Fully digital productions are the future, and not just in legacy media like film and television. Thanks to recent breakthroughs in technology, terms like “3D assets” and “immersive” are on the tips of everyone’s tongues. Virtual production, virtual reality, and augmented reality have now proven their effectiveness in many business areas.
If you work in commercial production, you’ve probably found that many brands want to plant a flag in these spaces.
But what does it take to do that? How can your company join the worlds of digital experience production and virtual production? And what should you be thinking about if you want to expand your company into the these spaces?
To help get some answers, Wrapbook spoke to Optic Sky founder Aaron Gordon. Optic Sky is an advertising and digital experience production company based out of Rochester, NY.
Originally founded in 2014 by Aaron to take on clients in and around western New York, Optic Sky has expanded over the years to national prominence with commercial work for companies like Zillow and Wegmans.
As they grew, Aaron saw the potential to capitalize on new technologies.
“We got heavily involved in AR, VR, and then all of a sudden the newest evolution of virtual production came along. So we dove really quickly into virtual production because it uses Unreal Engine, the same game engine software we were using for augmented reality and virtual reality. What really took everything up a notch was when we began working with Synapse Virtual Production, which gave our brand and agency partners access to Synapse’s industry-leading technology, people, and facilities.”
This opened the door to Optic Sky becoming an “advertising and digital experience” production company with a broad offering of visual storytelling services that operate in both traditional and non-traditional spaces—from your TV to museums, in-person events, and even your own living room.
Along the way, Aaron learned some important lessons about what it takes to be a pioneer in these new realms.
Before new technologies are even discussed, Aaron recommends developing a strong sense of project management.
“We're an industry that works a lot like construction. You have a firm bid, an upfront budget, your success is defined by ‘Did you make the building that you set out to make? Did it look good?’ But also, ‘Did you come under budget and did you make sure there's no, you know, “injuries” along the way?’”
What good project management does is set expectations for the client about what that “building” (aka their digital production) will look like. In traditional production, that might mean agreeing on a run-time, a director, and a concept. Benchmarks might be measured in script approvals, evolving cuts, a sound mix, and delivery.
If you’re using a virtual production workflow, many of these benchmarks might be the same, but the order will change with much of the post-production work being replaced by previsualization work. Commercial spots shot against an LED volume wall (i.e. virtual production) are using new tech, but the deliverable is still a 30-second spot.
In more groundbreaking digital productions, the benchmarks might not be as clear.
Let’s say your company is hired to build an interactive VR space. The client needs to be made aware that there won’t be a run time or edits.
Your benchmarks might be a model of what the space will look like, multiple renders of characters that will populate the space, or delivery of the music that will serve as the piece’s “soundtrack.”
“It's not about trying to overly please a client for what you think they want. It's about really figuring out what their business objectives are, setting up clear, mutually-agreed upon expectations up front, and setting what the key performance metrics are of the project so that you can actually give them what they really do want and need to create the desired impact.”
Once you’ve got your communication and project management skills on point, it’s time to experiment. Open up the doors to the tools your company can use in a digital production space.
Aaron recalls the first time someone told him to check out a VR short and how he realized the technology might be having a moment. He wanted to explore the possibilities of what he could do with it at Optic Sky - but there was no rule book for how to proceed.
At first, the approach was somewhat scattershot. The company experimented with different possibilities as part of their R&D budget.
“We can create narratives in VR. We can have directors work with us to create some dope narratives. We can do some cool experiential stuff. Our 3D animators could all participate in creating assets.”
What Aaron eventually landed on was hiring two VR filmmakers right out of RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) to start crafting narratives, but soon clients started asking about what kind of utility these productions might provide.
“So we ended up creating a lot of use cases for VR that actually were more applicable to clients because it was something that was actually usable. It wasn't just like, ‘Well, that's cool someone's gonna watch that and then they're done with it.’”
The challenge taught Aaron and Optic Sky a meaningful lesson about using new production techniques and technology: “cool” isn’t enough. It all comes down to business impact.
