Metastage takes the stage it makes in Vancouver – Interview

Coming to Vancouver in Spring 2022, something bold and amazing for all you people in VFX and VR all around town. Which I’m sure there are a lot of. It’s the very first 4D holographic capture facility to ever come to our town! And who knows, there just might be more. What brought it here? Well, 2 companies did actually. Metastage of LA has joined forces with Departure Lounge Inc to bring this great new facility under the name of Metastage Canada. They felt Vancouver would be perfect given the mix of movie making and 3D expertise from the gaming industry, as well as a lot of focus on web-based components. It was also officially selected by Microsoft as the exclusive licensee for volumetric capture technology, so HOORAY FOR US! and it will be the official and exclusively designated Microsoft Mixed Reality Capture Studio for our town. This was such an exciting story I had to talk to both James Hurthouse of Departure Lounge and Christina Heller from Metastage, both CEO’s of their respective businesses. They really went into detail and told me so much about their projects as well as what’s to come for this new venture. Strap on your VR headset and let’s explore a virtual world of this cool new addition to the Canadian film industry.


HNMAG: Congratulations on the Canada partnership. What kind of other opportunities do you hope to find here for your business?

Christina: We imagine that Metastage Canada will mirror a lot of the productions and successes that we’ve had in LA, but I also imagine the unique ecosystem of Vancouver will bring new and innovative projects to Volumetric Video that people haven’t even conceived yet. When we started Metastage, I come from the world of XR and Immersive technology, so I was singly focused on using volumetric video for augmented and virtual reality applications so when we launched a large portion of our projects were augmented reality pieces. But one of the things that’s been really cool has been seeing the VFX community to use volumetric video in movies and TV as well. This year we started using these 3D performances for framed content that isn’t immersive so my guess is it will be a blend of our VR but also anyone who’s using virtual production pipelines.

James: To add to that, I think the Vancouver has that unique blend of movie industry. Hollywood North, and at the same time 40 years of video game development. Which is why you see companies like Microsoft bringing their teams up here and I think the expectation is we will proactively discuss the benefits of volumetric capture to traditional movies and film and at the same time we have what’s described as one of the world’s largest cluster of mixed reality companies. That unique blend of movies, video games, thinking in 3D, and all of those sorts of things mean that it’s the right location for the first stage in Canada.


HNMAG: And why are you focusing on games as well as movies?

Christina: Volumetric video is super high-fidelity augmented 3D performance capture. Any platform is a 3D platform where you benefit from having the complete and full 3-dimensional asset, volumetric videos is ideal for those mediums. Obviously augmented and virtual reality require it because they all allow you to move in space freely and you need to be able to move in 3 dimensions if you’re shooting on a flat green screen in VR and you try to walk around the person, they’d be a flat card which doesn’t work. It has tremendous benefits for video games and VFX for films and TV too.

James: It’s not just users that want to fully move around the space, but it’s also film crews. For example, we have a piece with Charli XCX where she was turned into a hologram, then moved into Unreal where they made 5 different location scenes for her and the camera crew was able to go in and film her in virtual reality. The camera gets thrown 30 feet up in the air, because obviously you can do that when using virtual cameras. 

Christina: Additionally what’s fun is that same capture can also be brought into an augmented reality application or VR experience where you would be brought in a headset. You capture once and you can deploy to many different platforms.

James proceeded to show me the Charli XCX commercial which made its way to TikTok. He explained how they turned the fine lady into a 3D model through a step-by-step process showcased in a slideshow designed for professional use. The whole commercial was made in a Maya environment and was shown to change ever so quickly. Looked like a pretty cool commercial. Despite Charli XCX only being on set for 6 hours, the crew was hard at work for about 4 days.


HNMAG: And how did the two companies come together to decide on designing this new facility?

