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How a Local Company is Shaping the Future of Virtual Reality

With its groundbreaking camera work, small Santa Cruz production studio Impact Creative is having a huge impact on virtual reality technology

Eric Thiermann, the Santa Cruz filmmaker who started Impact Creative. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Eric Thiermann lives for storytelling. His experience and imagination ignite the narratives at Impact Creative, a small production studio here in Santa Cruz that epitomizes “state of the art.” A member of the first graduating class at UCSC, company founder Thiermann feels that proximity to the university is key to Impact Creative’s future.

“I’d like to set up a funicular going straight down the hill from Science Hill to our studio,” he says.

With their pioneering work in virtual reality, companies like Seagate, Google, Hyundai, CISCO and Princess Cruises are coming to Impact Creative to help them launch ad campaigns, forgoing traditional TV spots and billboards for the opportunity to plunge their prospective consumers into an unforgettable experience.

But the company’s productions can have social applications, too, Thiermann says.

“Two people in two different parts of the world can have headsets and interact in a single virtual space,” he says. He cites Rising International, the nonprofit, founded by Carmel Jud, that has recently starting using VR technology to acquaint women in high-risk areas around the world with the women selling their handmade goods locally.

Thiermann has applied for a U.N. Impact Grant to deepen the social justice area of his work. “You gotta do something to feed your soul. All the companies are coming out with games,” Thiermann notes. “What I like to do is tell stories that connect people.”

 

The Studio

Impact Creative team

BRACED FOR IMPACT Members of the Impact Creative team on a shoot with the first autonomous robot to arrive at Walmart Supercenters. Left to right: Philip Lima, Kelsey Doyle, David Sieburg, Deva Blaisdell-Anderson and Donald Eldridge.

Two lively little dogs greet invited guests at the code-protected front door of Impact Creative. Once they have a sniff, the house mascots romp away to other regions of the spacious design studio. Huge enough to house studio and brainstorming areas, the first floor boasts at least two man-cave-sized lounge areas (wraparound couches, toys, what have you), a conference table that can seat the entire IC team, a central staging area for off-site shoots that also works up into a mini studio for product photography, and long counters filled with various snacks and drinks, plus water bowls for the canines. Desks and computers for programmers, producers, editors, and writers hold down a far corner—the business end of the studio, if you will. At the opposite corner is a vault protected by codes and locks, in which the house treasures are stored—cameras, drones, robotics, lithium batteries the size of toaster ovens, stabilizers, and assorted sound capture devices. Major motion pictures have been made with the exact same equipment. On one side of the studio, post-production is finessed. On the other, image and data captured. High-energy humans with laptops pace in between, mostly very young.

The first day I visit IC, a trade show booth is being finalized for its gig at a Las Vegas convention, and I’m invited to step into a fabulous virtual world. “With VR, you don’t use space and time in the usual way,” Thiermann says. “Creating experiential content requires a lot of craft.”

VR goggles cover my eyes, and I step out into space, looking at the Earth far below me. After floating for a few seconds, I turn my head and see the NASA space shuttle docking just beside me. I float inside it, and watch as it maneuvers through various intricate exercises that I can step into, or not. I can already feel the addictive pull of this sort of gorgeous illusion.

However sexy—and however rapidly evolving—the 360 VR technology needs much more content before it becomes the promotional industry standard.

“We’re not getting rid of our 2D bread and butter,” Thiermann admits, and that includes computer-animated videos, as well as shoots involving complex 360 live-action imagery.

Over 40 years, Thiermann’s group has grown and evolved. While he can’t reveal the name, he will say that “a major Hollywood film company” just contacted them about a collaboration. IC demos often get one million hits in a day.

Thiermann thinks the reason is simple: “People want engaging content.”

Raised in L.A., Thiermann learned to take photos and shoot movies as a UCSC student before getting his MFA at UCLA. “I worked around Hollywood, worked with Jonathan Demme. But I didn’t want to be an art director. I wanted to do movies,” he says. “I made short films, then applied for an AFI grant that was my ticket out of LA.”

After doing a PBS-style documentary of artists in prisons, Thiermann made The Last Epidemic, an anti-nuke film, exposing the medical consequences of nuclear war, nominated for an Oscar. “The next one, In the Nuclear Shadow—I was the shooter—did win the Oscar,” he says. “I made tons of documentaries, and we started getting lots of jobs. Once the internet came along, you could be anywhere, so you didn’t have to be in New York or L.A. The quality of life here, raising a family in a real community, has kept me here.”

“I think we have a good reputation. It’s all referrals, it’s not me,” he insists. “There are so may talented people here.” He points around the studio. “Young people who grew up with digital technology. I can still shoot really well, but they grew up with this stuff,” he says.

