Best known as the director of the classic musical Grease (1978), Randal Kleiser has made quite a departure for his latest project – the virtual reality drama series Defrost, which consists of 11 five-minute episodes.
In a screening held in Beijing on April 27, Chinese technology writers and others watched three episodes of the series. Afterwards, the audience had the chance to chat with Kleiser through Skype.
All 11 episodes of Defrost were released worldwide on April 25 on Veer, a Beijing-based platform for VR content set up by three young Chinese entrepreneurs in 2016.
Kleiser tells the Post in a phone interview that he used over US$300,000 of his own money to make the film, the script of which he finished even before he made Grease.
“My brother is a visual effects supervisor. He has done many movies. He began his career with Tron, the Disney picture. He always shows me new things like digital make-up and the Oculus Rift,” he says.
“I first tried Oculus four years ago. It was walking through a villa in Italy in 3D. I was able to walk around, go up the steps, look out and see it all as if I was really there. It blew me away. I wanted to figure out how to do a drama with it. I thought of the script that I had written a long time ago and I adapted it to VR.”
Defrost takes place in 2045 and revolves around the experiences of Joan, who was cryogenically frozen after suffering from a stroke and woke up after three decades. Instead of being happy for her reunion with family, she was weak, confused and at the mercy of a dubious doctor who cares more about showcasing her as a successful medial experiment than her well-being.
Donning VR goggles, the audience assumes the perspective of Joan, witnessing her encounters with her relatives and medical personnel first-hand.
Kleiser says each of the five-minute episodes was done in one take with no cuts. “I got the actors to rehearse how to move within the five minutes. It’s like a small play for each episode. When we rehearse for each episode, we have an actress in the wheelchair, so the other actors can interact with her.
“When we are shooting, we put her out and put in a dummy [with a VR camera in the place of a head] instead. That’s how we are able to create the emotions [felt by Joan, which are in turn felt by the audience].”
In 2015, Kleiser directed his first play The Penis Chronicles, about the uncertainties of eight New York men over their sexuality and masculinity. He says that experience has helped him with making Defrost.
“If I hadn’t done that play I would not have been able to do Defrost very well. I learned how to direct the audience’s attention without having a camera or lens or [film] editing. [I learn how to] just do it all in one wide shot.”
In spite of the huge resources tech titans like Samsung and Facebook poured into developing VR headsets and the heated hype regarding the potential of the technology, VR is still a niche industry with only techies and hard core video game fans willing to buy the expensive headsets.
Kleiser says for VR to revolutionalise the filmmaking industry, the technology has to overcome hurdles regarding definition and user comfort.
“Each episode of Defrost is only five minutes long because people who use VR only like to be in it for five minutes at a time. Right now, the headsets are kind of clunky and uncomfortable. As the technology of the head mounted displays get better, lighter and easier, people might probably want to stay in it longer.
“Right now, we are at [only] 4K [definition]. [However], 16K is [the level of definition] which is supposed to be close to the way the human eyes see. So we have a long way to go to make it look totally real.”
Defrost is not Kleiser’s first brush with cutting-edge technology. Working in 70mm 3D, he directed Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, which ran for over 10 years at the Disney Parks in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo and Paris.
Kleiser has also developed a virtual-reality simulator for the US government to train soldiers to handle improvised explosive devices in the Middle East.
“I really enjoyed doing that project,” he says. “I have met one of the soldiers that went through the training. He went to Afghanistan and he was blown up in a Humvee and the training helped him survive.
It was very exciting to know that I have actually helped people survive an explosion. The simulator is still being used. All the people going to Afghanistan have to go through this training before they leave.”
In spite of VR’s current shortcomings, Kleiser is full confidence in its future potential. He is also ready to make the second season of Defrost if he can find investors.
“There’s nothing like VR. You feel like you’ve really been there and experience the movie, rather than watch it. I like the idea of [the audience being the first-person immersive viewer]. There’s no other medium which does it.”