James: About 18 months ago, during a single day Christina’s name came up in several different conversations and I said to myself, “I have to talk to this person” so I reached out, we had a chat, and that first chat was a couple of hours. We realized that we shared this vision around Metaverse and for me personally I’ve been close onto the Metaverse space for 20 years. I was actually a contributor to the Metaverse roadmap in 2007, which started the same as the investment pitches over the last 3 years talking to Neil Stephenson in Snow Crash. Departure Lounge is called that because it’s the journey you take when you go to the Metaverse and when I saw volumetric capture, and seeing what people have been able to achieve, I said “That’s what I want to do.” The ability to bring humans into this new line of the Internet, is exceptionally exciting and I reached out to Christina about it.

Christina: I do want to point out that the software we use at Metastage to achieve such high quality captures is the Microsoft Mixed Reality Capture studios volumetric software. Metastage was the first company in the Western hemisphere to commercialize their technology and bring it to market. 4 years of working wth their tech and doing over 200 productions in a myriad of used cases, so many different and unusual applications that I could begin to list them off. Fashion, sports, medical training, enterprise training, music, advertising, legacy, education, so many different ways of using this technology because the metaverse itself touches every industry in its capacity and is the way to bring human performance into those. One of the things that we were interested in expanding beyond Los Angeles and Vancouver makes so much sense for this partnership. Because we’re on the same timezone, that makes it so easy for collaboration, so I do imagine we’re going to do a lot of joint projects together in the next few years. 

James: Microsoft has a very large mixed reality team up here, and holographic capture is one component, but there’s also holo-lens, holo-lens 2, the mixed reality devices, stretching all the way back to Kinect. Kinect is certainly a consumer version of some of this tech and so Microsoft has been really pioneering in mixed reality for many years and has been part of the Vancouver movie scene for quite some time, even before Kinect was announced. 


HNMAG: And do you use other kinds of technology and software to make projects?

Christina: IOI is the camera manufacturer we’re using to build this world class volumetric stage and they are a Canadian company. For the most part, a lot of our partners and projects involve some familiar software. Unity, Unreal, Maya, Houdini, Nuke, and A-frame or 8th Wall. Part of the goal is to make our technology ubiquitous and operable at whatever your preferred platform is for creation. We can easily integrate into that platform. I would say many of our clients at Metastage use Unity, Unreal, and 8th Wall as they are the most common. But if you’re working inside of VFX workflow, you can use our OBJ and PG sequences.

James: Like I said, the vision of Departure Lounge is this place to go for your journey into the Metaverse, and for us humans that means performance as well as objects, value, and other various components. So we’re going to do more experimentation and we’ve only really started going as a company, as a result of that we’re very focused on nailing the volumetric capture opportunity first. But from there, we also want to blend in other motion capture technologies so we have this full service where we offer the right tools for the right application and then in many cases, I think it will be a blend.


HNMAG: How do you plan to keep up with bringing in other technology?

James: My Mantra is that you should never do technology for technology’s sake, and we always tend to use technology to solve specific creative problems. I think it’s a good synergistic mix where the creative comes together, sees the opportunity and says they could potentially do the task at hand. If we develop these technologies and push forward these conversations with technology vendors, then we would be able to help them achieve tasks and even beyond that. It’s really important because if you’re solving these issues instead of not solving them then you end up with so much more. It’s faster innovation as well, I think. 

Christina: More often than not, creators are pleasantly surprised that our technology is so commercially ready for primetime. You can easily build it into a workflow, and create a repeat workflow for projects, one after the other. We have clients that have web and AR products that they sell to their clients that come in every two months to do new products for those activations. It’s a nice pipeline, but once in a while someone comes in with something we’ve never tried before.

A good example of that was a project they did with Coca-Cola involving Ava Max. They had been working with Vice Media and the developer team had been Tool of North America, who had extremely ambitious goals for a virtual concert. Ava Max would look like she was performing in space and it required quite the design for a 3D world with planets, shooting stars, and all kinds of crazy stuff. Christina admitted she was a little nervous at first during the discussion but the post-production team managed their way through it with all the different companies working together, and the final result was incredible. Scan the QR code above to see why it’s astounding.


HNMAG: Your technology focuses on 4D holographic capture, what makes that the most common thing today?

