By Daniel Restuccio
The Future Group — who has partnered with Fremantle Media, Ross Video and Epic Games — have created a new super-agile entertainment platform that blends linear television and game technology into a hybrid format called “Interactive Mixed Reality.”
The brainchild of Bård Anders Kasin, this innovative content deployment medium generated a storm of industry buzz at NAB 2016, and their first production Lost in Time — a weekly primetime game show — is scheduled to air this month on Norwegian television.
The idea originated more than 13 years ago in Los Angeles. In 2003, at age 22, Kasin, a self-taught multimedia artist from Notodden, Norway, sent his CV and a bunch of media projects to Warner Bros. in Burbank, California, in hopes of working on The Matrix. They liked it. His interview was on a Wednesday and by Friday he had a job as a technical director.
Kasin immersed himself in the cutting-edge movie revolution that was The Matrix franchise. The Wachowskis visionary production was a masterful inspiration and featured a compelling sci-fi action story, Oscar-winning editing, breakthrough visual effects (“bullet-time”) and an expanded media universe that included video games and an animè-style short The Animatrix. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were shot at the same time, as well as more than an hour of footage specifically designed for the video game. The Matrix Online, an Internet gaming platform, was a direct sequel to The Matrix Revolutions.
Fast forward to 2013 and Kasin has connected with software engineer and serial entrepreneur Jens Petter Høili, founder of EasyPark and Fairchance. “There was this producer I knew in Norway,” explains Kasin, “who runs this thing called the Artists’ Gala charity. He called and said, ‘There’s this guy you should meet. I think you’ll really hit it off.’” Kasin met Høili had lunch and discussed projects they each were working on. “We both immediately felt there was a connection,” recalls Kasin. No persuading was necessary. “We thought that if we combined forces we were going to get something that’s truly amazing.”
That meeting of the minds led to the merging of their companies and the formation of The Future Group. The mandate of Oslo-based The Future Group is to revolutionize the television medium by combining linear TV production with cutting-edge visual effects, interactive gameplay, home viewer participation and e-commerce. Their IMR concept ditches the individual limiting virtual reality (VR) headset, but conceptually keeps the idea of creating content that is a multi-level, intricate and immersive experience.
Lost in Time
Fast forward again, this time to 2014. Through another mutual friend, The Future Group formed an alliance with Fremantle Media. Fremantle, a global media company, has produced some of the highest-rated and longest-running shows in the world, and is responsible for top international entertainment brands such as Got Talent, Idol and The X Factor.
Kasin started developing the first IMR prototype. At this point, the Lost in Time production had expanded to include Ross Video and Epic Games. Ross Video is a broadcast technology innovator and Epic Games is a video game producer and the inventor of the Unreal game engine. The Future Group, in collaboration with Ross Video, engineered the production technology and developed a broadcast-compatible version of the Unreal game engine called Frontier, shown at NAB 2016, to generate high-resolution, realtime graphics used in the production.
On January 15, 2015 the first prototype was shown. When Freemantle saw the prototype, they were amazed. They went directly to stage two, moving to the larger stages at Dagslys Studios. “Lost in Time has been the driver for the technology,” explains Kasin. “We’re a very content-driven company. We’ve used that content to drive the development of the platform and the technology, because there’s nothing better than having actual content to set the requirements for the technology rather than building technology for general purposes.”
In Lost in Time, three studio contestants are set loose on a greenscreen stage and perform timed, physical game challenges. The audience, which could be watching at home or on a mobile device, sees the contestant seamlessly blended into a virtual environment built out of realtime computer graphics. The environments are themed as western, ice age, medieval times and Jurassic period sets (among others) with interactive real props.
The audience can watch the contestants play the game or participate in the contest as players on their mobile device at home, riding the train or literally anywhere. They can play along or against contestants, performing customized versions of the scripted challenges in the TV show. The mobile content uses graphics generated from the same Unreal engine that created the television version.
“It’s a platform,” reports partner Høili, referring to the technology behind Lost in Time. A business model is a way you make money, notes tech blogger Jonathan Clarks, and a platform is something that generates business models. So while Lost in Time is a specific game show with specific rules, built on television technology, it’s really a business technology framework where multiple kinds of interactive content could be generated. Lost in Time is like the Unreal engine itself, software that can be used to create games, VR experiences and more, limited only by the imagination of the content creator. What The Future Group has done is create a high-tech kitchen from which any kind of cuisine can be cooked up.
Soundstages and Gear
Lost in Time is produced on two greenscreen soundstages at Dagslys Studios in Oslo. The main “gameplay set” takes up all of Studio 1 (5,393 square feet) and the “base station set” is on Studio 3 (1,345 square feet). Over 150 liters (40 gallons) of ProCyc greenscreen paint was used to cover both studios.
