Back in March 2016, little did two companies know that a serendipitous encounter on the SXSW tradeshow floor would lead to a successful partnership and pioneering work in the emerging field of virtual reality.
But that’s exactly what happened when, two months later, Greg Reed, Vice President of Technology Partnerships for Universal Pictures came to 5th Wall with a problem he needed to solve: how to create a captivating promotional experience for the film “50 Shades Darker” that surpassed what they rolled out for the film’s box-office predecessor, “50 Shades of Gray.”
The initial promotion took fans inside lead character Christian Grey’s infamous apartment using 360° stills. To keep the film’s faithful followers engaged, Reed wanted to enhance the experience for round two with 360° video. To do this, he needed to work with someone who understood the full capabilities of this new, immersive technology.
5th Wall had done projects in virtual reality and augmented reality, but it was their work in real estate, creating virtual buildings and homes, that made the 5th Wall team have the unique combination of vision and practical skills to helm the initial mandate or re-imagining the lead character’s apartment.
The only thing they didn’t have initially was familiarity with E. L. James’s bestselling franchise. So they did their homework, contacting everyone they knew who had read the book, creating a mini-focus group.
“At first, you think people are mostly interested in the BDSM,” says Chris Olimpo, Creative Director of 5th Wall. “That’s certainly one of the hooks. But the thing we thought really gets people interested is the mystery behind the man. So that’s what we focused on, exploring the apartment with an eye to exploring what made Christian Grey the man he is.”
This attention to detail is something that made the relationship between 5th Wall and Universal so productive. Both sides had a wealth of knowledge to share with the other.
“We had really long conversation with 5th Wall about the state of VR and 360° video,” says Austin Barker, Executive Vice President of Creative Content at Universal Pictures. “They gave me a really good education.”
5th Wall went through the intricacies of 360° video, explaining each step in the process and how they would make such a production a reality. Barker was so impressed with 5th Wall’s detailed understanding the technology, he asked them for a pitch the “50 Shades Darker” VR promotional project.
“We were really excited with the pitch that we saw,” Reed says. “They put in a ton of effort to create a polished pitch.”
“They were expecting just a concept,” says Robert Takefman Director Of Business Development and Brand Strategy. “We gave them a timeline how this would work with their marketing.”
Working with the smaller company paid in dividends beyond unique takes on the apartment setting. Where a larger team would have little to no contact during the production of such a project, 5th Wall was open to collaboration with Universal Pictures.
“We built such a strong relationship with them,” Reed says. “They were calling me on the weekend, asking me what I thought about a particular idea.”
“We became a team,” say Olimpo. “It was a learning experience for everyone. We made mistakes together that we learned from, and we had wins together that made the bigger vision possible.”
The bond was so fruitful that 5th Wall was tapped to work on another VR project for Universal. This time, 5th Wall created a documentary-style shoot of the upcoming blockbuster “The Mummy.” The immersive experience placed the viewer on set as a gravity-defying stunt is filmed, right next to Tom Cruise in a plane that hurtles toward the earth.
Like with “50 Shades Darker,” Olimpo and 5th Wall immersed themselves in the details, learning the physics of zero-gravity in order to puzzle out how to put their sensitive cameras in such a dangerous situation. Olimpo wanted the camera to float freely, to make the viewer feel as weightless Cruise was.
“This was something no other VR company would dare try,” Olimpo says.
The result is like nothing 5th Wall or Universal have created before. It was shown off at SXSW 2017 in March, bringing the connection between Universal Pictures and 5th Wall full circle, and making history with the first ever zero-gravity shoot in VR.
5th Wall and Universal Pictures once again pushed the envelope of what can be done with fully immersive, virtual reality cinema, and they couldn’t have done it without each other.
“It’s the same with any startup company,” Reed says. “Everyone is so passionate about what they’re making. You’ve got that level of passion and creativity and drive all built into one.”