Christina: I feel in the last few years it’s been truly ready for primetime, in that the quality has reached a fidelity level that is undeniable, the tools are there for easy integration to workflows. The public is more willing than ever to test out these new ways of consuming media. When we first launched in 2018 trying to use QR codes, people were way less comfortable in using them than they are now, post-pandemic, everybody is comfortable using QR codes. The tech is at a place where it’s really ready to show the world what its capabilities are. I think the public is more excited than ever about consuming media in these new ways and in terms of the VR workflow, more and more teams had to embrace working at home due to the pandemic and now have seen the benefits that come with virtual production workflows. 


HNMAG: It must’ve been quite a process in coming together for a partnership. Was it hard to find terms to agree on or did you manage to work things out smoothly?

Christina: I can’t speak for both of us, but I found this to be one of the most easy effortless collaborations of my life and it just feels like everything has come together so harmoniously. The universe wants this to be in existence.

James: (laughing) Yes, that’s absolutely true. 

Christina: We’ve really seen eye to eye on all the business parts, the ownership parts, and really just enjoy working together.

James: I can’t wait to get to Los Angeles in the middle of a Canadian winter. (laughs)


HNMAG: Will you be looking to build up other facilities in different provinces?

Christina: We have our eyes set on bringing this technology to more places, but we’re not talking about it yet because we need to get Vancouver open.

James: Yeah, we’re gonna get this one done first and then we’ll go from there.


HNMAG: Do you do other kinds of captures as well?

Christina: Yes, at Metastage we have a capture system with our stage, and we volumetric video with animals as well. One of my favourite captures is with me and my dog.

James: We’re also looking at objects scanning and other various things as well. But we want to focus on Metastage first.


HNMAG: Will there be other kinds of services offered as well? If so, what kinds?

James: On our side, we have the Creative Services Team. A guy called Adam Rogers who is a creative pioneer and has been working in the space for 10 years now, he actually reached out to Christina in the first place and she said “We have a partner in the works of Vancouver.” Adam and I met 6-7 months ago and he recently joined as the VP of creative services and has his own studio. So that adds this dimension to say to potential customers who potentially don’t have an augmented reality team that we can take the output from the stage and incorporate those things into the creative projects they want to see brought to life. That’s something we are bringing about because I used to run large video game studios. Creative development teams are very excited to work with this kind of technology as well. 


James also explained they had some other great things including components of WEB3 that could help with figuring out marketing and NFT’s since those are really coming on the rise as well. They’re really looking into designing a special 360 modern Internet organization with all their resources.


HNMAG: What about your workplace? What will the layout of it look like?

James: We are co-located on campus at the Central Digital Media campus on Great Northern Way, it’s a collaboration between Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr, BCIT and UBC. Ever since I moved to Canada in 2010, I’ve been running various companies and have been very keen to work with student teams down at the CDM because for one, they’re a very very high caliber, and two, it’s a great way to develop talent and identify talent for your organizations as well. The opportunity to put that stage down at that location came about so part of what we’re doing is focused around not only doing the commercial business but also making sure we’re having training programs so that when you come down to the stage, it’s fundamentally just a large black box, but we’re co-located right next to classrooms at Emily Carr University so we have quite a vibrant community of students and faculty as well that are going to engage with us. There’s also things like wardrobe, a green room, and various other support functions that you wouldn’t have on a normal film set because ultimately what we are doing is filming and turning talent into avatars in some sense.  


HNMAG: And will you have job openings for people who would be interested in applying?

James: Yes, of course. With everybody required right now, there will be all types of opportunities for development. All kinds of content, and it’s really all the same types of people that you would see across video game studios, VFX, movie production. As we grow, and adapt to more creative projects, we are anticipating growing. 


Yessiree, it’s looking good for both Vancouver and our friends of Metaverse all the way from LA. Connected via the net and on the same time frame, these two are sure to make all kinds of projects. But for now, we gotta wait a few weeks for the facility to be ready to go and fully built. Until then, let’s come up with some creative ideas of what we want to make in Visual Effects or 4D holographic capture. That way, we’ll have a project ready when we finally start doing work there.

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