Thiermann and his team seem to inhale work. “Every year, we get bigger and better. All the demo videos you see at Best Buy stores all over the world—those are ours. Anything Google. We make all the videos on all those products.”

Thiermann likes doing it all. “I like shooting guerilla-style. I like building things,” he says.

Travel comes with the territory. “Every week or so we’re on location. I just got back from Standing Rock. Couldn’t get a plane, so we drove for two days in the snow to make a little documentary. We went up to the Northwest to do a really fun shoot for Hyundai. Going to Haiti next month, and then the Cameroons to document innovations that help keep young women in school.”

Why slow down? “I’d rather be working,” he says with a shrug. “It’s too much fun. And it’s all new, all the time.”

 

The Photographer

Philip Lima gets to play with the dazzling toys. Expensive (close to six figures) cameras—like the “Weapon,” which is made by Red and delivers megapixel images that are detailed enough to eat. The Martian, The Hobbit, and Transformers were all shot on similar Red cameras. These are stored in the code-protected vault, along with an arsenal of other digital cameras, VR hardware in its own James Bond-style case, robots, drones, etc. The man who handles all of this hardware was born and raised in Santa Cruz and has been with Eric Thiermann for 10 years—one third of his life.

Impact Creative motion graphics designer Judy Mo

LOOK HERE Judy Mo, motion graphics designer for Impact Creative, with VR goggles. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

“I started editing video,” explains Lima, “and quickly shifted to computers and capturing images.”

He claims he still enjoys editing, but I can tell he likes image capturing the best. “Small projects begin with the directing team. They figure out the approach, and then come to me. I shoot, then they edit. I do color correction afterwards, usually with DaVinci Resolve.”

One of Lima’s most arduous VR camera shoots involved a parachute assault training exercise piece at Fort Bragg. “Since it was a VR shot, I had to be close to the camera, to monitor sound, and I had to fit in. The client in that case was VICE News, an investigative reporting group that does a very organic kind of news gathering.”

The result was a four-minute VR special that takes viewers inside a Boeing C-17 while paratroopers perform assault maneuvers. The camera and reporter had to capture everything with multiple camera arrays while staying out of the way of the military. Lima suited up in camouflage gear in order to blend in.

“Shooting a commercial with cameras, like the Reds, you have complete control,” Lima says. “All that goes away with 360 panoramas. Plus, there’s a real challenge with storytelling using 360, because it’s hard to move the viewer’s attention in the way that you can by using different lenses, different kinds of focus and light.”

So how does he guide the viewer’s eye in these wraparound panoramas? “Audio cues are helpful, and lighting. That can lead them in the desired directions.” But there are other challenges with 360. “All of the lighting equipment has to be invisible, because of the omni-direction of the views. Have to hide the lights—that’s a big challenge.”

But challenges also involve a lot of on-location fun. “We began using 360 a year and a half ago,” he says. “One of our recent clients was Princess Cruises. We all went to New York, and went on the boat as it docked. Then we did all the touristy things in New York, shooting it in 360 degrees so the viewer could get a feel for the cruise package experience. It was great.” How long does this kind of shoot take? Their Hyundai Canada commercial, he says, required three 12-hour days of shooting to produce two 30-second spots.

What’s fun, says Lima, is that “everything’s new in this field.” And the most fun involves aerial drones. “I started with drones five years ago,” he says, eyes widening. “The big thing is that you can achieve a stable image. You can put a camera wherever you want—it opens a world of possibilities beyond the obvious visual clichés.” Those ads that take you right out over the water with surfers, or soaring high above a car speeding through the desert—those are shot with a smart camera suspended from a drone.

Known for his aerial shots, Lima admits to strapping the costly Red cameras onto the bigger drones for some shots. “For those, we use both a flier and a spotter. Definitely lots of adrenaline,” he says.

 

The Tech Guy

Joe Goldin left the computer science program at UCSC to develop the emerging technology area at IC. Kinetic as a Tesla coil, the house technologist manages IT systems. “Making sure the internet’s running, researching server upgrades, new technology, how we can utilize it,” he says with a grin. “For a Seagate project, we had to research product mapping. Ninety percent of my research happens online.”

Barely 20 years old, Goldin grew up with gaming and computers.

“My biggest curiosity is how humans use technology,” he says. “VR is where psychology, storytelling, and technology come together.”

Which is why the pieces made by IC have such emotional power, as well as state-of-the-art graphics. Goldin’s work also involves stitching together digital images. “For the Princess Cruises piece, a 360-degree video, I started by looking at the shot list, at pre-production, how many shots would be indoors, or outdoors,” he says. “With 360, we use six cameras and a single brain that compiles all the images. After the shoot, I stitch it together on a computer.”

