UNIT9’s wizard on combining filmmaking and coding, his new VR game ‘Storm’ and why HoloLens is so exciting
Cometh the moment, cometh the man. And that man, it seems, is Anrick. As filmmaking and gaming, art and technology overlap, meld and combine into brand new forms of media, UNIT9’s Anrick has found himself perfectly placed to navigate this crazy age of fusion. A tech-obsessed kid, Anrick enjoyed gaming… but not as much as he enjoyed breaking the games open and messing around with their code. He then moved into the world of animation, leaving technology to one side… but over the past decade these worlds have become ever closer and he’s been able to make a name for himself on innovative interactive projects. And the most exciting yet is Storm, an episodic virtual reality game that he’s built with UNIT9.
LBB’s Laura Swinton took a peek into his fascinating mind...
LBB> So I know you were into technology and learning to code from quite a young age – what was it that appealed to you about tech when you were a kid? Was it gaming that pulled you in? Something about your personality?
Anrick> I learned how to code in basic when I was a kid, that was my first introduction to technology. It seemed on the one hand so simple and obvious, and on the other so powerful. Like a magical version of Lego. I think that was the first spark - not the ‘experiencing part’ but the ‘building part’.
And then, yes, I was a huge gamer as a kid. I saved up for an Amiga and that was it for about a decade. But the building bug stayed with me. I didn’t just play the games. I opened the source files, I tinkered with them. I tried to change the sprite sheets, and tried to modify the code to ‘see what would happen’. I think what’s fascinating about mechanical objects, like a typewriter, is that ‘under the hood’ you can see all the moving parts and if you really think about it you can understand how it works - that also works for technology for me.
Since the time I was a kid technology has become so much more complicated - but in essence behind every technology there is a machine of moving parts.
LBB> How did you get to this (amazing) place where you can combine filmmaking with interactivity? Did you start off as a developer who ended up learning about film, or did you study filmmaking and move to the more interactive space?
Anrick> My fascination with games and code started long before I went to university. After graduating, I then took a detour into the world of animation and my coding skills lay dormant for some time.
In the mid 2000s I then started to become active in the code-art scene online. And that really opened my eyes to how the web browser we all know and love can be a space for surprises, for storytelling, and for interactive experiences. I felt such a strong powerful urge to be a part of that space, and so quit my job and spent probably six months focusing on picking up my coding skills again, and getting a job in ‘that space’ somehow.
It was a risk, but it paid off when I got in touch with UNIT9, who hired me more for my knowledge and understanding of post-production and visual effects - but over the first year allowed me more and more space to lead the creative projects they had going. What was weird and unexpected was that as the websites I was building at UNIT9 became more powerful, they increasingly started to include video. And I was often asked to unofficially direct those video assets.
So that was my slow and very roundabout way to get into directing commercials. These days I don’t make websites, but I direct commercials and virtual reality so yes, that was a quite a detour.
LBB> Where are you from originally? Did you get a lot of support when you were a kid getting into coding?
Anrick> I am Dutch, a full-on official Hollander from birth. In The Netherlands, there’s traditionally a lot of support from the government for the arts, and in school when I was young there was definitely a focus on exploring all aspects of a child’s young developing mind.
I must say that much more than the government or school, both my parents in their own way contributed to where I have ended up work-wise. My father was always very encouraging on a practical level with my career, and my mother fostered in me a sense of curiosity and openness to ‘the new’ that I think I still benefit from every single day now. That’s important, to never settle with what you know. To be open to that journey.
LBB> What were the earliest interactive projects you were involved in creating?
Anrick> I did some early interactive experiments on my own, when I was learning how to code in flash. That’s around 2002, 2003, using old film clips and hidden interactions that would surprise the viewer in terms of where they would lead you. Great fun, but I was bit too shy to push myself to make them public.
Once I started working at UNIT9 my sense of interactive storytelling accelerated hugely. One of my early projects was an interactive experience for Toshiba, a browser-based experience to celebrate their innovative technology over the years.
It really combined my best animation skills with the opportunity of pure interaction.
LBB> When and why did you get involved with UNIT9?
Anrick> I started working for UNIT9 in 2007, and became the first ‘Interactive Director’ on their roster, when they switched to representing directors for commercial work. But much more than an employer, the people at UNIT9 have been friends and collaborators over the years.
