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Dizzying ‘Assassin’s Creed’ VR experience drops you into the Spanish Inquisition

Video games just weren’t enough when it comes to Assassin’s Creed.

Ubisoft’s franchise, which has sold over 80 million copies worldwide, has a big budget feature film opening Dec. 21, starring Michael Fassbender.

But why wait until then? Fans can step into the live action world of the movie now through the Assassin’s Creed VR Experience. It can be viewed on Facebook 360 now, but is also part of an in-theater AMC tour using Oculus Rift and Alienware Aurora PCs. It’s playing at select AMC theaters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, and New York City. through the first of January, 2017.

Although the experience does feature a cameo from Fassbender, who produced the feature film and stars as Aguilar, Matthew Lewis, CEO and founder of Practical Magic, told DigitalTrends that the VR experience introduces a new character to the franchise.

“The identity of the viewer’s character is intentionally left somewhat ambiguous — but needless to say, the viewer is an Assassin, and finds themselves in a situation that requires them to put their Assassin skills to good use,” Lewis said.

360-degree action, all in one take

The five-minute sequence focuses on the Spanish Inquisition. Practical Magic shot Fassbender in London on set at Pinewood Studios, which is where you’ll get an up-close 360-degree view of the new Animus created for the film, as well as in Malta. The team used drones and cameras to capture the sets during production.

“The Assassin’s Creed games influenced the entire process, not just the fighting styles.”

“We based the script for the VR experience in the world of the film, and spent time on set in several countries making sure our experience would be as in-sync as possible with Justin (Kurzel’s) film,” Lewis said.

But the bulk of the VR experience was filmed in Los Angeles, in order to get up-close-and-personal with a cast of over 50 actors.

“Shooting large-scale 360 scenes with a lot of actors can be challenging for a number of reasons, some of which are rather practical — where do you put your equipment? How do you light it?” Lewis said. “In our case, we used motion control systems to shoot certain scenes a ‘slice’ at a time, so we could break down large crowd scenes into smaller, controlled scenes.”

Just as the feature film draws inspiration from the unique parkour and fighting elements that gamers are used to experiencing, this 360-degree story also taps into those interactive roots.

Lewis said filming action for VR has distinct challenges, the least of which fewer opportunities to cut footage.

“We took action cues from Justin’s film, but of course had to make a number of adjustments to make it work in VR,” Lewis said. “For example, when you have a 60-second-long fight scene with no cutting, and you have stunt actors doing all kinds of aerial tricks and kicking people out of windows — there’s no room for error. The scene has to be choreographed and shot as one continuous fight, and if anything goes wrong, the whole thing starts over.”

Paying respects to the franchise

There are also some Easter Eggs for gamers baked into this VR experience, something Kurzel is also doing with the feature film.

“The games influenced the entire process, not just the fighting styles, but all manner of subtle creative decisions,” Lewis said. “For example, there are a number of stealth Assassins in the VR experience that you might not even see until you’ve watched it a couple of times.”

Every time I’ve heard someone suggest steadfast rules […] I’ve just chuckled. There are no rules, yet.”

When fans watch the feature film, they’ll see a big screen Leap of Faith, which was shot with real stunt people and not the magic of CGI, according to Kurzel.

“We tried to do as much as possible in camera,” Kurzel said. “We’ve gone and shot in real locations, and I was determined for this film not to be a ‘car part film’ where you’re shooting on green screen and using post (production) to help you out. The wonderful thing about cinema is you can bring a 3D world to life by filming in real places. So it was important that it had its own tone and its own kind of dance, while embracing the DNA of the game.”

Lewis said creating the Leap of Faith in VR required a combination of techniques, including motion control, matte painting, and a live-action plate of Fassbender shot on stage in London. All of these elements were put together into one long shot by VFX artists at Practical Magic in Burbank.

“We had to be very careful to make that scene work without making people fall over while watching it,” Lewis said.

Only a beginning

Practical Magic partnered with AMD to bring the cinematic world to VR through Oculus Rift. According to Roy Taylor, who heads up the AMD Radeon Technologies Group (RTG) studio team in Hollywood, the more cameras you have running at higher resolutions, the better the 360 will be. But each step up in resolution creates additional demands on the computation needed for editing and stitching.

“If you can see the stitch then the sense of immersion is lost,” Taylor told DigitalTrends. “So the stitching software is an essential tool.” This demand is what lead to the creation of Radeon Pro Solid State Graphics (SSG), which allows editing of RAW 8K video in real time at up to 93 frames per second. Beginning in January, AMD is partnering with Radiant Images, one of Hollywood’s leading 360 camera companies, to deliver SSG solutions to filmmakers. Fox and Practical Magic had early access to this technology for Assassin’s Creed VR.

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“There are a lot of ways to experience VR and 360 video now, and frequently you’ll find the better hardware you have, the better the experience,” Lewis said. “That’s certainly true for Assassin’s Creed VR, which we’re distributing at 60 FPS (frames per second) in 4K. Watching it at low-resolution, or on a hamstrung system, just breaks my heart.”

And this is just the beginning of 360-degree storytelling.

“We’re in the Pong era of VR, which is an exciting time to be a part of any emerging art form or technology,” Lewis said. “Filmmakers are just beginning to translate their talents into the language of VR, and it’s all blue sky as far as I’m concerned. Every time I’ve heard someone suggest steadfast rules about what you can and can’t do in VR or 360 I’ve just chuckled to myself. There are no rules, yet.”