Welcome to Intel Studios, Los Angeles. If you’re looking for Hollywood stars exiting their trailers followed by scurrying assistants, you’ve come to the wrong place. The real stars in this huge former sound stage, located just outside Los Angeles International Airport, are computers, fiber optic cables and a huge space for recording volumetric video – footage captured from manifold angles.
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And unlike other tech giants such as Google, Apple or Facebook that have ventured into the entertainment industry, Intel isn’t about to produce the next hit series. Still, the people behind the chipmaker's ambitious project see Intel Studios as the next revolutionary innovation in filmmaking, going so far as to compare it to a seminal milestone in motion picture history, Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion,” which he created with his zoopraxiscope a century and a half ago.
Intel aims to produce rich content based on three-dimensional pixels called voxels and augmented reality in order to create immersive experiences like virtual reality. In cooperation with Israeli architect Asaf Mayer, Intel needed more than a year to build the huge 930-square-meter (10,000-square-feet) stage, which will be able to catch the players and objects in 3-D.
This showcase experiment, which Intel calls “the world’s largest and most advanced volumetric video capture and creation facility,” could never exist anywhere outside the United States. But at its heart it’s actually completely Israeli.
It all started in Tel Aviv. The startup Replay Technologies has developed technology that shoots high-quality film of sports events from a large number of cameras and locations. It can thus quickly produce a three-dimensional scenario and provide replays from different angles.
Exactly two years ago Replay’s founders met with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich to discuss Krzanich’s announcement on Intel’s collaboration with Replay, a conversation where the idea of Intel acquiring Replay came up. The $175 million tie-up took place in March 2016, and at this year’s CES technology trade show in Las Vegas, Krzanich devoted half his keynote speech to announce the opening of Intel Studios, which is based on Replay’s technology.
The acquisition of Replay was unusual at the time. It was designed to help Intel position itself as a company that does far more than develop and produce processors, in the hope of becoming a player in the media world. By snapping up Replay, Intel showed that it had the film industry on its mind.
The first studio in Hollywood that will test the technology is Paramount. For that purpose Intel built a full production facility capable of handling raw video caught in the studio’s many cameras, in addition to the stage that's ready to go. The data passes through 8 kilometers (5 miles) of fiber optic cables, and is processed by an army of Intel-based servers at 6 terabytes per minute.
Not improving, but inventing
The person appointed to manage the studios is an Israeli, Diego Prilusky, who was one of Replay’s first employees and is the company’s creative director. Before that he was a graphic artist for the Academy-Award-winning blockbuster “Avatar.”
“Content creation is a world that has existed for over 100 years, and it underwent a major revolution in the mid-1990s when they began the switch to digital,” Prilusky said in an interview in Las Vegas. “Although digital made filming efficient, accessible and cheap, the methodology of placing a camera and pressing ‘record’ hasn’t changed. Filming is still frontal – someone stands in front of one screen. We want to make the transition – not continue to improve what exists, but invent something entirely new.”
Although “Avatar” was successful, 3-D technology didn’t catch on as a cinematic genre. It became a product for children, and they don’t always connect to it either.
“I agree. The experience in 3-D is still to sit in front of the screen, and the added value of a bit of depth in the picture isn’t enough, especially when it comes with problems of comfort in wearing the glasses.
“But the 3-D was significant for the creators because it changed the way content is created. Suddenly there isn’t one camera but two, and you have to deal with depth. One of the problems, for example, was making cuts between shots, once from a distance and then from close up, and again from a distance. That created a problem of synchronization, and we had to think how to move between different worlds in this situation.”
Volumetric content is expensive to create. It won’t become a standard soon.
“True. At this stage, and maybe in the next generation, it will still be a premium product, but people are looking for new experiences. Fifty years ago flight wasn’t the same. We always begin with identifying the things we lack, or think we need, and then it’s a matter of time.
“If this need survives, we’ll begin to improve the technology and make it more precise. Intel is looking 10 years ahead, and as far as I’m concerned it’s a playground. I think it’s the most interesting place to be for creators of content and experiences.”
Explain the complexity of what you’ve built.
“In our studios in Los Angeles there’s a volumetric reception area, and we have to understand how to catch everything that’s in this space so the viewer can turn around in it freely like each of the characters, and how to record and preserve it. In ordinary video there’s one flat camera; in stereoscopic video there are two cameras, and you see a bit of depth. And in 360-degree video you can look sideways. But in all of them the filming is still frontal.
“When we look at volumetric video all these things are broken. There’s no longer a background or one to four arranged cameras, but hundreds of cameras of different kinds, like temperature and laser and motion sensors. The task is to digitize reality. And that means lots of data – insane requirements of processing, catching and calculating. Only large companies like Intel can build a studio of that size.”
Facebook and Microsoft
What do we need it for?
“People today are consumers of content much more than in the past. We’ve developed the abilities of Superman – we can communicate with five people simultaneously, and at the same time read content and be connected. We want to consume the content on our cellphone, and then switch to television or the computer. If you look where media is going, you have to create filmography that will later let you adapt the content to all the platforms as well as to the social networks.”
At the conference you mentioned a social network in virtual reality.
“The experience of social VR is something Facebook and Microsoft are looking at too – how to bring this means of communication, which is very textual, to a more experiential world, which may even provide a more human feeling.”
In other words, we’ll give up social encounters entirely.
“No. But people are always seeking alternatives. From the day they entered the movie theater and saw a film in black and white they’ve been seeking an alternative – a period of half an hour or an hour and a half when they can be another character, they can be the main protagonists in the drama and release emotions. Content creators are always asking who the main character is, because sometimes we say ‘it’s a great film, but I didn’t really connect to the characters.’ In VR we’re also trying to see how to create that experience or intensify it.”
What about the shared experience of cinema? Are we giving it up?
“In cinema we talk about a shared experience, but it’s always a private individual experience. So now maybe you’ll decide with your friends how you want to experience the film – from which point of view. We’re talking here about a nonlinear concept – films won’t have a beginning, middle and end. It’s breaking the concept of time and space. It’s a performance that you enter and you can decide what to see, and maybe you also miss something when you choose a certain direction.”
You built a 930-square-meter stage. Is that standard in Hollywood? How did you decide on the size?
“The truth is, I was simply looking for the largest stage available.”
The rumors about Replay were that the merger into Intel isn’t so good. The entrepreneurs have already left the company.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a good merger. Replay is no longer Replay, it’s Intel. Two years have passed, the team has been integrated into the company, and its manpower has doubled.”