YouTube star Freddie Wong: Virtual reality needs to be like Disneyland (Q&A)

The YouTube auteur behind "Video Game High School" dove into VR for Hulu with a short film, "The Big One." His eureka moment: Realizing filmmakers should approach the new format like it's an amusement park ride.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
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Freddie Wong and his digital studio RocketJump created an original series and a VR short film for Hulu. Hulu

Digital filmmaker Freddie Wong would be the first to tell you he doesn't really know the best way to shoot virtual reality.

Then again, nobody else does either.

Virtual reality, an immersive form of entertainment that uses a high-tech headset to make viewers feel like they're in the middle of the action, is nearing its best shot yet at mainstream appeal. Hardware makers plan to release headsets, such as Samsung's $99 Gear VR, and digital-media giants like streaming-video site Netflix and social network Facebook are throwing their weight behind the format with virtual-reality content. That kind of backing means you'll be seeing VR crop up in more places, and that content will probably be coming from entertainers you love.

That includes Wong, best-known for the YouTube series "Video Game High School," who embarked on his first virtual-reality project for streaming-TV site Hulu. Called "The Big One," it turns viewers into witnesses of a meteor shower that deteriorates into "an apocalyptic nightmare."

Wong spoke to CNET about his first time behind the camera for VR and what he learned in the process.

Q: How did you approach shooting for virtual reality?
Wong: A lot of people have difficulty wrapping their heads around what VR is good for. And the direction people go first is wrong. The wrong place is always: How can we do something we've done before, but on this?

We realized that one place that does [immersive entertainment] really well already is Disneyland. Those are experiential narratives that let you look around. So that was the conceptual standpoint for this project, where we started -- a ridelike experience. The genesis was Disney World.

As VR grows, does it raise questions about the difference between a video and a video game? What does the future of storytelling look like with virtual reality in it?
Wong: Those lines are going to blur. It's hard to predict, because you never know what happens when you put tools in capable hands.

Movies work because it's an art form that has been evolving over the past hundred years. Nothing would supersede that, in the same way that theater wasn't completely obliviated by cinema. People predicted in the 1910s that live theater was going to be all gone and that we'd just be watching movies. No, live theater is still around, because it does things that are specific to it.

VR has a whole range of things it's very good at, and there's a lot of things that it's going to be deficient at. Where that ends up is probably going to be an amalgamation. It's going to be maybe part movies, maybe part video game, and it's really up to the user to figure out what they want.

I could see horror working out fantastically. How freaky would horror be? But maybe I don't want to be that scared.

Did you have any aha moments when you were shooting "The Big One," where you realized how VR could be really cool?
Wong: The first was a technical thing. Visual effects with 360-degree video files are difficult. It's almost, in a weird way, something that we had to invent. Working with our visual effects company Playfight in Toronto, we figured out a way of doing visual effects in VR, and that was a huge turning point for us. We're, like, "Oh this opens up a lot of stuff now." That was a mental hurdle for us for live-action video. Once we were able to put visual effects in place, we had full control of what this looks like. Now we could do some interesting things, and start playing.

The conceptual aha moment? As we were coming up with ideas, we kept going, "Yeah, but this would work better as a short, as a movie." And we'd think about a fight scene, and we're, like, "Yeah, but at some point I want to be able to cut." When we finally came up with the idea for this, of approaching it like a Disney World ride, it was, like, OK, this is where I understand why it makes sense for VR.

That's the hurdle I think that everybody has to get over. If you can't answer the question "What is VR adding to that experience?" -- and it should be more than just a gee-whiz thing -- then that project shouldn't be in VR. You're not taking full advantage of your medium.