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District 9 director says big studio AR films are inevitable, revolutionary

‘It’s going to be a bigger deal than VR’

Protagonist in Adam: The Mirror Oats Studios

Everyone is betting on augmented and virtual reality — even Hollywood.

Neill Blomkamp, the director best known for his work on Chappie and District 9, and whose currently working on a followup to Unity’s 2016 short film, Adam, told Polygon that new technology breeds experimental filmmakers. The studios don’t want to get left behind, racing in attempt to catch up with what independent filmmakers are doing and publishing on Vimeo or YouTube. With hyperawareness of augmented, mixed and virtual reality, Blomkamp said it’s only a matter of time before big studios start using AR technology to make big-budget films.

“It’s obviously going to be pretty revolutionary,” Blomkamp said from an office in San Francisco. “It’s already kind of happening.”

Blomkamp is currently working with Unity, the company behind one of the gaming industry’s most popular engines, to create films using real-time rendering. What he’s capable of doing with the engine, Blomkamp said, can be applied to filmmakers who want to tinker around with augmented reality. Augmented reality is slowly beginning to garner attention from filmmakers much in the same way VR has over the past couple of years. Blomkamp said the issue facing most directors is trying to figure out how to tell a linear story within a fully immersive, interactive world where the viewer doesn’t have to abide by the same rules they do now when watching a movie: sit down and pay attention.

“I think with AR ... how the system gets a three-dimensional understanding of the area that you’re in and how it reverse engineers the narrative experience to fit into that environment you’re sitting inside of ... that’s the main problem,” Blomkamp said. “Until I get my head around that, I don’t know how AR is going to fit into the mix for my films.”

Still, it’s the possibility of what he could do with AR once he has it figured out that excites Blomkamp. Being able to experiment with the technological applications of sound, light and even characters based on a viewer’s proximity in the scene is an area he’d like to explore more at length.

“AR is definitely very interesting,” Blomkamp said. “On a powerful enough iPhone, you could be watching Adam and controlling wherever the camera was looking. You could move forward or backwards and as you got closer to things it would become louder or as you moved away they would become quieter. What that will allow for in the future is that’s the most interesting element.”

It’s not just studios who are intrigued by the creative challenges augmented reality presents. Anyone with an iPhone and the ability to create augmented reality content can share it with Apple’s ARKit. The same goes for Google users and ARCore. Those videos can be downloaded by anyone with a capable smartphone and viewed in their own backyard. During our call with Blomkamp, the head of Unity’s Labs, Sylvio Drouin, said in the same way the iPhone democratized video games, technology will continue to do that for filmmaking.

Software, Drouin said, is being created for generalists who can practice and learn what they apply. If people want to create AR or VR projects, their phones are often powerful enough to do that. Having the technology readily available for consumers means that it’s not just studios who will have the ability to demonstrate what they can do with emerging platforms and mediums. It’s the creative technologists who help to define what AR films look like going forward.

Another developer turned filmmaker, Duncan Walker, previously told Polygon that the more people who publish short films or create small projects with AR and VR, the more others who view those films will want to try the same thing.

“What I’m trying to prove with the experiment is that this type of filmmaking can be open to anyone, not just the big studios,” Walker said. “Independent filmmakers, game developers or anyone really.”

While it may be some time before AR is being used to create elaborate films, Blomkamp is certain that it will inevitably happen.

“It’s going to be a bigger deal than VR, absolutely.”

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