“Wild – The Experience” puts you in the wilderness with Reese Witherspoon

[From The New York Times]

"Wild - The Experience"

[Image: “Wild — The Experience” puts viewers in the wilderness with Reese Witherspoon. Credit Felix & Paul Studios]

Virtual Reality ‘Wild’ Trek, With Reese Witherspoon

By Michael Cieply
DEC. 14, 2014

LOS ANGELES — They read the book. They saw the movie.

Now, a few admirers of “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s tale of her lonely trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, can spend several bone-weary, fully immersive minutes in the deep wilderness with Reese Witherspoon, who plays Ms. Strayed in the Fox Searchlight Pictures film about the adventure. On a smartphone.

Fox Searchlight and its partners — including Samsung and Oculus — are planning to demonstrate “Wild — The Experience” at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, both in January. It is a three-minute, 360-degree, virtual reality encounter with Ms. Witherspoon in character as Ms. Strayed, as she lugs her backpack through the trees and plunks down next to the viewer.

She is skinny, scruffy and almost eerily present.

Soon, Ms. Witherspoon turns to look at the viewer. Or, more properly, through the viewer. Turn right, and it is clear she is staring at the memory of her mother, played by Laura Dern, who appears where seconds earlier there was only a rock.

They trade words. Ms. Witherspoon ambles down the trail, now behind the viewer, who can turn and watch her go.

“For us, it was about the intimacy,” said Félix Lajeunesse, a Montreal-based virtual reality artist. He and his business partner, Paul Raphael, directed the sequence, which uses no computer-generated effects.

For 20th Century Fox, which owns Fox Searchlight, “Wild — The Experience” is also about the future of home entertainment.

“Probably for our business, it’s going to be an in-home experience,” Mike Dunn, the president of Fox’s home entertainment unit, said of immersive viewing.

Ms. Witherspoon’s walk through the viewer’s personal space was assembled by the Fox Innovation Lab and the cinematic futurist Ted Schilowitz. It was an initial attempt to extend the reach of a conventional film with technologies that are only now becoming available to consumers. Using software from Oculus, it is viewed through Samsung Gear VR (virtual reality) goggles to which a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone is attached.

For the moment, “Wild — The Experience” is strictly a promotional event, meant to grab attention for a film that is only beginning its theatrical run. But Mr. Dunn said he expected to be selling similar virtual reality experiences connected to Fox films by the fourth quarter of next year.

Commercial content, Mr. Dunn predicted, will be longer than the three-minute demonstration for “Wild.” Viewers are not likely to sit still for a full hour of goggle viewing, he said. But he imagined short movies related, perhaps, to some future “X-Men” installment that would be watched in sessions of about 15 minutes each.

Like “Wild — The Experience,” those films probably would have an interactive element. For instance, Ms. Dern does or does not appear in the current film, depending on how the viewer behaves.

David Greenbaum, a Fox Searchlight senior production vice president, said Ms. Witherspoon’s virtual reality walk was filmed in a day, not on the Pacific Crest Trail, but in a natural setting that mimicked its contours. Ted Gagliano, president of postproduction at Fox, said the film relied entirely on conventional visual effects.

Other than the proprietary 3-D camera used by Mr. Lajeunesse and Mr. Raphael, its fanciest bit of magic was color correction of the sky.

In an interview last week, Mr. Greenbaum, Mr. Gagliano and Mr. Schilowitz said they settled on “Wild” as their test case because its close encounters with actors like Ms. Witherspoon and Ms. Dern were framed by the majesty of nature. That combination highlights the range of a new medium that has often been associated with the look and feel of video games.

As for Ms. Witherspoon, she first viewed her performance through Samsung goggles last week, and was duly impressed.

“I thought it was beautiful,” she said in a telephone interview. “It was very emotional for me.”


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