NSC Creative produces fulldome films out of the National Space Centre in England, and tackles virtual reality (VR) and theme park attraction jobs around the world. VFX Supervisor Aaron Bradbury spoke with us about their pipeline, the challenges of working in fulldome and VR and how they’re using ShotGrid to keep projects on track.
Tell us about your company.
NSC Creative is a computer animation studio specializing in immersive experiences for fulldome, stereoscopic 3D and virtual reality. We work out of the National Space Centre in Leicester, England, where we largely make fulldome films– the kind you watch in planetariums. Though we’re based in England, our films are also distributed internationally. We began as a small production team working for the Space Centre, but as our work became visible, we started receiving requests for outside projects. At that point, we realized we needed our own identity to handle those jobs and formed NSC Creative.
A few big jobs over the last couple of years have allowed us to expand. Today, we have a team of about 20. Most of us come from traditional cinema backgrounds, but underwent a lot of training. As a team, we’re big on immersion, so when we take on new projects, they normally involve placing an audience in a digital environment or experience. We’ve worked with planetariums, corporations and theme parks, and also provided training and consulting for VR projects.
What recent projects have you worked on?
One of our latest projects is an educational dome film about the Google Lunar X-PRIZE. It’s narrated by Tim Allen and provides an overview of the first privately funded competition to get people to and from the Moon. We got to meet and interview entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers from each team, and visualize their plans. We were able to check out their rover designs and dissect them to get an inside look at the technology, which was cool. The film has been screened in 600 dome theatres in over 60 countries and is available for free to anyone interested in showing it.
We recently worked on a theme park attraction for Cinecitta in Italy. The ride is essentially a 15K resolution, stereoscopic immersive tunnel that takes the audience on a wild ride through space. This was one of those projects that landed on the doorstep after several other companies failed to deliver on schedule. We had to figure out a new projection method with part of the team at an event in China and deliver the project in just three weeks. It's these kinds of projects where team communication on ShotGrid is vital.
We’re also working on several theme park queue experiences, and by that I mean the attraction leading up to the ride that keeps riders from getting bored while they wait. We're really pushing this experience to the next level, and in some cases, the queue projects we’re developing turn out to be just as cool as the ride itself; it’s essentially an immersive storyline that you walk through.
We’re also knee-deep in a couple of corporate promos, and earlier this year, we worked with Golden Wolf as immersive consultants on a Comic-Con project. We helped their team create The Virtual Brainload, a 360-degree immersive experience, which has since been transformed into a VR experience for Google Play. We Are Stars is another cool project we’re working on right now. Unfortunately, I can’t say much about it yet other than it’s a VR project and it’s planned for release in early 2016. I can say that both ShotGrid and RV have been important tools for us on this production.
What challenges accompany working in dome and VR?
They’re endless. With the recent flurry of VR filmmaking, a lot of people are starting to become familiar with the challenges we’ve been experiencing since full dome filmmaking began. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that resolution is key. We were working in 4K by 4K at the same time people were complaining about HD (1920x1080). Today, we’ve stepped it up to 8K by 8K at 60 FPS; the amount of data we handle is literally insane. We’re working with a wide field of view, which means we need higher res images for optimal image fidelity and a higher frame rate because movements are exaggerated. In cinema, if an object moves across the screen you can get away with 24 FPS, but with dome, you see jittering in the image. Almost everything has to be increased.
Writing scripts can be tough too because they have to take into account a number of things within the immersive space. For example, how long things take or how much movement is within a scene. Storyboarding is also a complicated process with timings and movements. When you’re storyboarding for an environment that wraps around you, it’s hard to visualize that scene in two dimensions. We’ve tried a lot of different techniques, but our traditional approach is storyboarding out the sweet spot, which we would consider the front or forward-facing scenes where most of the action takes place. We usually do a lot of re-composing scenes during previs and layout.
I’ve also realized that it’s hard to educate people in an immersive environment because there is so much to explore around them. You have to really try and figure out how to maintain focus in an area but still give people room to explore.
Tell us about the transition from fulldome filmmaking to VR.