The commercial interactive work I do is mostly very risky, and we tackle that risk together, in a very open and supportive way. UNIT9 create an environment where you don’t feel like any mistake might be your last. Instead, they created a studio where discussion and honest opinions matter, because that’s how you might be able to prevent a mistake from happening.
So we help and support each other, and work together to build the work. And of course, I am very grateful for the energy they put into my ideas, like Storm. The connection I have with the people at UNIT9 is that we are all extremely curious people - we love to debate, discuss, build, tinker, and experiment. Because that allows us to understand the things we do better.
LBB> So Storm’s your episodic VR game and UNIT9 have been collaborating with you on that – can you tell us about it?
Anrick> That openness is what fuels the collaboration we have on Storm, too. We’re curious about VR, and Storm was a great way for us to scratch the itch. It started as a pretty random idea and I initially thought of it more as a UX experiment to understand VR better.
Storm developed way beyond a simple UX experiment since then, and UNIT9’s help and support of the project has been instrumental. The premise of the game is in the title. In Storm VR you are placed into extreme weather situations. And your mission in the game is simply to survive each one, by interacting with the environment around you.
The snowstorm is just a humble beginning of a bigger project. We have five detailed levels planned out, and a complex story where your quest for survival is intertwined with your ability to resolve the mystery around your identity.
LBB> I LOVE episodic mystery games like Life is Strange, The Wolf Among Us – how does VR elevate that emerging genre, which mixes emotional storytelling with game mechanics?
Anrick> I love those games as well, and I think there’s something powerful in short segments of a game narrative. Games have grown to such monstrous proportions, you literally lose weeks of your life in a game world. But it doesn’t always have to be like that. The Netflix TV series model could work well for VR. And the work of Telltale especially was a big influence on me, as well as some Amiga titles from my youth.
I think games and films are merging in virtual reality, as well as outside it. The technologies and techniques for making a film and a game are no longer all that different - they are coming together slowly. And there are new processes like photogrammetry and holography that are emerging now, which perfectly blend them in totally new ways too. I envision Storm to be a part of that process of merging films and games, in a small way. I have always found it impossible to choose between the two, films and games have fascinated me equally, and I have worked in both professionally, and passionately love both as a consumer. So Storm was always going to end up somewhere in the middle.
With Storm, I was inspired by extreme situations. I love the idea of using VR to go somewhere you are unlikely to go in real life. Maybe some place that is dangerous, or even deadly. And the visual beauty of extreme environments also attracted me. That’s where the idea came from, an aesthetically beautiful but deadly experience where your body is pushed to the extreme.
Obviously, the story is king. And so there is quite an evolved narrative structure that gives you a reason for doing all of these things, and an explanation for why you are actually in all these storms.
LBB> It’s an ongoing project, I believe, as it’s an episodic game, but so far what have been the most interesting challenges?
Anrick> Yes, the first episode, which is really a short and very simple introduction to the world of Storm VR, is already out for the Vive and Oculus Rift. There are four larger levels coming.
The most interesting challenge is designing the interactive puzzle pieces - you have to find a balance between highly experienced gamers, and newbies who are trying VR for the first time. So they can’t be too easy, and also not too difficult. We were interested in exploring how we could make use of objects in the environment in a natural way, allowing the player to twist, pick-up, rattle, and throw stuff around in order to beat the level and ‘get warm’. We discovered that sometimes it’s just satisfying to do normal things in VR like sliding a door or throwing a rock. So we built the game around the interactions: it’s as if the objects in the game tell you a story by how you use them.
Doing that so early on in the VR space was a challenge. We only had access to the Vive with hand-controllers this summer, and Oculus kindly sent us their Oculus Touch controllers, but for a while there we were developing without either of them, kind of working towards the future.
LBB> Another recent project you did was the SEAT VR project – what was interesting to you about the initial brief?
Anrick> The brief for Seat VR was instantly fascinating for me because I knew that what the team at Seat wanted was ‘impossible’ in terms of 360 filming. And I am really attracted to impossible projects.
Slowly, by talking and discussing with the whole team at Seat, and also Ogilvy and Wildbytes, we came to a plan that kept the audaciousness of the original brief, but placed it right on the edge of what I thought you could physically do with a moving 360 camera rig. Those early conference calls were super important because they not only made it possible to shoot this project, but to everyone’s credit, it also made it clear to me that everyone involved was open to discussing the way we’d realise the project. They were not stuck on execution, but were focused on figuring out a way to make it happen. It’s hugely important for me as a director, early on, to understand that.
