How Spielberg used VR to create Ready Player One's VR world

Production designer Adam Stockhausen explains how filmmakers use VR headsets to treat their CG creations like real-life movie sets.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
5 min read
Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros

Ready Player One is an adventure inside a fictional  virtual reality  universe. So it's only fitting director Steven Spielberg donned an actual VR headset behind the scenes to create the movie's different worlds.

Spielberg and his team used VR to step into and explore the parts of the movie that would only exist as virtual, computer-generated environments, the same as they would walk around an old-fashioned physical soundstage. To find out more, I spoke to Ready Player One's production designer Adam Stockhausen, the man in charge of realising the look of the movie's two distinct worlds.

"They start in the same place, but then it diverges pretty quickly," says Stockhausen of the creative process behind these different worlds. Ready Player One's "real" world scenes were filmed the old-fashioned way, with human actors on real-life, honest-to-goodness physical sets. Meanwhile the virtual environment of the Oasis, where the film's heroes live out their digital fantasies, were conjured with computer-generated characters against computer-generated backgrounds.

Enlarge Image

In this scene from Ready Player One, the characters watch a virtual replay of real-life events. Simple, right? 

Industrial Light & Magic

As on most projects, the production designer and his team began by collecting reference images to spark inspiration, before sketching ideas and concept art. For the parts of the film set in the real world, the art department turned these sketches into blueprints mapping out physical sets. But for the scenes set in the Oasis, the sketches went to what Stockhausen calls a "virtual art department" involving visual effects companies Digital Domain and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

Instead of being built on an actual soundstage, ILM created the backdrops of the Oasis scenes as three-dimensional computer-generated (CG) constructs. Virtual reality came into the process when the filmmakers wanted to get a better feel for the CG environments than from looking at them on a screen. Spielberg and Stockhausen donned VR headsets to achieve this, entering the virtual environment just like the characters in the movie.

VR allowed them to adjust the lighting, consider camera angles and see if the environments suited their purposes in a more immersive way than simply looking at concept art. "It's almost like being on a real set," says Stockhausen.

In this video you can see Spielberg donning the headset and wandering the virtual sets with a virtual camera, lying on the floor to check out the angles. "This is crazy," he marvels.

And VR didn't just help the filmmakers plan the virtual environments. They also got a digital preview of the physical sets they planned to build. "When you build a giant set for a normal production," explains Stockhausen, "you build models and you do sketching just to make sure everybody's on the same page. You do everything you can to get everybody to understand the space before you build it." So before a single hammer struck a nail, the team conjured virtual walkthroughs of planned real-world sets such as villainous Nolan Sorrento's office or the IOI rig room.

Enlarge Image

The IOI rig room.

Warner Bros

The IOI rig room is an example of how real sets and CG technology are enmeshed in modern movies such as Ready Player One. It was built as a traditional physical set, but the resulting footage was then enhanced with digital set extension to make it look bigger (and cooler). And before the real-life set was even built, the filmmakers made a VR version to preview what the real thing would look like. 

Wandering through this virtual preview of the planned sets not only allowed Spielberg to consider creative choices such as angles and lighting. But it also allowed Stockhausen to make sure the set would meet practical considerations. "It was great to be able to say, does this feel like the right size?" says Stockhausen. "Can we place the action in here and stage it or do we need to make any adjustments? That was tremendously helpful."

Having been used to plan films like Ready Player One and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, VR looks set to be a tool that will only grow in popularity for filmmakers. "It's in the early days," says Stockhausen, "but I think it's going to become a routine part of the process."

2018 sci-fi, fantasy and geek movies to get excited about

See all photos

Reference player one 

The main draw for Ready Player One fans is the dizzying combination of beloved pop culture references, like the iconic DeLorean from Back to the Future racing the motorbike from Akira. Filling the film with suitable references was fun for the filmmakers too, says Stockhausen, who describes "sitting down with Steven and saying if you could race any car from the history of movies what would it be? And making a list of pure Willy Wonka fantasy of what you would want." 

Obvious stuff like the DeLorean, which plays a big part in the narrative, were first to be cleared by the film's hard-working legal team. Then, later in the process, the detailed high-resolution version of the Oasis was created, and it was in these teeming crowd scenes and in the characters' hangouts the filmmakers could throw in loads of fun blink-and-you'll-miss-it Easter eggs. "If you really look closely," says Stockhausen, "there's all kinds of amazing spaceships from different movies in there, and there's all sorts of stuff on the walls."

One early action scene involves a huge race through a virtual version of the Big Apple that might be familiar to moviegoers. "We had a lot of fun seeing what iconic buildings and billboards from 80s films set in New York we could put in just for fun," remembers Stockhausen. To take a random example, look closely and you might see the building from Dustin Hoffman's 1982 comedy Tootsie. Or elsewhere in the film see if you can spot references to The Breakfast Club's library setting in the design of the Oasis' archive.

Even the smallest references had to be cleared by the legal team, which meant the icons seen in the film differ slightly from those mentioned in the book. "There were certainly some things we couldn't get but I don't wanna call them out, because I don't wanna give them the press," laughs Stockhausen. One obvious omission from the book is the classic Japanese character Ultraman, although it was left out because of a long-running dispute over who owns the rights rather than because the creators refused permission.

Such omissions were a mixed blessing, says Stockhausen. "Not being able to have that property forced us to do a deep dive on what would the ultimate thing be," he insists. "If we could use any giant robot, what would we want? Each time we couldn't get something it forced a deeper discussion of what would be better."

Ready Player One is in theatres now.

Virtual reality 101: CNET tells you everything you need to know about VR.

Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here's your place for the lighter side of tech.