We’ve been doing a lot of R&D in VR, and surprisingly, the transition hasn’t been a giant leap. The challenges are quite similar to what we’ve encountered in dome. For people working in traditional cinema, however, it may be a leap when they realize the resolutions and compositing tools required. You can’t light or use live action cameras the same way you used to. It’s a lot harder to cheat in VR and dome.
Is there any advice you’d offer to first-time VR creatives?
Camera timings are very different in VR versus traditional content creation. You want to move things more slowly than you would in traditional flat screen video. You also want to use caution as you edit and consider using more continuous shots to avoid jarring the audience. We’ve successfully done hard cuts in our films but in continuous shots every scene asset must be loaded simultaneously, which takes up a huge load of compute resources.
Why has your company been so successful?
That’s a tricky question. There are a lot of things that go into making a successful company, but a big part of it is brilliant people. We strive to find the best people to work for us. We’re also always exploring new technology and investing in R&D. Being able to adopt new technology quickly is crucial, especially in the fast changing world of immersion.
How much effort do you focus on building out your pipeline? Why is it important to pay such close attention to it?
Your pipeline speeds everything up; it’s all about efficiency. Being able to refine it means you can finish projects faster and for less. On the software side, we have a lot of tools we use and pay to use. Most of our projects require quick turnaround, and since it’s so specialized, we can’t send it out to other people to do. Everything has to be done in-house so we have to be very efficient with our tools.
We’re also doing a lot of VR work and consultancy so we have all these dreams of tools that meet our needs, but no one else is making them yet. When we’ve previously tried to get other developers to make the tools, it hasn’t worked out, so we’ve started taking our ideas and building the tools ourselves, which has only made our pipeline stronger.
Which proprietary tools are you most proud of?
We built a tool called “Revolve”. It’s based on the Unity engine and allows us to render directly to a VR headset. We can use it to render images and videos in 3ds Max to the headset, put it on and see what we just rendered. Another one is “Portal,”, our real-time engine for reviewing immersive environments. We use it a lot for our theme park attraction work. We developed it so that we can walk around and explore the queue that riders see before they get on the attraction itself.
What’s a regular day like for you?
It can be very different week to week. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of live-action work. Some days I’m directing, and other days I’m working with artists, setting up scenes for them in 3ds Max, doing 3D scene reviews or reviewing content in an Oculus Rift. I’m also heavily involved in pipeline development, so I spend a lot of time working with the lead tool developer to come up with solutions to issues we’re experiencing. I enjoy working on all of the different aspects of production. For me, it’s fulfilling.
What were you doing before you began working for the Space Centre?
I studied painting at University, so that’s my main creative background. I did a lot of digital painting and started working on digital artwork. From there, I began making films and received grants from the Film Council and Arts Council to make short films. I did a lot of interactive work and found a mentor in John Grace who unfortunately passed away. A big event was held in his honor, and at that point, I realized how truly influential he was. While there, I met Paul and Max, two of my team members at the Space Centre. They’d seen one of my short films and encouraged me to apply for the job.
How do you stay connected to the artist community?
There’s a huge artist community in the dome space and I go to a lot of full dome festivals like Full Dome Festival in Germany and DomeFest in New Mexico. Whatever the conference, people come from all over the world. I also help host a festival in the UK. We curate tiny pockets of creative work from this niche world, review it, develop a program and invite the whole industry to it.
The online community is also important to me. I blog a lot and I know a lot of other people who blog too. In my spare time, I also work on my own dome and VR projects, which opens up a lot of opportunities to connect with artists. I was actually in New York in October for the Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival, the first purely VR film festival. I was there sharing my own narrative VR piece LoVR. It’s about the moment you fall in love. It’s almost like a 5-minute data visualization of seeing the partner of your dreams and catching each other’s gaze, and you see all the neural reactions. I was also involved in a panel about my piece with four other artists. It was great to chat with everyone there. Right now, there’s so much creativity around VR because the rules aren’t defined yet, which make it really fun.
Once our team reached 10, I knew we’d need a big project management tool like ShotGrid or everything would buckle; it’s almost a requirement to keep everything on track."
How did you first hear about ShotGrid?