He often invents the required programs as he goes. After the compiled images are edited, Goldin smooths the edges so the final product is visually seamless.

Goldin surfs emerging technologies for exciting ways of displaying products, like logos mapped onto three-dimensional volumes. “With video projection mapping,” Goldin says, “we can project images onto anything—faceted objects, trees, hands. What is new is the ability to map onto the shape of an object with a single projector—saving lots of money.”

Goldin explains a simple but important distinction: everything VR is 360-degree, but not all 360-degree video is VR.

“VR is defined by the technology,” he explains. “If you are watching a 360 video on a computer, that’s not virtual reality. If you watched that same video in a VR headset, that is virtual reality. Current headset hardware has been perfected so that it won’t make you motion sick. It in essence moves with the user’s motor expectations.”

For example, my spacewalk was an animated 360 video that IC created for the hard drive company LaCie. It can be watched on a computer or tablet, but it was created with viewing on a VR headset in mind.

“A few years from now we won’t have the clunky headset, there will be a contact lens, or a chip that acts as a receiver,” says Goldin. He doesn’t believe this will all lead to a dystopic Matrix-type world.

“I still love to go outside and play,” he says.

 

The CEO

David Sieburg’s background in broadcast marketing for ABC, NBC and the Department of Defense positioned him to lead the product development direction of IC. He and his former wife had come out from Colorado, shopping for a future home. Santa Cruz sold itself, and a friend of Jacques Cousteau’s helped make a connection to documentary films—and that led to Eric Thiermann.

“The world is quickly transitioning into an ‘era of experience’ where the digital and physical merge,” says Sieburg. “We have a long track record in film and video production, but we are evolving into a new breed of production company.” Noting the overwhelming newness of the technology IC uses, Sieburg admits that “all of these terms—virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, drones, autonomous cars—they’re all different pieces of this experiential future.”

Like Thiermann, he is attracted to social relief efforts, and has documented post-disaster efforts in places like New Orleans and the Philippines. There’s no stopping the move toward virtual and artificial intelligence, but Sieburg wants to keep his eyes on the big picture, and help influence the positive implications of technology.  

What does a CEO of a video production company do? “I develop client projects,” he says. “I’ll ask about their goals—mostly by phone and email—and then build a proposal. Next come the three-phase pre-production, production and post-production. This is a group process. Half of what we do is animation, although it’s more fun to do the video projects.”

Sieburg estimates the eight-person team has “between 10 and 30 projects going at any given time, and each takes anywhere from six to 10 weeks for completion.”

People are surprised that a small studio like IC can produce such slick, high-powered work. “We blow them away with our ability. All of us, Eric, Deva, Donald, Philip—the whole team—we all edit and direct and write. We’ve mind-melded after almost eight years. We’re not the usual agency model,” says Sieburg. The team includes directors, producers like Deva Blaisdell-Anderson, Kelsey Doyle, and Toby Thiermann, plus motion designers Judy Mo and David Whitmer. “All of us, we are very hands on.”

The marketing angle is “all about eyeballs—getting people to notice and watch the content. The bigger topic,” Sieburg says, “is what are we—mankind—going to do with it? I’m not sure if it’s driving us, or if we’re driving us. We know that technology is evolving—you can’t stop it. We want to be part of the good uses. But what’s next on the horizon? There’s no portfolio yet for that. It’s the edge—that’s where it is exciting.”


A VR Glossay

VR (virtual reality) offers an immersive experience, one that simulates a three-dimensional world and places the viewer in a non-real somewhere, using a headset and motion tracking device. In VR, using a headset, you can look around a virtual space and it feels as if you’re actually there.

360 degree cinematography uses many cameras with multiple lenses to capture all angles, side to side, top to bottom. The captured imagery is then “stitched” together by computer programs to simulate a seamless encounter with a wraparound environment, seen from the viewer’s point of view. Anyone with an ounce of geek DNA can attach a 360 camera to a drone and make a fairly decent “oh wow” visual experience.

AR (augmented reality) lies somewhere in between a physical environment and a virtual one. It adds sensory data to the natural world, like maps and directions suddenly popping up along your sightlines when you need them. Think of the hologram of Obi Wan in Star Wars—the hologram of Princess Leia was a digital creation placed into a real space. Another great example of AR occurs in the film Minority Report when Tom Cruise’s character walks through the shopping mall and all of the window ads and billboards know his name and offer him his favorite product choices. This, as anyone surfing the internet knows, is already with us in the form of robots tracking our reading and purchasing choices. CHRISTINA WATERS

 

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Her new book “Inside the Flame” is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz and on Amazon.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Shane luke

    April 18, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    Please stop calling Santa Cruz silicon beach

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