4 technology is one of the engines powering this new wave of virtual reality.

“VR is like having a wheel, but not knowing what to do with it and then finally someone invented a car that could drive very fast,” Stromberg said. “That car was the Unreal Engine technology, and all the computing technology, and the viewing hardware, and hand controllers and all of these things that weren’t in place before."

As engaging as this first experience is, Stromberg has higher aspirations for future VR projects. After all, he was brought on to helm The Martian VR Experience after principal photography had wrapped. The director of Disney’s Maleficent said the next round of VR cinematic production will be a full experience where you are an observer and not a participant. 

“I want to create a narrative story, so you watch an emotional story unfold in front of you with real situations and actors -- much like a stage play,” Stromberg said. “That’s the next project that I want to see happen. We’ll see projects in the future staged just for the 360-degree experience photographically, as well as game engine projects.”

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