Adding VR to a Filmmaker’s Toolbox, with XR filmmaker Kevin Kunze

Listeners of the podcast already know a great range of the kinds of businesses XR has applications for. But one business we don’t talk about a lot is the business of making movies. Filmmaker Kevin Kunze pops in to help fill that void, and talk about some of his adventures in XR filmmaking.

Alan: Hey, everyone, this is Alan from the XR for Business Podcast. Today’s guest is Kevin Kunze, an award-winning interactive filmmaker based out of Berkeley, California. We’ll be talking about making an AR video with Will.i.am, creating art with Intel, and delivering on the promise of VR and AR with the San Francisco 49ers, San Jose Sharks, YouTube, and more. All that coming up on the XR for Business Podcast.

Kevin, welcome to the show, my friend.

Kevin: Thank you very much for having me.

Alan: It’s my absolute pleasure. I’ve been so excited about this. You are making some of the coolest VR experiences. You’re an award-winning interactive filmmaker. I want to just give you the platform to tell us all the cool stuff that you’re working on.

Kevin: Sure. So, over the past couple years, we’ve done a lot of different VR work, ranging from filming the 49ers — Colin Kaepernick’s last season with them — to the San Jose Sharks. Getting guys just like crunched against the glass in VR, seeing those front row seats. It’s something that’s many sports fans’ wildest dreams. We’re also currently working on projects that are more in the restorative justice side of things. I’m working on a VR series about an African-American filmmaker, Kevin Epps. He’s kind of like the Spike Lee of San Francisco, is what a lot of people say, but he works mainly in documentary. And three years ago he got involved in an incident that SFPD at the time said was self-defense shooting. And now three years later, he’s been re-arrested and they’re saying it’s murder. And he was recently got out of bail. I actually picked him up from the jail and drove him home. And so I’ve been documenting his experience and his family’s experience in VR, because it is the empathy platform and it’s the medium that many people will see things different.

And basically, this is a series that can also be shown in standard video format. We plan to go online with it on Amazon or Netflix and present it like that, and then have it be an additional thing that maybe Netflix or Amazon has on their platform in the Oculus or HTC. And then you can see it in 3D and in full peripheral, and maybe giving people access to additional footage as well. For instance, I had the idea of making an interactive feature, where you are doing interviews with some of these high profile people. For instance, we have this great rapper, Mistah F.A.B., who we interviewed, and he’s known Kevin since he’s about like 18, 19 years old. And he is so eloquent with all of his language. He’s like one of the most interesting people that I’ve ever interviewed. And so giving the access of this footage that normally you would not use in the final product, this five-part series. And normally editors would put this on DVD deleted scenes or they just put in the trash, they put it on a hard drive. And it would never see the light of day. And instead, my idea would be that you take this footage and make an interactive app, where you’re in the headset and you actually have cue cards around you and can ask these questions. In a way you become the investigator; the interviewer.

Alan: Cool. So how is it interactive? Is it just like a pop-up gaze control or…?

Kevin: Yeah, I mean, maybe it could be gaze controlled if we want to go through like YouTube or something like that or if it’s– you have the finger control, you can just click on it. But the whole idea being that you have all the questions accessible to you. And this footage that normally would get 80 percent of the interview you maybe don’t use, now you can recycle that material and people might pay an extra couple dollars to check that out, because it’s really interesting and fascinating, especially when it’s a true crime case. As we’ve seen the serial, you give people additional information and they just kind of become their own detective and learn more about what happened.

Alan: Wow, that’s incredible. I mean–

Kevin: I always thought about doing this as a narrative film, actually. And it’s just kind of crazy, the coincidence of– you don’t really choose the movie, the movie chooses you sometimes. In this case, that was the case, is that I’ve known Kevin for about a decade previous and his son is actually like the poster image for my last documentary, Mobilize — which is currently on Amazon Prime, plugging that right there — but basically he’s always been very helpful for me as a filmmaker and connecting me to different communities in San Francisco. SF Public Library, I remember I filmed the Q&A with him and Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight. And then he was like, you need to show your films here and that kind of like cued me to do screenings there and make that accessible. But basically, when I heard about this case, and the more I learned about it, and the more that I’ve worked with his lawyer– VR and these new technologies are very, very helpful in the courtroom as well. It’s just a general blanket statement that I’ll say, because I can’t really get into too much the details of it at this point in time.

