Oculus Rift 'fantastic' but won't replace movies, says 'Minority Report' FX guru

The men behind the jaw-dropping effects of "Gravity" and "Minority Report" reveal how movies both predict and influence today's tech.

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
4 min read

DUBLIN -- Oculus Rift is "fantastic" but virtual reality won't replace movies just yet, according to two legends of special effects. Speaking at technology conference Web Summit, movie magicians Tim Webber of effects wizards Framestore, and John Underkoffler, who developed the famous "Minority Report" computer interface, discussed how movies both predict and influence today's tech, and gave their own predictions for the future of AR, VR and cinema.

Underkoffler recently developed the language of gestures used by Robert Downey Jr when his character Tony Stark summoned his self-assembling armour in "Iron Man 3". But his most enduring creation is the famous hand-wavey computer interface used by Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" in 2002.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In developing the look of the computers in "Minority Report", which is set in 2054, director Steven Spielberg made it very clear he didn't want to see a mouse. And as Underkoffler points out, "Everyone knows how to point." Now, Underkoffler's company Oblong has made the gesture control interface real with a product called Mezzanine.

"If you had in front of you an enormous task," says Underkoffler describing the thinking behind the gestural interface, "you'd need something big. With a big forensic image sorting task like sorting the dreams of the teenage pre-cogs from the film, you'd need a computer that was essentially architectural. And it would make sense to control it gesturally, like a conductor."

"One of the first things we did at Oblong," he reveals, "was to build a system to edit film, to grab a frame of film with your hands and pull it down to a composing desk."

With the gesture interface of "Minority Report" just one of many pieces of movie magic that have become real, Underkoffler suggests the feedback loop between fiction and reality is getting tighter. "Arthur C. Clarke predicts communication satellites, and you get them thirty years later. In "Star Trek" they have flip phones, and you get them thirty years later. But now, the same people are making stuff in the real world and in the movies."

"Minority Report" may have heralded a new age of gestures and touch, but Underkoffler reckons if he could change anything about his work on the film it would be to give a bigger role for mobile devices. He would like to see "a greater degree of integration between personal devices that we all carry with us and bigger screens, so a task can flow from one to the other."

But what about the future? "After 120 years," says Underkoffler, "the language of film is so highly-evolved. What if you could create a UI that felt like cinema? It's been a one-way medium for 120 years -- what if it was two-way?"

'Colossal challenge'

Tim Webber is chief creative officer of London-based visual effects company Framestore. Framestore has worked on countless effects-heavy films such as "The Dark Knight", "Harry Potter" and "Avatar". But the company's biggest challenge so far was for space-based nail-biter "Gravity": "simulating zero gravity is a colossal challenge -- there's a reason many films only have brief periods of it."

NASA's real 'Gravity' photos

See all photos

Now they've conquered space, what's the final frontier for effects? Webber believes it's people. "We can do fire, we can do water," he says, "but the next big challenge is completely believable human beings."

Avoiding the uncanny valley -- our instinctive retain to something that looks weirdly human -- by replicating human movement and emotion is a huge challenge. But it's not just a technical challenge: "an even bigger challenge," says Webber, "is how and why you'd do that -- why would you create a CGI human when you have a real human actor? I'm sure they'll be used in the wrong way many times."

With more than 400 people at Framestore and potentially a few hundred working on a shoot, the creators of a film's effects are a major part of the crew. So important are the effects to movies like this, Webber says that his people are involved as early as writers or directors. "Particularly on a movie like "Gravity" visual effects are almost the first people involved, so we can plan it, and pre-visit. We spent a year planning the movie as a computer animation so we could then shoot it."

In the meantime, Framestore is also working on other technologies -- including an augmented reality tool Webber describes as being "very like the Princess Leia hologram message" from "Star Wars".

Both effects maestros agree that augmented and virtual reality have a future that will draw on cinema and effects know-how and experience. But neither thinks these new technologies signal the end of the silver screen. "Virtual reality and augmented reality won't affect filmmaking," says Webber. "Classical films are about leading the audience down a story, not letting them explore. I think AR and VR will be a parallel path but a different one. I think there is a world for an authorial-led experience; they're different experiences that both have their place."

Both men believe the audience experience is still important; Underkloffer says the visual acuity of Oculus Rift is "fantastic" but suggests VR could be lonely. "I'd like to see a movie version and a virtual reality version of the same story," he says. "It would be interesting to tie those things together."