In 2015…

I often employ Virtual Reality to construct scenarios I’m interested in, but unable to experience in real life. It’s like an extension of my imagination – once built, I can then share it with others and have them experience these scenes and worlds with me.

Around a year ago I made this thing called Freefall. Inspired by the opening sequence of the movie Gravity, it was a short VR film having you tumble out of control in Earth’s orbit. I was curious about two things:

  1. What would it look and feel like?
  2. Exactly how fast can I spin the camera (and therefore – the audience) to make them feel disoriented, but not have them get completely sick?

Over the course of one weekend I whipped up a simple 3D scene using beautiful high resolution textures captured by NASA, rendered it in octane using relatively low settings in 2K at 30fps. Finally I retimed it to 60 to eliminate the strobing that resulted from the original framerate.

I watched it a few times, got my answers, and then decided to edit together a simple audio track to share it online. While I replaced the original with the new version here, on the site, you can still see the 2015 version in this, unlisted YouTube video:

Post Prismatic Stress Disorder

Prior to Freefall, I have spent many weeks working on a piece called Prismatic. I was quite proud of the end result, due in equal part to both the art and technical direction – having built my own virtual camera rig and stitcher for the project. Unfortunately, Prismatic launched to a rather… mild reception.

I did not expect Freefall to do any better, especially considering the little effort put to its production. I really had no idea.

Within a week, got ten times as many views on each individual platform it got published, as Prismatic did on all platforms combined. It got picked up by distributors and started generating articles, project offers and general buzz.

It was all great, though deep inside I was being eaten by the impostor syndrome, feeling the film did not really deserve any of the attention it got.

Farming it out

Back in my flat-media days I have often collaborated with Noble Rot. Located in beautiful Napa Valley, just North of San Francisco, this nimble motion design studio was always happy to facilitate my wild needs – be it motion tracking mirrors, pre-visualizing impossible single-take shots or simply producing beautiful renders of latest gadgets.

In Autumn 2016, Noble Rot’s founder, Chris McCard, invited me to test-drive their new Octane based GPU render farm. Reserved for studio’s internal use, the farm had an opening in its schedule, and I knew just the project to throw at it. I wanted to re-master Freefall, giving it a proper art direction pass.

One of the first changes I made was fixing the orientation of Earth, making the viewer fly above more interesting terrain. In the original most of time you end up floating above ocean with not much other than clouds to see.

Due to this change, any direct before/after comparison is rather difficult, but even then one can see a dramatic difference between the two versions.

Improved lighting lets us see more detail and color on the surface of the planet. With new shaders, the water no longer feels dull and murky. Increased render sample size eliminates dithering on the clouds, while an array of Mettle Skybox 360 Post FX blurs creates beautiful atmospheric effects and glows.

Finally, the increase from retimed 30fps to native 60fps doubles the framerate, while the render size of 4096x4096px quadruples the amount of pixels on each frame. It’s quite useful, since this time I am also pushing new maps, using textures 4x the size of the original ones.

The difference is striking.

Lookin’ Good

On my local machine it would take anywhere between 13 to 28 minutes to render just one of 8800 frames of this animation – and that’s just the source material for color correction, atmospherics and editing. It took a better part of winter holiday 2016 to get this thing processed, but I feel it was worth it.

While desktop VR users can treat themselves to space experiences like ADR1FT, Elite: Dangerous or the amazing Google Earth VR, mobile VR does not pack enough power to run such graphically demanding applications. It is my hope that Freefall 4K can provide mobile users with a slice of professional, high fidelity, vibrant space experience, and do so with a quality I am happy to stand by.

Watch Freefall 4K Now