Alan: Well, what are some of the other things you’ve been working on? I know you did a project with Will.i.am, with the Meta headset. Can you talk about them?

Kevin: Sure, yeah. So we filmed some AR videos with Will.i.am. I think this was back in like 2015, and I had never seen anything quite like this technology up until this point in time. But basically they had a black magic camera that was like plugged into these computers. And I was able, in-camera, to see all of these holograms that Will.i.am was seeing in the headset real-time. And so I could frame my shots of him playing with the skeleton and things like that, with the camera. But I had to do a dance with like five people behind me, holding all these wires and cables. So it was a really fun and memorable shoot because of that. And Will.i.am was just such a really charismatic guy and just really nice. And we got a great interview with him right in the Palo Alto Hills, just looking over Silicon Valley. And we put this kind of like Apple-esque music over it, and made this cute little commercial and it never saw the light of day. So recently I decided to post that to YouTube, because the company finally went completely done, sold all their assets off and everything. And so I said, OK, finally, this footage can see the light of days, the way we initially shot it and intended it. Because they pretty much scrapped the interview, and they never posted any of the cool footage.

Alan: Oh man.

Kevin: I had told them so many times, the marketing people, you need to be posting daily on YouTube and Facebook and Instagram to stay relevant, because you’re competing with giants, you’re competing against Google, you’re competing against Microsoft. No one knows who Meta was. They had a bunch of Kickstarter money. And that’s when we kind of came in, as we filmed the thank you video for their Kickstarter video. And we got to meet all of the employees and talk with everybody. And they had great group that they’d assembled, but sadly, if they don’t constantly push the envelope with media, you can’t stay in business now.

Alan: I totally get it. We filmed some VR footage for a cannabis company. We went and filmed their 800,000 square foot facility, and just mind-boggling, the footage we got. And it will never see the light of day.

Kevin: Oh, that’s horrible. I hate those projects. There’s one, maybe one other I can mention here. We shot a piece with Air National Guard, which was pretty dope. We had a Hummer and set the camera in the Hummer, as it’s beaming out of this plane right after it landed. And it was a really sick shot. And I think it’s only been shown in trade shows. If you go to their– I don’t know which trade show, but you go there and you can watch it in the headset. They never released it on YouTube or anything, but we were able to see this training simulation room that they have, for terrorist threat situations. And there are whole things, like we needed to find a video that doesn’t have any guns in it. And they were like– the guys who were in charge of the computer and the training were like, “We have like 500 simulations. Psst, which ones don’t have guns?” They couldn’t think of any, of course. I think eventually we maybe found one. But it was a really interesting experience and I wish that that could have come to light.

But these are sort of the things that you end up working on. And then years later, it still hasn’t come to light. And you can finally tell the background story. But ultimately, I think that VR is one of these things, where you’re seeing it used more and more on just traditional film sets, like the latest Lion King, they used it for pre-visualization. Previous Star Wars movies, they’d been using it as well. Even with iPads connected and just kind of doing it like that. But ultimately, I think it needs to be a tool in every cinematographer’s toolset right now. And I’ve seen that more and more, just traditional camera people who are like, “Which 360 camera should I buy?” and they’re finally starting to lean in.

Alan: So which 360 camera *should* we buy?

Kevin: I mean, it really depends what you’re trying to film. For the series I’m doing with Kevin Epps, that is being shot in VR180, because we want to go to standard video, we want to go to Netflix and these sort of things, and then hook people from there into VR. And I also didn’t wanna be on camera the entire time interviewing. And also, it’s just practical on a set. You have to clean up a lot in VR. Like, if there’s messes and things. So I didn’t want to have to clean up half of the stuff. So basically, that’s what led us into it. And then getting really good stereoscopic, which you can’t really get out of 3D 360 cameras so much.

Alan: Got it.

Kevin: In my opinion, it’s harder to get six eyes correct than two eyes.

Alan: I agree.

