Film School's innovative curriculum sparks collaboration with industry leaders

Virtual reality (VR) is the new frontier in immersive entertainment, and the School of Filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts is among its pioneers, developing innovative curriculum that has gotten the attention of industry giants like Facebook-owned Oculus, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Radiant Images, and Technicolor, and has sparked interest among top filmmakers who want to collaborate with students and faculty. 

The UNCSA School of Filmmaking is one of 11 schools nationwide recently chosen by Oculus, a VR technology company, to receive state-of-the art equipment, guest lectures from experts in the virtual reality field, and opportunities for students and faculty to engage with industry leaders.

VR headset

VR headset used on the set of "DecipHER"

During the 2016-17 school year, Oculus sent Ola Björling, Global Director of Virtual Reality Marketing for MediaMonks, to campus as a guest artist. “MediaMonks is the biggest creative digital production company on the planet,” said School of Filmmaking Dean Susan Ruskin. “It was a phenomenal experience for our students because Ola has not only technical expertise surrounding virtual reality, but he also has a philosophical understanding of virtual reality’s potential impact on digital storytelling.”

Also this year, film students worked alongside professional filmmakers to produce a VR pilot called DecipHER. Guest artists for the project included Jacquie Barnbrook (producer of the Martian VR Experience and visual effects producer of The Jungle Book and The Hunger Games; Eric Hann, cinematographer, visual effects supervisor and VR photographer; and Alexa Hann, a writer, director and producer who started her career at Disney and is now focusing her talents in developing VR.

“When I first started looking into virtual reality it seemed apparent that this was the way the world was going,” Ruskin said. “It felt to me the best way for our students to really learn was to get up on their feet, do a production and do it with people who have the experience.”

Susan Ruskin

School of Filmmaking Dean Susan Ruskin

Fifty students across every discipline in the film school were involved with the DecipHER project, and each lunch hour was devoted to a question-and-answer session with the guest artists. “We all learned a tremendous amount from each other – students, faculty and professionals, Ruskin said. “Together, we are all learning how to approach storytelling and problem solving in this new environment, using highly sophisticated equipment.”

Some of that equipment was provided by Radiant Images, a leading rental house for VR equipment. “We are extremely fortunate to partner with Radiant Images, which provides equipment and training that we would not be able to afford,” Ruskin said. The equipment was used in the DecipHER project, and also in the year-long course that signaled UNCSA’s prominence in the VR medium.

Ruskin said the course is a popular elective for students in all film disciplines, with 21 students enrolled and six faculty auditing. “Virtual reality has its own lexicon, its own language. Gamers communicate differently than narrative filmmakers. We are all learning together to communicate more effectively in this new art form,” she said. “Both students and faculty are keenly interested in exploring the new frontier of virtual reality programming.”

New courses will be added to the VR curriculum in Fall 2017 to emphasize different aspects of the medium, and plans are underway to partner with a nearby university to explore the engineering aspect of virtual reality.

Beyond that, Ruskin hopes to leverage additional resources like the 14,000-square-foot sound stage in nearby High Point that was donated to UNCSA several years ago. “It is a terrific resource, not only for film production, but also for incubation of new technologies. Technology developers can bring their equipment here to test it, and our students will get to try it out,” she said. “That will be very attractive in a field where the technology will continue to change every few months.”

We are not just teaching our students how to use current technology, because that will change tomorrow. We are teaching them how to be technologically nimble. They will master the next generation of virtual reality tools and will be the industry leaders in the years to come.

Susan Ruskin

That experience will give UNCSA students a leg up as they enter the profession, Ruskin added. “We are not just teaching our students how to use current technology, because that will change tomorrow,” she said. “We are teaching them how to be technologically nimble. They will master the next generation of virtual reality tools and will be the industry leaders in the years to come.”

The equipment and training provided by Oculus is a good example. UNCSA received Oculus Rift headsets and touch controllers, Samsung Gear VR headsets and phones, Samsung Gear 360 cameras and Rift-ready top-of-the-line computers from Advanced Micro Devices, equipment that is used in digital gaming and narrative filmmaking.

“This is cutting-edge equipment, the most advanced technology available,” Ruskin said. “Oculus is the worldwide leader in virtual reality technologies and they are providing a remarkable opportunity for our students to experience storytelling with the technological tools that the industry is using,” she said. “We are extremely grateful to Oculus and to industry experts — who are developing the technology and using it every day – for engaging with our students and faculty.”

Oculus was founded in 2012 in Irvine, Calif. The company raised $10 million through a Kickstarter campaign that year to fund development of its Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The consumer model of the headset was released in March 2016. Oculus was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion.

Ruskin said more industry collaborations are sure to follow. “We have found partners in the business who are eager to see students learn how to tell stories in this space,” she said.

The lessons, she added, are exciting for students, teachers and industry pros. “It’s always great fun when you are going into a brand new world and nobody’s got the answers so it is up to you to figure it out,” she said. “That to me is a really good time.”

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May 10, 2017