This hunt for utility sent Aaron and Optic Sky down a number of different paths to show clients what the tech was capable of.
“Some of those first projects were everything from training modules that were [...] DDR style types of training for like really cool physical things that people need to do. We created some VR based interactive exhibits for dinosaurs and other cool things, and then that actually kind of moved quickly into AR and then virtual production.”
Over time, Optic Sky gained confidence in approaching their clients to say:
“‘Hey, this is how you can train someone to do this in a totally new way,’ or, ‘This is how you can do this really fun experience,’ but actually what they're getting out of it has this educational value.”
Many of these AR, VR, and virtual production experiences were created by artists using Unreal Engine as their underlying tech. As a result, Aaron could generate even more profit and utility out of each digital asset created.
For instance, let’s say a client wants an AI-powered digital mascot to host a trivia experience in VR. Once that asset is designed, animated, and voiced, many of those assets can carry over to experiences on other platforms - say augmented reality glasses or even your phone.
For Aaron and Optic Sky, this digital asset pipeline would prove more useful than ever when COVID hit.
The pandemic changed Optic Sky’s digital production plans. It changed everyone’s production plans. No one wanted to handle VR headsets or touch anything that didn’t belong to them. That made putting VR installations into museums or training centers difficult.
But since the software Optic Sky used for VR could also be applied to AR (augmented reality), they could easily pivot. They began thinking about what kinds of experiences users could have on their phones or other personal media devices. If you’re unfamiliar with AR, think Pokemon Go - experiences that play out over reality as you view it through a phone, tablet, or headset.
This resulted in one of Aaron’s favorite AR projects, a song drop for a band called Joywave. In keeping with the band’s cool, meta branding, Optic Sky created an AR radio filter that they deployed through social media.
When fans used the filter, they could tune the radio through 12 minutes of original content, including remixes and talk show segments.
While Optic Sky has expanded into many forms of digital production and media, one that they haven’t touched is Web3.
Aaron initially got into blockchain technology in 2017 and finds the technology compelling when it comes to certain applications like transparency or tracking contamination in a product.
Despite the hype that resulted when these technologies evolved into Web3, Aaron doesn’t feel the space is ripe for clients yet. His reasoning illustrates a great lesson for anyone looking to expand into digital production.
“We have to be able to recommend a new client with pure confidence in [our] liability and everything that, yeah, we're gonna create this thing, you guys are going to own this among these platforms, and no one's gonna be able to mess with your usage. And then [trust] the next day that platform is not going to crumble.”
This is an important way to look at all new technologies you may want to offer your clients in a digital production space. The cutting edge is only worth standing on if you’re sure the ground is solid.
Any good press you might get for being first can quickly turn sour if the technology doesn’t pan out!
Finally, digital producers must always be prepared for what’s just around the corner. In Aaron’s case, he thinks the next generation is going to embrace 3D space in a way we can barely imagine.
“Today we're using technology to evolve how we create passive content and merge it with active content. Tomorrow [...] everything is going to be active content and engagement that we can truly interact with in a 3D space and it's going to be in a form factor that we can't even fathom right now.”
If your company is thinking about digital production, it’s important to remember that the tools of today won’t be the same as the tools of tomorrow. Always set aside funds to invest in R&D and don’t be afraid to add a digital experience to your next campaign!
The best way to grow your business is to learn from what others are doing, so we’d like to thank Aaron for sharing his journey through the world of digital production with us. The lessons we can glean from Optic Sky’s success - prioritize project management, experiment, create utility, and make sure that you only offer clients technologies that you trust - are more than just good tips.
They’re smart business.
Whether you’re ready for your production company to grow or not, Wrapbook has you covered. Before you go, do a deep dive on new film technologies that are changing the game or explore how virtual production made The Mandalorian possible.
Scouting production locations? We’re breaking down 10 states with considerable film tax breaks so you can get the most bang for your budget buck.
Wrapbook's newest resource is our podcast, "On Production," which features experts in the field and tips on how to navigate the production world. Check it out!