Kevin: And the costs and the complications that just the amount of footage that it takes to store this, we’ve about 15 terabytes already. And I still have numerous interviews that I need to do.

Alan: I actually recently did an interview with a group at a Toronto and they were using stereoscopic 180. But also they put a– I want to say it was a Kinect. It was either the Intel RealSense or a Kinect. And they synchronize the two in a game engine, so that when you were sitting there looking at somebody who’s talking to you, it was stereoscopic, but you could also lean around.

Kevin: That’s pretty dope. Yeah, I’m all about that sort of thing. And I think it’s all going toward light fields and holograms. I see that happening a lot more, like the future TV would be like a glass table that you just have, and you put your couch in front of this glass table and all of a sudden these holograms appear. And that’s going to be the thing that people buy. And I don’t know how they’re going to do it, but it’s a nice circular glass table, that maybe Apple puts out. And who wouldn’t want that in their house? Because right now I feel like the 3D TV market it was there, and maybe it could come back with the VR 180. But it’s very difficult. Essentially, right now, you can’t buy a 3D TV, which is really upsetting because I want to put out footage in 3D. I think 3D TVs could work, if you can get rid of the glasses. And that’s what James Cameron’s really been trying to do, and why he hasn’t released the latest Avatar. He’s trying to get these theaters to adopt a new type projection, where people can get rid of these glasses. Especially if you wear glasses and then you wear the 3D glasses, you got glasses on glasses.

Alan: Oh yeah.

Kevin: But basically, I find that the most challenging thing when 3D TV’s first came out is there’s not enough media. Now there’s tons of media being produced, so we should be able to make that nexus happen. But unfortunately, Samsung and a lot of these big TV players have kind of pulled out. So it really comes down to them taking a step back in. Maybe Google will produce a 3D TV. I think that that would be a big innovation for them, a technology that people might buy. If they can get 3D TV with tempered glass where you don’t need to wear glasses, I’m sold. Give me a price, I’ll buy it.

Alan: [chuckles] Well, it’s funny because I’m at CES and stuff, and you see these TVs and stuff and I’ve seen kind of glasses, less 3D. Where you put a film on top of the TV and it gives it almost like a lenticular film. I’ve seen those and they’re all right, but not where it needs to be at, I don’t think.

Kevin: Yeah. I mean, ultimately what I say it comes down to is communal media versus isolated media. And right now, VR is an isolated media. Even if you’re tethered to your Chromecast and showing people, it’s still one person experiencing it and another person just watching that experience. And I think–

Alan: It’s possible to have multiple people in it, which I think is also pretty cool.

Kevin: But it’s hard to get that going in a home setting right now.

Alan: Yeah.

Kevin: These location-based entertainments, which is doing great. They bring up a lot more people to the malls and things like that. In our age of Amazon, that’s certainly helpful. But ultimately, I think it comes down to people like communal media because, A, they want to experience things with people together. When you’re in movie theater together, it’s a lot more scary than when you’re watching it on your own with your cat at home. I think so, at least, hearing other people scream around you. Or just like a comedy, sometimes it’s funnier when you’re with a group of people and you hear someone else laugh, it’s contagious. And I think in our age, that’s kind of the question right now. We all have iPhones. So even sometimes you might be watching a movie and somebody else is watching their own thing on their phone.

Alan: Wrong, my kids don’t watch TV without a second screen anymore. It’s crazy.

Kevin: Exactly. So we have to get people to engage the second screen into the first screen. And so that’s maybe– there might be some component to that with this VR series that I’m doing about Kevin Epps. Or maybe you can use your phone in some AR fashion while you’re watching the series on TV. I don’t know. I’m playing around with different ideas, but basically that’s still all playing out in the court system. It goes to court. We’re interviewing the governor, Gavin Newsom, governor of California. It’s pushing a lot of people to talk about this, talk about him and what it means to be someone of a diverse community and modern-day society with policing. I think when the film fully comes out, we’ll see just how bad the railroading was. But until then, I can’t really talk too much, sadly.

Alan: Fair enough. All right. So what other projects have you got on the go, or what have you done that you want to talk about?