Ross Video, in collaboration with The Future Group, devised an integrated technology of hardware and software that supports the Lost in Time production platform. This platform consists of custom cameras, lenses, tracking, control, delay, chroma key, rendering, greenscreen, lighting and switcher technology. This system includes the new Frontier hardware, introduced at NAB 2016, which runs the Unreal game engine 3D graphics software.
Eight Sony HDC-2500 cameras running HZC-UG444 software are used for the production. Five are deployed on the “gameplay set.” One camera rides on a technocrane, two are on manual pedestal dollies and one is on Steadicam. For fast-action tracking shots, another camera sits on the Furio RC dolly that rides on a straight track that runs the 90-foot length of the studio. The Furio RC pedestal, controlled by SmartShell, guarantees smooth movement in virtual environments and uses absolute encoders on all axes to send complete 3D tracking data into the Unreal engine.
There is also one Sony HDC-P1 camera that is used as a static, center stage, ceiling cam flying 30 feet above the gameplay set. There are three cameras in the home base set, two on Furio Robo dollies and one on a technocrane. In the gameplay set, all cameras (except the ceiling cam) are tracked with the SolidTrack IR markerless tracking system.
All filming is done at 1080p25 and output RGB 444 via SDI. They use a custom LUT on the cameras to avoid clipping and an expanded dynamic range for post work. All nine camera ISOs, separate camera “clean feeds,” are recorded with a “flat” LUT in RGB 444. For all other video streams, including keying and compositing, they use LUT boxes to invert the signal back to Rec 709.
Barnfind provided the fiber optic network infrastructure that links all the systems. Ross Video Dashboard controls the BarnOne frames as well as the router, Carbonite switchers, Frontier graphics system and robotic cameras.
A genlock signal distributed via OpenGear syncs all the gear to a master clock. The Future Group added proprietary code to Unreal so the render engine can genlock, receive and record linear timecode (LTC) and output video via SDI in all industry standard formats. They also added additional functionality to the Unreal engine to control lights via DMX, send and receive GPI signals, communicate with custom sensors, buttons, switches and wheels used for interaction with the games and controlling motion simulation equipment.
In order for the “virtual cameras” in the graphics systems and the real cameras viewing the real elements to have the exact same perspectives, an “encoded” camera lens is required that provides the lens focal length (zoom) and focus data. In addition the virtual lens field of view (FOV) must be properly calibrated to match the FOV of the real lens. Full servo digital lenses with 16-bit encoders are needed for virtual productions. Lost in Time uses three Canon lenses with these specifications: Canon Hj14ex4.3B-IASE, Canon Hj22ex7.6B-IASE-A and Canon Kj17ex7.7B-IASE-A.
The Lost in Time camera feeds are routed to the Carbonite family hardware: Ultrachrome HR, Carbonite production frame and Carbonite production switcher. Carbonite Ultrachrome HR is a stand-alone multichannel chroma key processor based on the Carbonite Black processing engine. On Lost in Time, the Ultrachrome switcher accepts the Sony camera RGB 444 signal and uses high-resolution chroma keyers, each with full control of delay management, fill color temperature for scene matching, foreground key and fill, and internal storage for animated graphics.
Isolated feeds of all nine cameras are recorded, plus two quad-splits with the composited material and the program feed. Metus Ingest, a The Future Group proprietary hardware solution, was used for all video recording. Metus Ingest can simultaneously capture and record up to six HD channels of video and audio from multiple devices on a single platform.
While the system is capable of being broadcast live, they decided not to go live for the debut. Instead they are only doing a modest amount of post to retain the live feel. That said, the potential of the post workflow on Lost in Time arguably sets a whole new post paradigm. “Post allows us to continue to develop the virtual worlds for a longer amount of time,” says Kasin. “This gives us more flexibility in terms of storytelling. We’re always trying to push the boundaries with the creative content. How we tell the story of the different challenges.”
All camera metadata, including position, rotation, lens data, etc., and all game interaction, were recorded in the Unreal engine with a proprietary system. This allowed graphics playback as a recorded session later. This also let the editors change any part of the graphics non-destructively. They could choose to replace 3D models or textures or in post change the tracking or point-of-view of any of the virtual cameras as well as add cameras for more virtual “coverage.”
Lost in Time episodes were edited as a multicam project, based on the program feed, in Adobe Premiere CC. They have a multi-terabyte storage solution from Pixit Media running Tiger Technology’s workflow manager. “The EDL from the final edit is fed through a custom system, which then builds a timeline in Unreal to output EXR sequences for a final composite.”
That’s it for now, but be sure to visit this space again to see part two of our coverage on The Future Group’s Lost in Time. Our next story will include the real and virtual lighting systems, the SolidTrack IR tracking system, the backend component, and interview with Epic Games’ Kim Libreri about Unreal engine development/integration and a Lost in Time episode editor.
Daniel Restuccio, who traveled to Oslo for this piece, is a writer, producer and teacher. He is currently multimedia department chairperson at California Lutheran in Thousand Oaks.