LBB> It’s a pretty fast-paced and exhilarating experience – I’m guessing that must have been fairly tricky from a cinematography point of view? How did you achieve it?
Anrick> Yes it was hard. The energy and speed was key to this project, and we made sure we kept it, but we could obviously not break the laws of physics. So we did everything but. Lots of risks, and lots of unexpected challenges.
It took the brains and patience of some very talented people. Natasha (our lead actress and driver) was patient and brilliant, and open to any challenge. The planning from my producer, Holly Restieaux, was impeccable. And the relationship I have with DP Carl Burke I think was the key that unlocked this film because me and him know each other so well, and trust each other’s decisions, that we can both focus on our own part of the location and we sometimes only need a few words to get aligned, so it’s a divide and conquer approach. Our rigger Myrko was also a miracle - it’s fantastic to work with someone who is able to improvise with speed and precision.
Carl’s skateboarding skills were in no small part responsible for a successful shoot - one of the big challenges with 360 filming is to create motion that is smooth and controlled. You cannot use moving rigs because the structure will block your visual, and you cannot use complex steadicam systems either because of shadows. The camera operator’s body can’t even block the camera’s view, you have to paint all that out in post.
So somehow you need the most minimal-possible camera setup, for what is actually a hugely complicated shot. Totally counter-intuitive. So we ended up building several motorised vehicle rigs, and then abandoning them for a longboard with plastic wheels.
Finally, the visual effects team still had a huge amount of post-work to do, and they did that at an extremely high level. The work on Seat goes way beyond good stitching, you’re looking at fake 3D floors for moving camera shots, for example. World-class work.
LBB> You’ve worked on quite a crazy range of projects – which ones (apart from the ones above!) are particularly special to you?
Anrick> One of my very early projects, Attraction, is still my favourite. I worked with anime legend Koji Morimoto, and Studio 4c, in Tokyo.
We made a beautiful 12-minute interactive anime film that was about telling teenagers why smoking is bad for you. It’s a special piece, with an honest and good message. And the process of working with such talented people was amazing for me. It was also a life-lesson in terms of having to be the conduit for two teams who have nothing in common (animation vs code) and have no practical way to communicate with each other (language barrier) so the lessons I learned I think will be a part of process forever.
Another project worth mentioning is Most Northern Place. It was a self-initiated project I made with Nicole Paglia and Roll Studio, an interactive documentary about a small town in Northern Greenland. It’s very special to me because the visuals are stunning, but also the story is powerful, and it really happened. That story is still so relevant today. Going back to the 1950s, and the Cold War, but playing out in the Arctic at this very moment.
LBB> What do you do/where do you look for inspiration?
Anrick> Perhaps I am lucky, or maybe it’s a curse. But ideas come to me like an avalanche. I’m unable to stop them, they simply arrive in large numbers and my real struggle is which to listen to and pursue vs which ones to ignore and forget. I do obviously sometimes love to spend my time on an endless YouTube rabbit hole, and I find a lot of interesting work through Twitter which still holds up for me as a space where noise is filtered out and the interesting bits make it through. And then travelling, that is a human pleasure.
LBB> VR represents a really exciting space for filmmakers – I was wondering what your views are on the potential of mixed reality, things like HoloLens?
Anrick> I was one of the early people to try HoloLens, and to this day it is the most compelling ‘headset experience’ I have had. I am a big believer in mixed reality, and I’m excited what technologies like HoloLens and Magic Leap will bring us.
Even on a simpler level the Snapchat Spectacles are a fascinating layer between your real and your virtual self.
What I found most impressive about HoloLens is the technology. Almost two years ago, the HoloLens was revealed as an untethered device that not only displays imagery but tracks it into the real world, and allows you to interact with it through your voice as well as your hand gestures. HoloLens could do full VR if it wanted to, but that would be the easiest thing it would do all day. Phenomenal.
LBB> Is there anything that you haven’t had a chance to play with that you’d really like to get stuck into?
Anrick> I’d like to see if Magic Leap is worth all the hype. I can’t wait to play Gravity Rush 2. And if I had time for it, I’d love to really dedicate a month or so to one of the many MMORPG games, but I just simply don’t sleep enough already, so it’s out of reach. You have to choose to live at some point, too. You know, switch off and go for a hike, or sleep sometimes. Difficult to do.