How Vancouver Became a Hub for Virtual Reality Engineers
How Vancouver Became a Hub for Virtual Reality Engineers
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Anyone living in Vancouver will swear that there’s no better place to live on earth. Lush forests, tall mountains, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean hugging the coast — where else could you snowboard, hike, and swim in the ocean all in one day? It’s no wonder that this stunning coastal seaport city is consistently ranked one of the best places to live in the world. Still, there’s more to Vancouver than the great food, wonderful people, and killer scenery; it has quickly established itself as a hub for cinematographers, artists and production crews experimenting in the virtual reality, 3D, and motion capture space.
Vancouver has been dubbed “Hollywood North” because of the large number of movies and TV shows filmed in the city — Deadpool, Okja, and War for the Planet of the Apes to name a few.”
There are four key neighborhoods contributing to the expansion of motion picture technology in Vancouver: Downtown, Gastown, Yaletown, and False Creek Flats. Downtown boasts the third largest film and TV production center in North America, while Yaletown is home to a number of VFX and animation studios as well as a cluster of video game studios that turn out top ten games.
But Hollywood isn’t the only industry shifting north — as of 2014, the flagship TED Conference was moved to Vancouver after more than a decade in California.
So what is it about about this city that has filmmakers — both experimental and traditional alike — choosing Canada over Hollywood to make their movies? We spoke to some of the key players in both the 3D and VR scenes who showed us exactly why Vancouver is the place to be.
“I’ve been doing this since 2007,” says Graham Qually, Founder and President of Mimic Performance Capture, a full-service motion capturing production company located in the heart of Vancouver’s Gastown.
“We realized there was a great need for another studio in Vancouver, so I moved out here and founded Mimic with a great team and an awesome partnership. Mimic is just one of the many motion capture studios in the area, but separates itself from the brood through an exclusive partnership with Vancouver Film School.”
Qually and his team work on lots of secret projects (until they’re released, of course). But this helps build the anticipation in such a burgeoning industry. Speaking of his work, Qually continues, “We’ve done a lot of video games and [worked with] a couple companies doing theatrical movies as well. We’ve got some really cool stuff coming.”
Mimic’s technology is setting the company as front-runners in the motion capture (or “mocap” as it’s often referred to) space.
“Back then, mocap was just dots on the body, now we bring an actor into our soundproof studio and use their voice, their face, their body, and everything is captured at the same time before it’s delivered back to [the studio].”
Qually explains that Mimic’s motion capture technology makes it so every facial expression and detail can be recorded and duplicated — leading to some insanely realistic images. While a lot of their work is done indoors, Qually and the team at Mimic can’t help but think that it’s the location of their studio that has injected life into their business.
“We’re right in Gastown,” says Qually. “Some of the best restaurants, awesome people… it’s just an amazing spot.”
Qually clearly loves all of Vancouver though, often stopping mid-story to speak about some of the most exciting things to do there.
“You definitely have to see Vancouver before you die. I’ve done the ‘Vancouver thing’ where you go snowboarding, and on the way down you go golfing. That’s the Vancouver dream — you have to do that at least once.”
“[The city] is a fantastic spot,” says Qually, “It’s got an amazing pool of actors and talented people. That’s one of the reasons why we partnered with the Vancouver Film School and put our studio inside [the school’s] campus.”
Qually goes on to say that the partnership will end up being paramount to their growth, and Vancouver Film School will benefit by having their students learn motion capture technology in a real-life setting. At 36,000-square-feet, the studio is the largest in Canada and is equipped with 40 Vicon Vantage intelligent motion capture cameras — the gold standard in the industry that provides cutting-edge resolution and “intelligent feedback.”
“No one wants to learn mocap in a dinky or half-assed setting,” continues Qually. “That’s where we come in. We have a world-class studio that [is] turning out the next generation of actors who have done mocap and performance capturing.” Qually says that he couldn’t have pictured a better place in the world to be than in the heart of Vancouver.
It’s no secret that Vancouver’s main draw for filmmakers is the landscape — many say that it’s completely unique and oddly-nondescript all at once, a type of versatility that allows location scouts to turn the city’s beaches, forests, and mountains into wherever in the world they want to be. If you’ve watched pretty much any movie in the past decade, you’ve seen actors walking around Vancouver. In 2011, Vancouver was transformed into the streets of Mumbai for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Someone who’s just as impressed with Vancouver’s landscape as the rest of the world is Wren Handman — and she’s lived there for more than a decade.
Handman is sort of a VR evangelist in Vancouver, often acting as a liaison to communicate the goings-on of virtual reality companies with the public. She currently works with Hammer & Tusk — a VR company who “builds products, crafts bespoke experiences, and curates conversation in the immersive content space.” Wren, and the team at Hammer & Tusk, are obsessed with virtual reality and think it’s Vancouver’s diverse community and unique landscape that make the city such a perfect backdrop for filmmakers.
“We are perfectly poised here on the west coast,” starts Handman, “so we’re really close to Seattle — which is a huge VR hub — and of course we’re near Silicon Valley. Also, Los Angeles is a place where VR is being used in a huge way… they’ve been using it in the background of films longer than most of us have known what VR really is. So we have that geographic advantage.” Along with the geography, Handman says — like Graham Qually— that it’s the people who are adding fuel to the VR and AR (augmented reality) fire.
“The fact that we are in Canada means that we have some hiring benefits that people in the states are struggling with right now in terms of immigration policies, but Vancouver is a safe and friendly place to attract talent.” Handman further explains that a lot of the talent in VR and AR comes from Vancouver’s gaming industry.
Naturally, Handman is also admittedly obsessed with Vancouver’s landscape and is consistently surprised by how often her beloved city shows up in television and movies.
Handman was allowed to divulge some details from her favorite project: An experiment in social sharing called Bash in which people can watch music videos and concerts with their friends in VR. She says she feels lucky to live in a place like Vancouver where she has the freedom to work on experimental projects, even if not all of them take off.
If you think Mimic and Hammer & Tusk are the only companies making waves here, think again: These are only a few of the companies leading the VR and AR scene. LNG Studios, The Sawmill, and Archiact are just a handful of those providing shock and awe to the rest of the world, and they’re all located in Vancouver. That’s the core of filmmakers’ love for Vancouver — having the freedom to pursue projects that otherwise couldn’t have been done anywhere else.
From the wide talent pool to the endless possibilities in the landscape, Vancouver is perfect for those outside-the-box thinkers who never say never.
What will you find when you visit Vancouver? Mountains, trails, rivers, and oceans? Or a fictional landscape that only exists in the virtual reality goggles over your eyes.
Hammer & Tusk, Mimic, Kamil Bialous,
Vancouver Film School, Kyle Pearce, Peter Burka, Gael Varoquaux