How Framestore created the Game of Thrones Oculus Rift VR experience for Sky Atlantic's O2 exhibition

To promote Game of Thrones Season 5, Sky put on an exhibition of props, costumes and interactive installations at the O2 – including a VR experience. Framestore's Mike Woods tells us about creating Westeros inside an Oculus Rift.

The experience is still using the first-generation Oculus Rift headset, and the relatively low resolution is noticeable. I’d really like to see what its creators could do with the latest generation of VR headsets.

The Ascend the Wall experience is part of Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones Exhibition, which features props and costumes from the TV show. It's running at the O2 this week to promote April’s Season 5 of the show, before moving onto Stockholm.

As well as trying out the experience, I also interviewed Mike Woods, executive creative director and the man in charge of Framestore's VR studio over email. Read on to hear about how it was created – and what Framestore want to do next with VR – and see photos from the exhibition like this White Walker here.

Neil Bennett: What's so interesting to you about creating films and experiences in VR?

Mike Woods: "It's an entirely new platform and area. It's extremely exciting to be creating rules as we go through projects. It's a highly problematic thing to get right without throwing yourself deeply into it.

"So much of what you expect might work, doesn't. There is no framing, no cinematic rulebook, not gaming industry blueprinting to follow. You are putting a human directly into another world."

NB: What kind of emotional experience did you want those using Ascend The Wall to have?

MW: "To recognise a world they already loved dearly. I cant think of many more powerful things to do than place someone inside their favorite TV show. That's a staggeringly exciting concept. Game of Thrones in itself is exciting, terrifying, awe inspiring, so we had a lot to live up to."

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NB: How did your creative process have to chance when creating Ascend The Wall?

MW: "It's 360 degrees for starters. And we wanted it to look like the set as closely as possible, which meant creating areas the cameras had never seen before. Its a combination of carefully and strategically delivering various cues at certain points to guarantee your visitor is looking in the right direction when you want to deliver a piece of narrative.

"That's actually quite a skill to develop, so that it feels intuitive and natural and not forced. In film, you create a frame of action. There's a lot you can do with it to create a range of emotions in the viewer. That doesn't translate to VR."

NB: What were the key challenges in bringing your level of VFX and animation work into a game engine-powered environment?

MW: "They were both technical and craft-based. Creating hugely high detail environments in a game engine, while still hitting in excess of a 60 frames-per-second framerate is incredibly challenging. The experience has to feel smooth and latency free, but it also has to look as real as possible. Add that to the new rulebook of storytelling and we had a lot to learn, and very quickly."

NB: Did you expect the wall to induce vertigo as much as it did?

MW: "Ha, Yes. We'd played with that already internally. Its a powerful thing. It's in the top tier of devices that give you an instant sense of presence."

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NB: If you were doing the project again now, a year later, would you do anything differently?

MW: "Quite possibly in terms of behind-the-scenes tech, but not from the experience standpoint. Its been unbelievably successful for us.

"Over 100,000 people worldwide have got into our elevators. Game engine tech has evolved very quickly, so we have new firepower, but we would change the actual user experience."

NB: What one piece of advice would you give to filmmakers or others from a production/post background about creating immersive VR projects?

MW: "Learn game engines, and study AAA console titles and their craft. We had a huge headstart by being Framestore's game engine team for a good five years before we got a Rift. This put us in the best position.

"The games industry understands how to make the best interactive environments, and the best broken and non-linear storytelling processes. Many from a film background like to congratulate themselves on experiments in non-linear storytelling, but for us the real genius lies at places like Telltale Games and titles like The Last of Us."

NB: Do you find the mix of VR and AR offered by Microsoft's HoloLens and Magic Leap intriguing? If so, what would you like to use it for?

MW: "Very. We already have an announced project with Magic Leap [The Age of Starlight, a still-under-wraps project for the Manchester International Festival featuring Dr Brian Cox, director Kevin Macdonald and art director Peter Saville] and have been speaking with these guys for a while.

"Be it augmented or fully virtual, we're all over it. It's an obsession here."

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