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Leading Brands Into Virtual Reality: Q&A With Framestore

We spoke to Christine Cattano of Framestore’s VR Studio to find out more on how they are leading brands into the new space, and what makes good branded VR experience… 

As we predicted earlier this year, virtual reality has begun breaking through to mainstream with more brand activations and availability than ever before. From Coke to McDonald’s to Ikea, brands are finding ways to use VR in creative marketing and services. Recently, Millennial favorite Toms Shoes used the power of VR to show consumers how their purchase affects others first-hand, film industry veterans produced a VR animated comedy short that could transform entertainment, and the New York Times launched an R&D lab to cover the Olympic games in Rio and space exploration in VR. With a forecasted $30 billion in annual revenue by 2020, virtual reality is now on most brands’ radar and has the potential to impact many industries beyond just gaming.

Framestore, a 30-year-old visual effects company, has been a leader in helping brands to forge down the VR path, and use the technology as a consumer engagement tool. While Framestore is best known for their commercial and film work, which includes Gravity, Harry Potter, Guardians of the Galaxy and more, their VR Studio is at the forefront of the new technology, and works with brands “from creative development to idea conception, all the way through to deployment,” to create engaging VR experiences. Their Game of Thrones exhibit, which launched over two years ago, created quite a stir as the first big commercial VR immersion. Visitors outfitted in VR headsets were taken through an interactive space, which used elevators, moving floors, wind, and more to immerse them in the GoT world. When introduced at SXSW it generated lines that could last up to four hours, and it toured the world to become one of the most widely seen VR campaigns. We spoke to Christine Cattano, an Executive Producer within Framestore’s VR Studio, to find out more about their work, where virtual reality is headed, and how brands can use the new technology to their advantage:

Ypulse: Could you tell me about Framestore, and in particular what your VR studio does?

Christine Cattano: We’ve always been at the intersection of high end visual and technology, so before our department was the VR department, we were a visual interactive group that was focused on bringing high end visual into an interactive space for brands. That led us into virtual reality. We had to order that first [Oculus] CK1 off of Kickstarter, and once it arrived we were trying to convince everyone that we knew to do a VR experience. We did a big Game of Thrones VR experience that year—that was the inception of the VR studio. We sat there for five days, fourteen hours a day, watched everybody’s reactions, and said “Let’s put everything else aside, there’s something in the VR thing.” It really inspired us to take a big step into the unknown. We’ve since grown the VR studio from three people to thirty people worldwide. We’re working content with friends, agencies, advertisers, and studios. We are also working on original content, AR, and lots of R&D on where this new kind of space is going, so lots of stuff going on.

YP: Tell us about your Game of Throne’s “Ascend the Wall” exhibit. What kind of response did it provoke?

CC: Screams, and lots of “oh my gods,” lots of “holy fucking shit.” I can say that 99% of the people that were going to the Game of Thrones experience had never put on a VR headset before. So if you are a Game of Thrones fan, it’s just an amazing moment of wish fulfillment to be in Westeros and travel 700 feet up an ice wall and then get killed by wildlings and fall off the edge. In addition to that I think a lot of those people had never really been immersed in that type of experience before, so it’s quite visceral, quite exciting. We did some really cool stuff that was very ahead of its time with mapping the physical space to the virtual space. It was done two years ago, but if you see it today it still holds up.

YP: What does an engaging VR experience look and feel like?

CC: I think all of that is still evolving quite a bit. As people experience more VR they start to develop quality barometers, and they start to gain an understanding of what they like what they don’t like, what’s engaging, what’s not engaging. You could put a passive VR experience in front of anybody and for the first time they’ll always turn around and say, “wow,” but do ten of those in row and you’re like, “ok what’s next.” For a VR experience to be engaging it needs to be interactive, you need to feel like you have some presence in that world. That doesn’t mean it needs to be interactive like a game, but you want the world to respond to your presence in some way. Itreally helps to feel like you’re not in an experience powered by technology. 

YP: What advice would you give to brands looking to develop a VR experience?

CC: Be bold, be experimental. This isn’t the time to count your spend versus how many eyeballs you’re going to get. What happens very often is brands will sacrifice the more immersive and engaging VR experiences that really kind of stick with people and impact people, for some of the more passive VR experiences they feel can reach a wider amount of people. But the most successful VR experiences that we’ve done with brands have been the ones that are not afraid to take a risk. They’re going to go bold and they are going to make an experience that has value for the end user. At the end of the day this isn’t a commercial, you’re asking someone toput a headset on for a couple minutes to be legally blind. You want to give them something that’s valuable to them, you don’t want to just put your ad in VR. People are pretty smart, and they are going to get turned off by that pretty quick. If you are giving them an experience where they feel they got value or enjoyed it, thought it was fun, as oppose to, “ok I just watched this brand’s commercial,” I think that’s really a big win. 

YP: It feels like VR has been on the precipice of going mainstream for some time—when do you predict the technology will be embraced by more consumers?

CC: There’s a little bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Before people spend money making content, they want to make sure that there’s a market for that content. When you’re the consumer you ask yourself, “why should I buy this device, what kind of content is on it?” You have a situation very similar to when the iPad came out. There were a lot of early adopters, but it took a while for the apps that were really made for the iPad to come out, and that made it more compelling for people who were unsure. But there’s a lot of investors putting money in VR hardware and also to some degree content, so it will get there. Consumers are just going to want to see content of value. When they feel like there is valuable content, people will start picking it up. I wish I had a crystal ball, but I think 2018 and 2020 are going to be interesting years to watch.

YP: What industries do believe have the most to gain from the new technology?

CC: Obviously the initial players are going to be gaming and entertainment, but I think there’s lots of really interesting value to be added to areas like healthcare and education. Education, to me, is probably the most exciting. I’m excited to see how VR changes how kids are interested in certain places, and how we can communicate. VR is one of those things that does have the potential to really revolutionize how we interact. We don’t know because we’re at the early days of it. We’re at the Zach Morris phone stage. I had no idea, thinking about Zach Morris how he was so cool for his brick cellphone, that we’d all be walking around with these iPhones. At the end of the day you can’t even fathom how things are going to be 20-30 years down the line. 

YP: Why do you think Millennials in particular will embrace VR?

CC: They definitely more apt to adopt new technologies. As VR takes off, and if it really folds into the social space as much as we think it will, that’s a big area of attraction for Millennials. Also the constant barrage of media, being inundated with things from all over, I think VR is one of those things that actually brings you a bit closer to what you’re consuming in a way that’s not distracting. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.



Christine Cattano is Executive Producer within Framestore’s VR Studio, based in New York. In her three+ years at Framestore she has actively grown her department from an interactive arm of the company into a dedicated studio focused on virtual reality, building an infrastructure to support and push the boundaries of this exciting new technology while still in its infancy.

Leading a team of highly creative minds, Cattano has been at the forefront of some of Framestore’s most pioneering projects, including HBO’s Game of Thrones “Ascend the Wall,” Marvel’s “Battle for Avenger’s Tower,” as well as VR projects for Volvo, Paramount, The New York Times, and Merrell.