Tackling virtual reality with ftrack

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Last Updated: August 27, 2015 1:48 pm GMT
(August 27, 2015) When we think about the promise of virtual reality to transform interactive experiences, most minds go right to video games. It makes sense, right? However, VR can be used for much more than purely entertainment and amusement – it can also be tapped to drive brand engagement in innovative and potentially powerful ways.

That's what Firstborn has been up to. After developing multiple VR initiatives for Mountain Dew, the New York-based agency worked with the iconic Patrón spirits brand to create The Art of Patrón: VR Experience. The interactive tour swiftly takes you through the extensive process of making tequila, all from the eyes of a virtual bee buzzing across the agave fields and through the distillery.

Not only was it a unique way to approach the brand and its identity, but it also proved groundbreaking, as Firstborn and partners devised new techniques for merging live-action footage and CG into one seamless experience. ftrack was a vital part of the process throughout production, enabling the team to easily manage scheduling and allowing close collaboration between the client, director, and studio.

Buzzworthy branding

Patrón wanted a forward-thinking campaign to help educate customers about the handcrafted process of making its popular tequila, and Firstborn was an ideal partner for the job. The studio had already made a splash with its previous VR work, which complements a wide-ranging portfolio of memorable digital work.

"We developed a creative concept around the Patrón bee – an iconic part of Patrón’s identity, as well as a natural part of the tequila-making process," explains Seth Tabor, Firstborn's Vice President of Content Development. "Our creative vision was to highlight this 'love story' between the bee and the 100% Weber Blue agave as it’s harvested from the fields and transformed into Patrón tequila. It's also a nod to the love and care that goes into each bottle of Patrón."

Bringing such a unique concept to life meant finding the right partners, as well as building new tech to execute on the idea. Firstborn enlisted director Mark Kudsi – known for numerous high-profile commercials, plus music videos for Katy Perry and The Black Eyed Peas – of aWHITELABELproduct to help shape the vision.

From there, the team worked with drone operating company Aerial MOB to devise a custom flying drone for the project. It needed to house a 360Heros rig with seven GoPro cameras to capture the 360-degree footage, but also be nimble enough to soar like a bee. Flying the drone through the agave fields and through the Hacienda Patrón production facility in Mexico allowed them to deliver an immersive and entertaining look at the time-honored process.

It was hard work, but clearly well worth the hassle, as the clip is a standout virtual reality experience. However, a project this complex had a lot of moving pieces and required input from many different parties, and Firstborn relied on ftrack to enable much of the necessary collaboration while maintaining a hectic production schedule.

Always on track

"With a project as complex as this one, it was crucial to stay on top of the scheduling and to manage the comments from client, director, and artist-to-artist collaboration. This was where ftrack truly shined," explains Jay Harwood, VFX and CG Supervisor at Firstborn.

Post-production on The Art of Patrón: VR Experience ran eight weeks, with about 35-40 people taking the raw footage and crafting the interactive experience. But there was much more to it than just compiling on-set video: "To accomplish a complete tour of the Patrón process and to do it at the highest quality, we needed to combine live-action VR filming with vivid, cinematic CG a first in the VR world," says Tabor.

To do that, Firstborn's own VR and animation leads worked with Legend3D, which developed custom systems to track the CG amid the 360-degree live footage. With that, the teams were able to stitch together the footage captured simultaneously by the GoPro cameras while accommodating the CG additions and tweaks. That allowed Firstborn to deliver an immersive experience that users can freely look around in. It's what makes The Art of Patrón: VR Experience such an engaging piece of work – one that’s refreshingly different from just another YouTube video.

Harwood says that ftrack was a huge help in pulling it all off, as it allowed everyone on the team to keep tabs on the production progress. "With this project, we broke new ground and composited CG into a moving, live-action 360-degree VR experience. To date, this had never been done before, and it presented many production challenges," he notes. "ftrack allowed us to have a central hub for comments, tasks, scheduling, and recent updates, and it gave everyone involved a clear picture of where we were in the production timeline."

ftrack was also used to collaborate with Legend3D, as the teams worked in concert to bring together all of the footage and convert it into stereoscopic 3D. "Using ftrack review, we created an active session for the whole production that we could add requests and save comments to, and do it all easily and quickly," notes Harwood.

"The UI is currently the best on the market," he adds. "Supervisors were very pleased with the reports, as it's a great way of knowing how each artist is handling their shots and tasks."

Firstborn and ftrack

Firstborn learned about ftrack from a freelance artist who extolled its project management capabilities, but the studio found much more to love. "Once we dove a bit deeper into ftrack, we discovered that it is a great pipeline tool as well," says Harwood. "In the past, we have used Google Docs and Trello, but as the studio grew, we needed something with a bit more strength."

He says that ftrack's scalability is the studio's favorite feature, as they can simply increase or decrease users as projects expand and contract. That lets a company like Firstborn stay as nimble as a virtual bee. "ftrack was ideal for use on this project because it’s incredibly flexible and scalable," notes Harwood. "It was easy to add and remove users whenever we brought on additional artists."

The studio did some custom development, as well, engaging Efesto Lab Ltd. to hook ftrack into their existing file structure. Efesto devised a tool that generated the project structure, which could then split work between work-in-progress and published states. Anything still in progress in the sandbox was automatically linked with Maya, which saved the team time and hassle while maintaining consistency across the board.

“Firstborn has a continuous relationship with Efesto Lab, not only customising the folder structure and creation, but also developing a multi-asset animation publishing system that seamlessly fits within ftrack’s UI,” says Harwood. “This allowed us an asset-centric pipeline that was tidy, organized, and clearly understood right from the start.” And he adds that Firstborn aims to expand its ftrack usage going forward, as they're looking into using the publishing asset, import asset and asset manager tools more extensively.

Surely, that'll help Firstborn stay atop its impressive workload, with Tabor promising much more in the VR realm. "We're continuing to push the boundaries of virtual reality for brands, so expect some new VR experiences in the late summer/early fall." And that's not all, either: "In the meantime, we're launching some exciting projects for some of our other clients that will be game-changers in their respective categories," he adds.

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