Steven Spielberg's cinematic realization of the best-selling sci-fi adventure novel "Ready Player One," futuristic hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) dives into the imagined reality of the OASIS. As players join in a high-stakes game to win control over the created universe, they face surprising characters and circumstances in this simulated world.
In approaching the movie, distributed by Warner Bros., Director Spielberg and his team immersed themselves in developing the visual look, also defining a range of user experiences for the "world within a world." A storyboard and previs team at The Third Floor in Los Angeles, involved early in the process, provided a sandbox in which a variety of these concepts, visual treatments, and rules could be explored. (See "Ready Set Go" on page 8 for an in-depth look at the visual effects work in the film.)
"It's the year 2045 and people are escaping what's real for virtual reality," says Joshua Wassung, previs creative director at The Third Floor for Ready Player One. "Inside of that reality, there are multiple story layers as characters engage in a massively multiplayer game. Having worked on several of Steven's prior projects, we were thrilled to be able to work with him directly to provide a test bed for some of the creative visual ideas."
Work at The Third Floor began with boards illustrated by the company's story department head, Doug Lefler. Lefler, who earlier worked with Spielberg on The BFG, created boards or rough thumbnail sketches for multiple parts of the story - from opening to climax. Meanwhile, modelers at The Third Floor created a large library of digital visualization assets, ranging from environments to characters, referencing original artwork or licensed pop-culture material that would appear in the film.
"Since the movie is based on a virtual-world adventure, many ideas were iterated and explored in production to help highlight the realm of high fantasy that the hero would live in," says Todd Constantine, previs supervisor at The Third Floor. "Doug started with storyboards, while the previs team built assets. We had many meetings with Steven, Production Designer Adam Stockhausen, and others as they worked out the rules and story aspects that would affect each sequence."
Adds Lefler, "Having been a young man in the '80s, it was like having an enormous playground in which I was familiar with every part. "There were many challenges to making a film like this, but the pop culture portions were the fun parts."
The Opening Race
The Third Floor visualized the film's key opening race sequence over multiple months, bringing Lefler's boards and the team's visual and storytelling concepts into a moving version of the scene beat to beat. Throughout, Stockhausen provided notes on assets as they were being developed, while Spielberg reviewed the progressing previs cut.
"The race section featured extreme action and a lot of characters," Lefler says. "It was important to establish the primary characters of the story, while at the same time defining the cinematic rules of the virtual-reality world. This required many ongoing discussions and ample amounts of testing ideas. It was helpful to be familiar with the source material, and I was glad to have read the book a few times before we started on the project!"
Constantine calls the race "a great tone-setting sequence" as Watts and friends race through a virtual city and veritable obstacle course. "Part of the previs was visualizing what the obstacles would be and how they could be overcome," he explains. "The five and a half minutes of previs for the scene also provided a way to thoroughly experiment with the look and function of the world."
For example, what happens if a virtual pedestrian gets hit during the game? What are the rules for rewards and penalties? How do characters collect treasure? What parts of the OASIS do the vehicles visit, and what can we learn about the logistics and physics of the OASIS from that?
Lefler's drawings sometimes included looks at what everyday people might be doing while living their lives in VR. One such moment - featured in some of the film's trailers - shows a head-geared woman pole dancing in a tin box of a room as Wade climbs through the crowded housing of "The Stacks."
"Those moments were meant to add comedic contrast between what someone was doing in VR and what their real physical location or appearance was," Wassung notes.
While it was important to define the workings of the virtual world, it was even more crucial to consider the function of a user within it. The interface between the actor as a "user" in the story and the audience as a "user" in the movie were all part of the production's larger innovation to explore what's possible cinematically in virtual reality.
The Third Floor supported this process by provided previs tests in 360 degrees. This included producing spherical staging renders based on production design art that helped inform what the end battlefield would look like from key locations.
"So much of the visualization was experimenting with the world of the OASIS and to produce glimpses of what it would be like to live in a 360-degree environment in the world of the film," Wassung states. "Steven is such a cinematic innovator, and he really wanted to capture the immersiveness of this story at every level."
It was great to be part of the process of helping contribute to a production like this, Lefler concludes.
"Ideas bounce off one another like billiard balls," he adds. "It's a great, kinetic, creative process."