UPDATE: 5 Key Insights from Director Jon Favreau About the Power of Virtual Reality

by Ian Hamilton • September 8th, 2016

We sat down with director Jon Favreau recently to discuss his VR project Gnomes & Goblins, a preview of which launches on Steam tomorrow. Update: It is now available.

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It’s just a tiny version of the world Favreau has in mind, and our talk with the director of Elf, The Jungle Book and Iron Man revealed just how deeply he is exploring the new medium, mentioning time inside The Climb, Adr1ft and theBlu. He’s also already worked on two very different experiences for The Jungle Book that play to the strengths of different kinds of VR equipment.

We’ve not seen a Hollywood director of Favreau’s stature speak as in depth about VR before, and that means he’s someone with both the time and inclination to bring decades of storytelling sensibilities to this new medium. I combed through my recording of the interview and below are some of the key thoughts he shared during our talk, edited slightly to bring together related ideas under a single header.

Unique Qualities Of The Medium

Jon Favreau: Part of what is unique about VR is the idea that you can connect with the character and what you do should affect and impact things because you exist in that world. You’re not just a voyeur and it’s incredibly challenging to make a creature that will react to anything you do in an organic and believable way.

With a film you are sitting and watching a screen, here you’re literally in the world. So, if you’re frustrating people or if you’re rewarding people, if they like it, they tend to use superlatives.

Fear and Inspiration

Favreau: A lot of VR is very overwhelming for me, I get kinda scared. I’m not a roller coaster guy. When I saw theBlu I was really impressed by it but it took me two times to get through it because I was a little overwhelmed…that night I was full of ideas and they were about what would I want and I would want something that felt more like lucid dreaming.

[In ‘Goblins & Goblins] we have a certain degree of agency, we have interactivity, we have emotional connections. But a world you didn’t want to leave … you never felt like something was going to jump out and eat you…we found that when littler people did it they got more scared, so we scaled up the world based on how tall the person is, so even your kid would still experience the goblin as something small that you don’t feel threatened by.

Scale of Intensity

Favreau: TheBlu was a very positive experience, just sometimes I’ll have to [try] some experiences first without the headphones or watch someone else do it first.

I’m glad that’s what the rating system is now on Oculus — they rate the games based on intensity and I think that is great because that’s a big consideration. Everybody’s got a different tolerance for that stuff … I see it with my kids, they like different things on it and I’m glad this offers that variety.

I play Adr1ft, I really like Adr1ft. What’s interesting about that game is at first it is very intense, then once you get a certain amount of mastery over the controls, you feel a different set of feelings and I think that was a really good example of, you know, you’re engaged, and again you’re coming at that from a game point of view so you’re expecting to use a game controller and its different, but I began to be transported and enjoy the experience of looking down at the planet, moving through space, being able to maneuver around. But at first it definitely was sweaty palms for me.

Or The Climb … before you know what you’re doing, you’re always falling down … but it’s balanced out in a way where the learning curve works well with the level of intensity. I also like just looking at really wondrous little artistic explorations. There’s even mobile experiences that I think are really cool because they’re taking advantage of that medium. And I think as people learn that there is mobile, there’s room-scale, there’s stuff that’s film driven, there’s stuff that’s game engine driven…you have different opportunities depending on which you’re using.

Differences From Film

Favreau: [VR is] a whole different instrument…. just like when you’re working with animation, there is a slow process and here it’s even slower because you have to…flow chart out the behavioral patterns and have it flow in an organic way.

It’s like playing Dungeons and Dragons, it’s like being a Dungeon Master where you’re building out a world and adventure for people to explore, whereas a movie is much more narrated, curated, mythic journey and I love that too … but for this, this is like a big puzzle.

Choosing Room-Scale For ‘Gnomes & Goblins’

Favreau: I would rather have a smaller audience, but an audience that is experiencing the cutting edge of this technology because I think that is going to expand out … a lot of times you try to reach the biggest audience and in this case we are trying to explore the limits of this technology and that involves the feeling of presence, that involves having hands and being able to interact/pick things up. And can you do that without feeling you need to be a gamer? Can you just throw someone in that’s never done it, tell them you can use the triggers to pick things up in the menu screen then take it from there?

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