Don't get your hopes up for a virtual-reality Star Wars movie

Lucasfilm, the Disney division behind the popular sci-fi movie franchise, is working with VR technology but sees limitations. For now.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
3 min read

Stormtrooper and droid
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Stormtrooper and droid
"This is not the VR you're looking for." Lucasfilm is working with virtual-reality technology, but not in the way you'd think. Ian Sherr/CNET

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Imagine if you could have been there, standing next to the Star Wars villain Darth Vader as he told Luke Skywalker, "I am your father." Well, it's further off than you might think.

Lucasfilm, the Walt Disney division behind the hit space-saga movies, has been working with virtual-reality technology for years, seeing the promise in letting moviegoers strap on a headset that transports them into a computer-generated world. Like many other enthusiasts, Lucasfilm executives see the potential in allowing people to look around as if they're actually in the movie.

But there's a hitch: Directors tend to change camera positions in movies rapidly, particularly in an action sequence where they want to depict a fight from different perspectives, or a battle from opposing sides. Most VR technology is designed to be stationary, particularly to protect viewers from motion sickness.

In a presentation Wednesday at the Oculus Connect developer conference here, Rob Bredow, vice president of new media at Lucasfilm, said the company is focusing most of its efforts on building short yet immersive experiences. Imagine a five-minute movie where you can fly around in a spaceship, or explore what's happening in an alien city while intergalactic soldiers hunt for a robot carrying critical information.

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Lucasfilm has begun using VR technology to help film directors explore a movie set before ever setting foot on one. Ian Sherr/CNET

"We're interested in what the right length is," he said. "We certainly haven't solved all the things we need to solve."

In the meantime, he said, Lucasfilm has begun using many VR technologies, headed up by a team called ILMxLAB, to enhance its filmmaking capabilities. One tool the company created helps directors scout future movie sets, while another lets them see rough drafts of what an actor on a green screen stage looks like when they're put into a computer-generated world.

What's so attractive about the technology, Bredow said, is that it's so simple to use. "You don't have to teach somebody to use this," he said. "You can just explore."

The filmmaker's efforts to expand into virtual reality mark the most dramatic VR demonstrations yet from a major media company. Over the past three years since the startup Oculus announced its Rift headset, the VR industry has grown substantially. Major technology companies ranging from smartphone makers like Samsung and HTC to Internet giants like Facebook and Google have announced their own versions of VR devices, some of which will be released later this year.

Film companies have also jumped on board, including Warner Bros., Lionsgate and Lucasfilm parent Walt Disney, which earlier this week said it invested in a 360-degree camera maker.

Lucasfilm first began working with VR over a decade ago, Bredow said, initially hoping to combine a computer-generated world with actors being shot on a green screen. This helped directors adjust their work in real time, he said, instead of having to imagine how the actors in front of them would look once they were put in a computer-generated world.

Bredow also demonstrated a tool the company uses called V-Scout, which lets film directors float around a future movie set using tablet computers or VR goggles. The tool lets them see through a virtual camera lens and set up shots before filming actually begins, saving time once the directors are actually on location.

For now, Lucasfilm will continue investigating new ways to marry filmmaking with the world of VR. One of its latest efforts, a 360-degree video of a scene from its upcoming movie "Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens," was published on Facebook on Wednesday.