Kevin: So, I have been working on a project all about Paradise, California. The fire there that happened last year. And we went there the day that it opened up, the day they opened up the town to people again. And we did some filming with drones and 360 cameras. And it was devastating. It was the closest to the word “apocalypse” that I’ve ever seen with my eyes. It was horrifying. It’s sad to see on the news. You only see it for a little bit and you only see it in the standard footage, where you don’t really get the full grasp of the entire neighborhood that was burned down. You just see kind of like a single picture. So we basically started collaborating with other filmmakers to put this experience together, where you will go to Paradise and see this.

And kind of the premise being that the PG&E officials who got fined the money, the judge said to them, “You also need to go to the city of Paradise. You need to see what happened.” And he ordered that, and they went like eight months after. So they didn’t really get to see the carnage and everything, they saw it after it was cleaned up. So this is kind of an experience really for them, in that way. And to show other people what happened and why we need more awareness and why we need more fire prevention, because it was the deadliest fire in modern US history. And I think a lot of news organizations kind of glossed past that. And it became the deadliest fire in California history. But really the deadliest in modern US history in the past hundred years. 86 people died there. You compare it with the year previous, it was in the 50s, I believe. So it’s horrible that this sort of thing is now normal. And that PG&E is just saying, oh, we’re rolling blackouts and these sort of things. But ultimately, they need to be held a lot more accountable. And I think this film will make people think a lot more about that.

Alan: Amazing. Whether it’s the empathy machine, or just being able to put yourself in a place that is maybe already regenerated, being able to go back in history, you’re capturing parts of history. So, very interesting.

Kevin: Yeah. And we layered basically these shots of the aftermath over actual 911 calls as they’re kind of coming in near sequential order. And we have a haptic backpack as well — we’re using SubPac currently — and so you feel like there’s an underlayer of wind — that’s done by amazing sound designer, Helena — and basically, you feel these haptic vibrations on your back, and it just adds this extra chill factor on the back of your neck. Hearing these people and– it’s really like a record and a document to what happened, in the nearer sense. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of news coverage on it. But when you see it in this virtual space, you remember it a lot more. And that’s one of the things that really brought me into VR, is that people retain that information a lot more, and especially if it’s a really powerful experience like this. Certain things are really in a way VR can help enable people to understand a lot more about what happened, in a way that traditional media just has been lagging. And maybe it’s just because of the fact that we get so much traditional media and that people don’t have as many VR experiences. I don’t know.

Alan: Yeah, well, we’re just– somebody was telling me the other day we’re getting between 4,000 and 10,000 media hits a day.

Kevin: Yeah.

Alan: Each person. That’s insane. How does– how do our brains not explode? And now we’re in– it’s funny, because they used to show this little cartoon of the– attention span of a goldfish was two seconds. Meanwhile, our attention span now as humans is less than a second.

Kevin: Yeah.

Alan: So, we’ve actually become less attentive than goldfish.

Kevin: Well, while I have people’s attention though right now on your podcast — thank you very much again for having me on here — I’ll plug the film site, which is silenceinparadise.com. And also, if you’re interested to follow the Kevin Epps project, we’re using the hashtag #FreeKevinEpps. And he also has a website, I think it’s just kevepps.com.

Alan: Wow.

Kevin: So check him out. He has tons of great films on there, too. Like I’m going through all this amazing footage, because he shot so many different documentaries. He did one on Alcatraz, all about the African-American experience there. And I remember I was running projection for it, along with this guy who used to do the projection for The Grateful Dead and stuff. And we’re on Alcatraz at night. And they kicked all the tourists off. And then they just brought over two boats of 500 people and they watched it in this cafeteria in Alcatraz, where people used to get shanked, probably.

Alan: Oh my goodness.

Kevin: Which is crazy. And we’re showing this film about the prisoners. And it’s just crazy looking back on that now, through the perspective of himself on trial. Insane. I also want to plug, I will be teaching at SFAI in 2020, San Francisco Art Institute.

Alan: Great.

