It’s a company of re-invention. Many of the former VFX artists from the bankrupted Rhythm & Hues and behind such Oscar-winning or nominated fare as The Matrix trilogy, Life of Pi, the first Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman and the former president of TV Land have joined hands in Blackthorn Media to create a new level of VR. The first big project is Dragonflight, which just launched worldwide this past week on three different VR platforms and uses the theory of gaming mixed with virtual reality.
“There is nothing else we’d rather be doing right now,” said Blackthorn’s creative director/president Michael Conelly, formerly of Rhythm & Hues. “The line of work we were all in — visual effects — required constant invention. We built a lot of tools to achieve the kind of effect we wanted, and here we are at a new industry starting all over again and with a pretty deep pool that got us to the top of the field in the first place.”
Larry Jones, the former president of TV land who left after re-inventing that network by introducing fresh, scripted programming such as Hot in Cleveland and Younger, went to Blackthorn media at the beginning of the year to serve as the company’s CEO. “What I learned in my years at Viacom is how important it is to have user-generated content that can be distributed directly from the user,” he said. “The same thing is happening in gaming, and we believe its going to happen with scripted VR content.”
Right now, Dragonflight is being distributed on Viveport and Oculus, and really anyone who has a 3M headset can participate in this. “It’s the next biggest computing platform. It’s a new gateway. It’s a new way to tell a story, ultimately,” said Jones. “We are at the start of a VR industry. It’s something that we’ve talked about for many, many years in the entertainment industry — interactive storytelling where the viewer can change and direct the story. From a business standpoint, you can distribute direct to consumers, cutting out the middleman. It is the combination of the technology being developed in Silicon Valley being combined with the storytelling and the creative execution possibilities from the Hollywood community. And this technology gives direct access.”
It’s a business that many people are running into, including FB founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is pouring billions into virtual reality and not too long ago bought Oculus, which is distributing out its Oculus rift VR headgear.
The Blackthorn Media team includes the former Rhythm & Hues VFX group of Conelly, Keith Goldfarb, Lyndon Barrois and Jubin Dave. Also joining the mix is Paula Fairfield, the sound designer from Game of Thrones. Jones calls themselves “a VR first studio.”
“We are in the very beginning of what VR is going to be,” said Jones. “We are the disrupters right now. If you make a piece of IP it has to be made for that platform. Friends was a hit on TV. YouTube stars are only hits on YouTube. Angry Birds was a hit on its platform, and those become a hit when it is made for that specific platform. Where the hits will come in VR are going to be from those who create VR not from an existing IP that was created for another platform.”
In addition, Blackthorn is changing up how creatives who work in the industry get paid. “The definition of how creators can participate in back-end deals has completely changed in where it was five years ago, and we are re-writing the rules,” said Jones. “This is a new way for creators to create and participate financially. It’s an exciting new platform but not unlike what YouTube did with its creators who were allowed to give content out to their direct audiences and reap the financial benefits directly.”
So what is Dragonflight? First off, when they started creating the star of their first effort, they chose a dragon because the symbol of a dragon crosses all cultures. The concept they came up with for their first VR offering is also something that straddles two concepts: gaming and VR. And when they showed a bit of it at Tribeca last year, they learned the meaning of true crossover.
“Narrative in VR is the long-term goal here. In the shorter term, we are piggybacking on the videogame business and making it into a fun VR experience,” said Conelly. “We look at videogames really as one of the on-ramps to VR — this notion of crossover. The people that lined up in Tribeca weren’t really gamers but people who love film who were interested in VR and that line was around the block. We saw that there was an audience for it.”
Dragonflight begins in a Games of the Thrones-type realm and then it weaves into a game. The viewer boards the back of a dragon named Azhdaya and then participates in the game as a dragon rider. The viewer and Azhdaya form a team in a world where the dragon is revered but never ridden. Then a Scorcerer approaches and tells the viewer there is a dragon that has been buried in nine different locations and someone is trying to put it back together and that is a grave threat to this world. He also tells the viewer that a covenant has been broken because the viewer bonded with a dragon. At the same time, the other dragons who are highly intelligent, are shocked because the human/dragon bonding is a groundshift in what they knew of relationships. That sets viewers on a journey to make choices and create their own narrative.
And they plan to create more and more IPs and keep pushing the envelope of effects, something they have learned to do their entire lives as VFX artists. Said Blackthorn co-founder Conelly: “What we have to do is keep our mindset on what is possible, and as long as we continue on that … if we can imagine it, even though it’s not here today, and get the technology there … everything we are doing is right there.” Or almost there.