A conversation with leading VR innovator Kevin Cornish

Kevin Cornish steers far away from the mundane — currently to an alien invasion, to be exact (more on that later). He has produced movies such as Are We Done Yet? and Barely Lethal, created music videos for Taylor Swift, and two years ago, founded VR agency Moth + Flame. He has been shooting videos in 360 ever since, and the work he’s creating is nothing short of revolutionary.

Cornish is fascinated in the social and emotional needs we have as human beings, and it shows in the dynamic storytelling featured in his gaze-activated VR films. In his work, viewers are made to feel like they are participating in an experience rather than watching something occur, isolated, from the outside.

The leading VR innovator’s passion for virtual reality is also contagious. In July, I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting with Kevin, MTV and the MEC Wavemaker Content team right before his Teen Wolf VR film would reach tens of thousands of people at Comic-Con and hundreds of thousands more on Facebook. In the most approachable and composed matter, Kevin explained to the room how he created the gaze-activated content, equipped with the ability to respond to people’s head movements. Everybody was enthralled. This meeting was not only my first experience with an oculus rift headset,  but it was also the moment where I saw firsthand VR’s brilliant and unique ability to transport a person into a story.

Even though Kevin is constantly busy producing projects for a number of incredibly exciting clients in New York and LA, he was kind and generous enough to take the time to talk with me about VR earlier this week.

How has your summer been, what have you been up to?
Crazy busy, I’ve been doing this cool love story set against the backdrop of an alien invasion in VR. It’s for this company AMD (they’re a tech company). And so, they wanted to do something to show off the powers and the technologies they’ve built. And they wanted to do something cinematic. And so they were like, what would be cool? So, I pitched them this idea that was about exploring how memory works in VR… Because you’re so kind of immersed, and you think about the way that memory works in our lives — in terms of the nonlinear way: you’ll remember one thing and then you’ll remember another thing and they may not be connected at all. But, then when all these memories are collected, they make something — and kind of as a whole. So, it’s a story set in the backdrop of an alien invasion, but it’s really a love story about a relationship. And then the alien invasion very much like a metaphor for trauma, it explores what happens with a relationship when there’s a trauma.

What initially intrigued you about VR and can you tell me about your career’s evolution to being exclusively focused on VR?
My story/background is in feature film. I produced a movie with Hailee Steinfeld. And then — this is all going somewhere, I promise — so, Hailee is good friends with Taylor Swift. And then after we shot that [Barely Lethal], she told Taylor and Taylor reached out and said she had some things I’d might want to do. And so, then I did a couple of music videos for her, and I shot a bunch of the onscreen stuff for the 1989 tour. And then, for one of those shoots I said let’s shoot some 360 stuff and see what that’s like. So, that was maybe like two years ago, and so that was the first thing I shot [in VR] and it was really eye-opening in terms of how when you’re in there, you just really feel like you’re right there with the person. And thinking about the potential that could have, I was like this is so much cooler than anything I’m seeing happening in movies. So I’ve just pretty much been obsessed with it since then.

I had the chance to listen to your interview with The Voices of VR. One part I definitely found very interesting was when you likened gaze activated VR content to “almost being like emotional porn.” I would love to hear more about this analogy.
Basically, I think that we spend a lot of time on social media where we’re giving attention, but it’s just like liking stuff; it’s not really getting attention in the way that humans need. And there’s an isolating thing that I think is gradually happening with culture. So, building these things out in a way that actually give you the basic emotional need that people are missing out on.

I feel like VR is said to still be in its early stages everywhere I read. Where do you see VR going — do you see social opportunities down the road?
Yeah, I think that’s where it’s all going to go. And there are some things that are at the early stages of that. I want to do something for Art Basel — something that would be like a group experience, where there are a bunch of people in the same experience and you can all see each other so that it starts to become social. It’s different from social and social media because social media is all about connecting people who are in different places, but, it’s social in that it’s a lot of different people in one physical space having the same experience. But then, the next step in that in terms of technology is instead of a bunch of people in a tent at Art Basel having the same virtual experience  — one person could be in Iceland, one person could be in Singapore, and one person could be in Miami, but they’re still all in that same virtual space.

How does somebody in your position anticipate the future of emerging technologies? In other words, how do you plan for expanding social opportunities when the technology is not there yet?
I’d say I spend a lot time just studying what different technologies are being developed and meeting a lot of people who have technology start-ups, and just kind of hearing about the little crumbs of what they’re doing. And then, they’ll have different ideas that can kind of incorporate one thing that one person is doing and then tie that with something that somebody else is doing, and then kind of build that around the story. When you kind of focus on what are the little pieces of software that people are developing, then you can see where that stuff could potentially go.

Is there any software in particular that you think is really interesting right now that you see taking off for VR?
There’s one pretty interesting software called Foze, where it actually tracks your eye. So, there’s interesting stuff that can be kind of developed. But, the most interesting software that’s being developed is the stuff that is incorporating Facebook and the different ways that Facebook is building features in Virtual Reality.

Aside from the differences in technology, what are some of the differences and challenges that arise in shooting VR as opposed to regular video?
Well, I guess the biggest difference is that when it comes to the shooting stuff, you don’t want to move the camera in the same way. The direction is much more similar to directing theatre, where you’re designing a space and you’re designing the blocking that actors are using, and you’re designing that around the viewer. As opposed to with film, so much of it is you’re designing camera locations and camera movements around the actors.

And one last question. What’s behind the incredibly cool name Moth + Flame?
I love the idea of a moth to the flame. There’s something kind of suicidal, like the suicidal obsession about when you get really excited about something. So, the moth will see a flame and just continue to circle it, regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea to keep doing it.

July, 2016: Kevin directing the Teen Wolf VR experience, as photographed and written about for Ad Age. 

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