This Yale Student’s Live-Action VR Film is Kind of a Big Deal

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By Ken Liebeskind

Does the future of filmmaking (and viewing) lie in virtual reality (VR) films?

An ambitious team led by Yale senior Celine Tien might hold the answer to that question.

Tien produced, directed and acted in Pippa’s Pan, which she notes is “one of the world’s first live-action VR films.” The film, which will be completed in April, mixes live action with VR segments. Some of the characters were created via animation and other techniques that distinguish the film from 360° VR videos like the ones frequently seen on YouTube.

“360° videos are stagnant; you don’t move with them and see a 360° view of whatever they’re filming,” Tien explained. “What we’re doing is immersive VR. When you put on the goggles you can physically walk around in the space, pick up objects and engage with the environment. It’s a huge difference.”

Celine Tien produced, directed and acted in Pippa's Pan.

Celine Tien produced, directed and acted in Pippa’s Pan.

The immersive VR film experience is different for everyone who interacts with the medium, but that doesn’t mean the film’s ending will change for each viewer.

“[That] was a creative decision as I developed the screenplay. I didn’t want it to end differently,” Tien said. “But everyone’s experience will differ in other parts of the film. You can enter scenes differently and see the action in different orders.”

The film stars two Chinese-speaking actors. “It’s a story about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who is trying to recapture memories of her husband,” Tien said. “It’s a love story told in a very non-linear way.”

Tien, who grew up in Los Angeles and pursued an acting career from the age of nine, appears in the film as a character who is shot with motion capture. “[The technique] records body movement digitally that we import into our environment,” she said. “[We] create textures around them so they look like non-realistic people.”

Pippa’s Pan wasn’t made with a traditional crew, either. “Coming back to Yale for my senior year, I decided to pull together a team of people to create a VR film,” Tien said. “We have 20 people spread across the U.S.: young engineers, artists and programmers working on different aspects of the film. We’re trying to rethink traditions of storytelling and narrative because VR is such a new medium.”

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Tien flanked by two of her teammates at the AT&T Developer Summit Conference in Las Vegas

The film has already been recognized by the VR industry. After submitting a short demo to the AT&T Developer Summit Conference, Tien and her team were invited to Las Vegas in January, where they came in third place. “We were by far the youngest by one or two decades and others had products that were funded by companies or already complete,” Tien recalls. “We were surprised we won third place.”

Pippa’s Pan is only the first step in Tien’s post-college career. “After graduation I’ll be pursuing a VR content studio venture,” she said. Releasing the film upon its completion is her first priority, though.

If you’re dying to see the film already, your options are a bit limited: Pippa’s Pan can’t be seen in movie theaters unless they happen to have VR goggles available. According to Tien, many theaters in China will soon have that capability, which makes sense considering China is the film’s target market.

Pippa’s Pan will be released in three languages: Chinese, English and Korean. “It can get distributed in different ways: at film festivals with VR set ups and through HTC or Oculus headset stores,” Tien notes. “If you have VR goggles you can download it and experience it yourself. We will also collaborate with movie theaters that have VR set ups.”

Images courtesy of Celine Tien

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