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Assassin’s Creed VR experience coming to a theater near you

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Hollywood loves VR

The upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie will soon have a virtual reality experience to help promote the film.

The experience, which drops viewers into the Spanish Inquisition to watch assassins battling guards along the battlements and walkways of a Malta castle, will premiere during tonight’s Game Awards in the show’s private “Red Room.” It goes public on Dec. 2, rolling out to AMC theaters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin and New York City, where viewers can strap into an Oculus Rift at a demo kiosk and check it out themselves until Jan. 1.

While the experience, created in conjunction with AMD, Alienware and 20th Century Fox, itself isn’t great, it does show both a new level of interest in VR for AMD and some of the difficulties Hollywood may run into when trying to create their own VR co-productions.

“Hollywood is very interested in the VR space and AMD is very interested in continuing to support VR,” said AMD’s James Knight, virtual production director at the company. “This is meant to showcase our support for the medium.”

I had a chance to check out an unfinished version of the Assassin’s Creed VR experience last month in a New York City office using an Oculus Rift headset.

It starts out fairly strong: inside a secret lab where I am about to be plugged into the Animus. Things go black, and my view opens up on a courtyard inside a castle where a priest appears to be punishing heretics. I’m locked in a small cage being lead to the center of the courtyard. Looking around, I see that I am surrounded by hostile, jeering peasants and a few guards. While the production and acting seem consistent with the film, something about the fidelity and my perspective gives me a sense of watching something akin to a full-motion video from a 1980s game.

Suddenly an assassin appears in front of my little prison cell and frees me. I spend the rest of the experience essentially floating behind him as he takes out guards and runs along battlements. The production value plummets though with obvious green screen effects and a jarring drop in the quality of acting in the fight scenes. The entire experience ends in a surreal, visually muddled scene that has me standing next to Michael Fassbender dressed as an assassin before a plummet off the castle wall in a Leap of Faith.

The entire thing felt disjointed and a bit confused. While I could completely look around during the experience, I had no impact on what I was seeing and couldn’t control anything.

Knight told me that the entire thing was shot live on set in Malta. But when the team returned to put it all together, they discovered that a number of shots weren’t usable in a VR experience, so they had to recreate them using green and by stitching the on-set and green screen moments together. Knight assured me they were still working to polish the experience. They had to, for instance, completely reshoot the action sequences. It sounds like a lot of the issues grew from trying to do something on a film set that really hadn’t been done before. Learning on the fly what to do with the lights and the sound crew, for instance, so they wouldn’t show up in the 360-degree shots, took more time than was allowed on a live film set.

Knight said the team learned a lot from the process and it sounds like AMD, 20th Century Fox and likely much of Hollywood is just getting started with these sort of promotional co-productions in virtual reality.

“There’s a great deal of experimentation going on in VR right now,” Knight said. “Almost every single effects house and production house is dipping their toe into this.

“They’re all already creating CG assets so this is less of a leap and more of a step.”

For AMD’s part, the company opened up an office in LA to essentially have a closer location for folks working with VR in Hollywood.

Knight told me a story about how AMD was setting up appointments with the chief technology officers of all of the major studios and one of those studios kept changing the meeting date.

“I finally rang him up and said, ‘If you don’t want to have the meeting you can just tell me,’” he said.

But it turned out that the CTO wasn’t trying to get out of the meeting, he was trying to find the best time for the president of the studio to make the meeting as well.

“That was last year,” he said. “Everyone wanted to know what the hell this VR thing was.”

Now you have studios starting to experiment with using the technology to promote films and soon, Knight said, you’re going to have directors using it to create them.

“This is the birth of a new medium.”

But what about AMD?

The company’s interest in VR and Hollywood is two-fold. On the one hand, the company’s computer processors and graphics chips are used in a lot of visual effects houses to make special effects for films. But this particular project and the likely future projects like it are aimed more toward the home consumer.

“It’s not a big part of the business, but it’s a halo,” Knight said. “Purchasing decisions are emotional.

“If a consumer or a decision maker who is buying computer parts can attach themselves emotionally to a film like Assassin’s Creed they might be more likely to buy.”