I first heard about ShotGrid in 2010 and was curious, so I set up a meeting with one of their team members. We’d just started working on a project for the Cairo Children’s Museum and it was getting harder to manage the team’s schedule. ShotGrid was the perfect solution. Our artists first fell in love with it when the Media App was released because it allowed them to see everyone’s work in one place. It’s become a centralized point for checking out what’s happening on every project.
ShotGrid has been a big turning point for us. We’re able to submit notes and respond instantly, which reduces the chances of us missing feedback or losing something. If a director asks for something to be bigger or smaller, the only way we can be sure it’s done is through ShotGrid. With notes in notebooks, things get missed, but when it’s in ShotGrid it’s all there and laid out nicely, so it’s not confusing.
With notes in notebooks, things get missed, but when it’s in ShotGrid it’s all there and laid out nicely, so it’s not confusing."
Which content creation tools do you use in-house?
We use the full gamut of tools from Adobe Creative Suite to Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya and The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing. We’re also using the Unity 3D engine and Thinkbox’s Deadline, Krakatoa and Frost tools.
Can you describe a recent project where using ShotGrid was essential?
While working on a project we’re still finishing, we uncovered a new development with ShotGrid. In 2013, we made a full dome promotional video for the Schindler Group in Switzerland. When we started to update the film we found that we could review previs in ShotGrid on our dome theatre. Typically, when completing reviews of dome footage, we’re at a workstation, typing responses, annotating shots and sharing feedback with artists. With the new development, we can stream 4Kx4K images from our system or load up a browser window and view them on the dome in real-time.
This allows us to use ShotGrid on the dome directly, and it’s been really great for reviewing shots. We can crop an image to where the fish eye video would play, and then draw on the frame using a laptop inside the dome and use the annotation tools. It’s fantastic, because the traditional flat screens aren’t representative, but when you can draw on the dome, you can see where the line exists in 3D space. It makes editorial decisions much easier.
Do you have any favorite features in ShotGrid?
Definitely the Media App. Artists love being able to upload what they’re working on to a central place where everyone can review and annotate. It’s also super awesome when sitting with artists and talking about their reviews on different parts of the shot.
This may not be a feature, but I also like how ShotGrid develops the software, which I noticed from the very beginning. Even when I request new features, they listen, often build it into their product roadmap and eventually add it. Their support team is on it, and the open line of communication they have with customers is a good approach. I love seeing them reach out to us regularly just to see how things are going. It’s impressive because artists aren’t always the first to report issues, so by reaching out to us they’re opening a forum for our artists to provide feedback. You feel a personality with ShotGrid, and they’re forward-thinking in the way they approach technology and support.
What is your favorite thing about working in Leicester?
Being in the countryside. London is a huge urban area, but in the Midlands you’re surrounded by countryside and greenery. Every day, I walk to work I walk by a canal with trees. In the summer, for lunch, we sit on a little jetty overlooking the water and feed the swans; it’s a beautiful thing.
When you aren’t working, what’s the ideal way to spend a day in your city?
At the moment, gardening. My wife and I bought and moved into a house last year. It’s all tarmac, so I’ve been planting a garden, building walls and getting into home improvement. I also love watching and making films. I really have the ideal work/life setup. On the weekends I get to go out into nature and spend time with the family, and in the evenings I get to be creative and sit at my computer making cool new films.
What are the three most important things in your office?
Our Oculus Rifts hands down. They’ve become a key part of our pipeline because they make reviews easier. We can iterate more throughout the day since we don’t have to leave to the office and they free up more of our time to be creative. Number two is my tea mug, which I can’t seem to keep track of! I keep losing it, but my team members always find it before me. Finally, I have two 4K monitors. It may bother some people having high resolution, but I love being able to see everything at once; it’s like being in The Matrix.
What inspires you?
Seeing awesome work. I work here because the first time I saw full dome in 2007, it was a life changing moment. I was so blown away by it that I applied for a job at the Space Centre straight away. I’ve been working in this industry since then and I am literally never bored. When I experience immersive art, I love the feeling that I’m in a different environment. In 2008, I saw a stereoscopic dome show at the Adler planetarium in Chicago that was so impactful that it became my mission statement to become master of 3D in full dome.