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The Man Selling Virtual Reality to China

How an American animator became a guiding force in China’s bubbling VR scene.
January 5, 2017

One afternoon in December, Kevin Geiger was giving one of his regular talks about storytelling in virtual reality. To a packed lecture hall at the Beijing Film Academy, he urged everybody in the filmmaking process—directors, actors, and people up and down the production chain—to think differently in order to adapt to this new medium. 

As the founder and executive director of the International Animation and Virtual Reality Research Center at the Film Academy, Geiger is at the forefront of a growing group of filmmakers exploring what the future of VR films will be in China. Geiger makes films himself and is also designing a curriculum in immersive media for the academy’s new Digital Media School.

Interest in Geiger’s topic has been growing quickly in China since 2014, when Facebook acquired Oculus VR. The deal’s $2 billion price tag raised investors’ interest in bringing a low-cost version of the device to the Chinese market. By late 2015, over 100 headset makers had popped up, churning out virtual-reality viewers akin to Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR.

Now the industry sees opportunities beyond hardware, turning its attention to software and the kinds of stories Geiger is focused on telling. New virtual-reality startups are exploring ideas such as VR apps for patients to use in depression therapy, VR film-editing software, and VR animation.

Consumer demand seems strong. China’s virtual-reality market will reach over $7.9 billion (55 billion yuan) in 2020, according to the China Electronics Standardization Institute, a research agency under China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which has the authority to set the standards for the VR industry.

China has already become the fastest-growing film market in the world, with box office revenues reaching $6.3 billion (44 billion yuan) in 2015, according to Deloitte. That’s big enough to support feature films in a serious way, says Geiger, and one reason he has reopened the independent studio, Magic Dumpling, that he started with a couple of Chinese partners in 2009. While some touchy political topics will be off limits, Geiger says his goal is to create virtual-reality entertainment that looks at what’s going on in society and gives audiences something to think about, an alternative for Chinese filmgoers weary of the current cinematic diet of dry historical dramas.

Geiger and his partners at Magic Dumpling have created animated characters inspired by Chinese culture. These include Tofu Boy, a mischievous child who changes mood and texture as his mood swings, and two smiling stone lions, called Stoney and Rocky, both projects which were bought by Disney in 2012, when Geiger joined the company to lead its creative team in China. (He left that role in 2015.)

An Ohioan with an easygoing manner, Geiger has a history of cleverly adapting to technological change. Shortly after he graduated from college as a painting major, Geiger realized computer-generated imagery had begun to take over hand-drawn animation, so he learned how to program. Working at Walt Disney Feature Animation in California from 1995 to 2007, he helped to create films including Fantasia 2000 and Dinosaur and later became the computer graphics supervisor for Chicken Little, the studio’s first full 3-D animated feature.

Based in China since 2008, when he accepted an invitation to teach at the Beijing Film Academy’s animation school, Geiger sees a parallel between his own life and one of the storylines common in many films, that of a character who unexpectedly is pulled toward a new fate. In his case, he says, watching VR so quickly take off in China has been the catalyst for a longer stay in China, and another career adaptation.

That rapid rate of consumer adoption gives Geiger a better opportunity to push VR in interesting directions in China than he would have in the U.S. where adoption has been slower, says Eric Hanson, who teaches at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, and develops VR content at xRez Studio in California.  

To kick-start the Film Academy’s new VR center, Geiger has proposed a number of projects aimed at taking advantage of VR’s ability to situate its audience directly in the story. With the VR audience no longer staring in one direction the entire time, as it does in traditional cinema, filmmakers must figure out how to tell a story even when a viewer might be looking in the opposite direction of where the action is taking place. Geiger’s solution is to allow people to explore the film, but to structure a way to pull them back to common experiences at key points in the story, moments every viewer must experience before going on.

One of his first projects is a planned VR short film called Four Dishes and a Soup. Its simple storyline — a foreigner having dinner with his Chinese girlfriend’s family — provides a way to discuss Chinese concerns about accommodating foreign culture while maintaining a sense of unity. Early in 2017, before writing the script, he will have the actors actually have dinner in a Chinese family setting and record the improvisation among them from the foreigner’s point of view using a stereoscopic camera.

Other planned projects are more traditional in their subject matter, such as one that will create a virtual-reality experience that allows foreign museumgoers to walk amid the ranks of China’s Terracotta Army and learn its story.

In his work in China, Geiger has focused on sharing his professional know-how, being careful not to impose his Western philosophy on his interactions with Chinese colleagues.

And there are cultural differences he has found one needs to be sensitive to that will impact his VR work as well. Whereas a Western screenwriter might (as Calder Willingham and Buck Henry did in The Graduate) have the hero express his love by bursting into the church when the heroine is about to marry another man and declaring his love in front of a roomful of strangers, a Chinese screenwriter would have the hero challenge the man who’s about to marry the heroine but never tell her his true feelings.

There are business differences, too. The Western convention is to take out insurance to compensate investors if a film is not completed, but Chinese producers see this as unnecessary, says Geiger.

The earliest examples of VR being completed in China are not full-length films but short, business-oriented pieces like advertisements and promotion videos.

VR arcades are already doing brisk business offering shooting games and short videos for around $7 (50 yuan) per person. These could become a place to roll out exploratory content, says Eric Shamlin, executive producer of Secret Location, a studio based in Toronto and Los Angeles that won a 2015 Emmy for a VR experience it created, and who has traveled to China to explore potential partnerships.

It will take some time before a true VR blockbuster sweeps the movie world in China, in part because finding investors willing to take a chance on virtual-reality movie projects is difficult, but also because filmmakers are still searching for their narrative language, says Eddie Lou, the founder of Sandman Studios, a Beijing-based startup creating VR animated features. “Everybody is testing,” says Lou. “But it’s a very thrilling process.”

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