Kevin: So people who are interested to learn more about how they can make 360 films, go into SFAI and you can register for class there. I kind of got roped into it through a friend of mine, Christopher Coppola, who’s also a film professor there, and just a great guy. He’s Nicholas Cage’s older brother and also nephew to Francis Ford Coppola. And so we’ve done a pretty cool 360 experiences that are not posted out yet, but tests with the Insta360 Pro 2 camera on the Coppola winery, something that was a little fun to shoot, just kind of run around there.

Alan: And I actually just got their new EVO camera. They were nice enough to send me one. And it’s the 180 stereoscopic that switches to a 360 camera.

Kevin: So that’s the one that we’re using primarily for the Kevin Epps project. I love it. I’ve traveled the K1 a lot to the Z cam, but this is just small and easier to use, especially if you’re filming in court. You don’t want something that’s big and bulky, and that will scare people off. And so this small, tiny camera is a little bit less intrusive in that way. And I found that the stereo is really great.

Alan: The stereo *is* great on it. Actually, I was really surprised how good it felt, because I normally get a little sick with stereoscopic 360.

Kevin: Yeah. What’s great is because of the lenses are so small, you can actually get a lot closer to them than the K1, where you can get more of that cross-eyed effect happening closer. So that’s another reason I really like it. But always remember to format your card.

Alan: [laughs] Fair enough. What other last-minute tips do you have for anybody embarking on their 360 filmmaking journey?

Kevin: I mean, I would say just checking out SFAI. Because honestly, we have a lot of great cameras there that we’re using to teach students. It’s a really great university. Looking back on the history, like… Ansel Adams used to teach there. Kathryn Bigelow is a former student. So I would recommend looking into those sort of classes. I also post a lot of stuff on my YouTube channel, educational tutorials, as well as just product reviews. So just look up “Kevin Kunze” on YouTube and it should pop up.

Alan: Awesome. I recently had Michael Shabun, the CMO from Insta360 on the show.

Kevin: Great guy. Amazing guy.

Alan: Oh man. And I also had the guys from Radiant Images on here.

Kevin: Also wonderful people. Yeah. We do camera rentals in the Bay Area. So if you ever need 360 cameras, ambisonic audio equipment, let me know. Go to kevinkunze.com and send me a link.

Alan: Amazing. I have one last question for you, Kevin.

Kevin: Yeah?

Alan: What is one problem in the world you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Kevin: Well, right now, we just did a piece on homelessness in San Francisco in the Bay Area, which there is a lot of homelessness here. And I think the real big problem there is people don’t know what that’s like. They don’t want to interact. And so we shot a VR series with the YouTube VR Creator Lab and Invisible People, which is a nonprofit that raises awareness about homelessness, started by a former homeless guy. And so basically this whole idea is this project is trying to build more empathy into people’s experiences. And so we show you just kind of a bunch of people, who you maybe wouldn’t talk with normally. And now you’re hearing their stories, and a lot of their stories are so fascinating. Mark [Horvath] — the director — was so great at finding these amazing individuals to interview.

One of these guys used to be a former millionaire. He was showing us pictures of himself on this boat and everything. And he basically lost it all in the recession, in real estate. And then his dad got cancer. And so you really start to empathize once you hear their stories. Another person is a firefighter. And now she’s going around giving medical attention to homeless people in the street who can’t afford it, who can’t go to the doctor. And that’s really a powerful story to hear. Like this person is down on their luck, who’s still helping out other people. So I think those are the important stories for people to get across, that’s on YouTube now so anyone can watch them with their VR headset or traditional media.

Alan: I commend you for that. I actually one time took a homeless gentleman out for dinner, and then we went and played pool and we spent a whole night together and just talked and I really from my standpoint, I wanted to know, how did somebody get there? It was just a couple of series of bad luck, and it could happen to anybody. So really empathizing with people is important. They’re just people like everybody else.

Kevin: Yeah. And he has a really cool 6DOF experience coming out soon. I don’t want give away when it’s coming out, but you can find see the behind the scenes on his YouTube channel, Invisible People. Highly recommend that, because that shows you both how to do the VR 180, and how to do something that maybe is a little bit more interactive.

Alan: Amazing. Well, thank you, Kevin. And this has been a really great podcast interview. Thank you so much.

Kevin: Thank you so much for your time. Have a great day, and I’ll see you at the next big conference.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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