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'Assassin's Creed' takes a diving leap into VR

The coming big-budget movie shot a virtual-reality experience in the middle of filming -- and pushed the limits of VR in the process.

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When actor Michael Fassbender launches himself from the parapet of a 15th-century Spanish castle in virtual reality, "Assassin's Creed" fans go plunging after him.

The stomach-jarring effect isn't even the trippiest part of "Assassin's Creed Movie VR Experience," which debuted Thursday. Get ready: The new VR short puts you into the body of a patient, himself being strapped into a fictional virtual-reality machine called the Animus, which then lurches you into yet another immersive environment -- the memory of a 500-year-gone ancestor.

Whew.

Matt Lewis, the director of the virtual-reality project, said his goal was raise the bar for VR as a whole -- and break some rules.

"360 video experiences should be just as powerful and rich as an actual film," Lewis said. "We're in the Pong era of VR right now."

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Michael Fassbender makes a cameo as his "Assassin's Creed" film character in a VR experience linked to the movie.

Ubisoft

Virtual reality is an immersive technology that uses headsets to make viewers feel like they're in the middle of the action. It's one of the buzziest consumer technologies this year, thanks to major investments by tech giants like Facebook, Samsung, Sony and Google. Most VR content so far has centered on gaming, where interactive entertainment is already familiar. But VR has also attracted the interest of Hollywood.

Lewis' VR experience is a companion to the upcoming big-budget film "Assassin's Creed," based on the popular gaming franchise. Set for release December 21, the film stars Oscar-nominee Fassbender as a criminal sent into the "genetic memories" of his ancestor during the Spanish Inquisition.

The VR project was a partnership between the studios making the film, 20th Century Fox, and New Regency, as well as Practical Magic, Lewis' production company that specializes in engineering for TV, film and virtual reality. Chipmaker AMD and computer company Alienware also chipped in tech to make and demo the experience.

Lewis and his team invented tech to tackle specifics elements of the project, which was shot in London, Los Angeles and on the film's set on the Mediterranean island of Malta.

One fabrication was a rig with multiple high-end Red Dragon digital cinema cameras, which Lewis and his team mounted on a 120-foot-long custom motion-control system. To create a complicated fight scene, they shot 26 individual takes of hand-to-hand combat over the course of several days and stitched them together to look like one continuous fight scene moving down a hallway.

"We meticulously planned it. With VR, there's no room for error," he said.

The experience also includes an Inquisition scene in which a mob of costumed extras howl around a platform to burn heretics at the stake. It's actually a mix of live-action and computer-generated footage, shot in multiple countries.

To create it, the Practical Magic VR crew in Malta used drones and scanning equipment to scan a set from the film itself, an old fortress, so they could digitally remake it in LA. The rabble of people in the fortress courtyard was shot in Los Angeles, with costumes and props that Practical Magic packed in crates in Malta and shipped to California.

Lewis relied on some simpler cinematic tricks for other effects. At one point in the VR experience, the viewer is lofted 150 feet in the air, but moving a camera in VR is something creators must handle carefully to avoid vertigo. Lewis said that his team used things like music to make the transition feel dramatic, while the movement itself was actually gentle.

And that plummet from the top of the castle? Practical Magic shot it so the sun briefly shines through Fassbender as he tips forward to fall. It helps ease viewers past the moment when their brains would be tricked into thinking their bodies are actually falling with him.

The Assassin's Creed VR experience debuted Thursday at The Game Awards. It is available free for Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, and it will be available as a 360-degree video on Facebook. Starting Friday through January 1, AMC Theaters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin and New York will have Oculus Rift demo kiosks playing the experience for cinema-goers.