Robert Stromberg Q&A — “Raising a Rukus”

by Graham Edwards

Raising a Rukus by VRCIn the animated adventure Raising a Rukus, feuding twins Jonas and Amy receive an unexpected birthday surprise in the form of Rukus – a magic dog who transports them to a fantastic prehistoric realm. During their adventures, they encounter dinosaurs galore, learn some fascinating facts about bioluminescence, and emerge with a new appreciation for the value of getting along.

More than just a cartoon, Raising a Rukus is a series of virtual reality family adventures produced by The Virtual Reality Company. The first episode – which features an innovative branching narrative – will debut at the flagship IMAX VR Centre in Los Angeles on May 19, marking the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR. Raising a Rukus is available for the Samsung Gear VR on the Oculus Store and will roll out on major VR platforms, mobile and premium HMDs through 2017.

Watch the trailer for Raising a Rukus:

At IMAX VR centres, audiences are seated in a virtual reality motion chair that incorporates a premium virtual reality head-mounted display, providing an experience similar to that experienced at a theme park. IMAX Chief Business Development Officer Robert D. Lister said:

“We’re excited to partner with VRC – which brings an immense amount of creative talent and expertise – to premiere Raising a Rukus at our IMAX VR centres. This family-oriented fare is becoming increasingly important as we are seeing visitors of all ages come through our successful flagship centre in Los Angeles.”

Directed by Josh Wassung, co-founder of previsualisation studio The Third Floor, Raising a Rukus features an original score by composer James Newton Howard and an immersive soundtrack mixed at Skywalker Sound. Guy Primus, co-founder/chief executive officer of VRC commented:

“VRC has brought together the best artists, storytellers, filmmakers and technicians who are working to create impactful and immersive VR experiences that will bring people face-to-face with imagination. Raising a Rukus is one of many milestone VR experiences we will announce and release in 2017. This is the premium VR experience that people have been waiting for, and we know they will be thrilled.”

Twins Amy and Jonas just found a dog - or did he find them? Either way, Rukus has a magical secret – he’s about to take them to a whole new world. “Raising a Rukus” is a first of its kind animated VR experience from the Academy Award winner Robert Stromberg and The Virtual Reality Company. (PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company)

Twins Amy and Jonas just found a dog … or did he find them? Either way, Rukus has a magical secret – he’s about to take them to a whole new world.

Cinefex spoke with Raising a Rukus producer Robert Stromberg, Academy Award-winning director and co-founder/chief creative officer of VRC.

Cinefex: Where did the idea for Raising a Rukus come from?

Stromberg: When we started VRC, we wanted to focus not just on interesting ways to tell stories, but on targeting the family audience. We wanted to make something that anyone from 10-80 years old would enjoy. We started compiling ideas for what that could be, and Raising a Rukus came out of that.

Cinefex: Steven Spielberg is on VRC’s board of advisors. What did he bring to the party?

Stromberg: There’s a magic that happens when creative people like Steven and our team talk, so having his words of wisdom was extremely valuable. Just having that pedigree of creativity to bounce off gives it a unique signature.

Cinefex: Did you go through the same creative development process that you would for an animated film – concept art, storyboards and so on – or did VR introduce any new steps?

Stromberg: Well, what we’re doing is cross-pollinating specialists from the gaming world, and specialists from film. So yes, the approach was to create artwork and storyboards, to define the look as we would in preproduction on any film. Then, we built assets and all of the elements that we needed to run at 90 frames per second in a game engine. The challenge really has been to make both of those worlds work together – cinema and gaming. I think we’ve accomplished that.

Cinefex: What about the director’s role?

Stromberg: The special challenge with VR is: how do you keep the focus where it should be? That’s more of a directing thing. You have to create not just visual cues but also audio cues that direct the viewer to where they should be looking. If the story and what’s happening in front of them is engaging enough, hopefully people won’t be compelled to look behind them for no reason.

Cinefex: I guess the design of the world is integral to that.

Stromberg: Yes, it’s like doing a matte painting, knowing how to direct the viewer’s eye into the composition. I think a lot of those techniques that I used to use for matte painting and visual effects in general apply here. The psychological tools that we use in traditional cinema are still valid.

Cinefex: Only this matte painting surrounds you completely.

Stromberg: Right. In that regard there were elements and techniques we learned from Avatar. When we were creating those 360-degree worlds, I would go into that environment with a virtual camera – almost like a virtual location scout – and compositionally place the assets and elements. I moved through the world before we actually added the animation and the characters, to make sure that it stayed visually appealing as you went down the path.

Cinefex: Did you use similar techniques to previsualise the world of Raising a Rukus?

Stromberg: We did previs with rudimentary assets, as you would on any film. Then we took that into the headsets, retextured everything and bumped it up to a higher resolution. Previs techniques work well in VR.

Cinefex: So all that movie experience comes in handy when you’re doing VR?

Stromberg: There are so many elements from traditional cinema – including visual effects – that apply themselves well to creating something in VR. I think the only unique difference is that we have to cover ourselves more, because it’s 360 degrees. Other than that, all of the old techniques work really well.

"Raising a Rukus" debuts at the Los Angelese IMAX VR Centre on May 19 - the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR.

“Raising a Rukus” debuts at the Los Angelese IMAX VR Centre on May 19 – the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR.

Cinefex: Tell me about the branching narrative in Raising a Rukus.

Stromberg: At one point in the story, Jonas and Amy get split up. If you’re looking at Jonas, you will go down his path. If you’re looking at Amy, you will go down her path. So if you rewatch it, you can watch the other path and see the different problems that they face along the way, other dinosaurs that they run into and stuff like that. The branching narrative angle is very powerful, and this is the first of its kind. In future episodes or other projects that we do you’ll see many more branching narratives. The repeatability of experiencing the same story from a different angle is very important to us.

Cinefex: This first episode of Raising a Rukus runs for 12 minutes. What made you choose that length?

Stromberg: We wanted something that would be friendly to younger audiences, and we didn’t want to overburden people with an enormous amount of time in the headset. We did elaborate testing with families and kids, and this amount of time seemed to be the sweet spot. Everybody who watches it says the same thing: “Wow, that didn’t feel like 12 minutes – it felt like five minutes.” The subject matter is always moving and energetic, so you get swept up in the story and lose track of time.

Cinefex: The VR industry is evolving at a breakneck speed. Where do you see Raising a Rukus sitting in the context of everything else that’s going on?

Stromberg: In terms of what we’re trying to do at VRC, honestly, I kind of look at this as our Steamboat Willie – although I’m not for a minute trying to say that we’re Walt Disney. What’s interesting is that Disney showed that this art of animation could be a vehicle to tell stories, and a powerful one. Then it just grew from there, and the ability to tell stories in animation just went through the roof.

Cinefex: So it’s achieved what you wanted it to achieve?

Stromberg: I think Raising a Rukus is a milestone for VRC. It’s the first project where I feel like we’ve succeeded in doing all that we set out to do, which was to tell a story in a unique way, in a brand new medium. I grew up watching cartoons and animated films, and now for the first time I feel like I’ve actually been immersed in one. Hopefully we’ll start to see many things evolve out of this: longer VR experiences, cinematic events in VR … I think the door’s wide open.

Cinefex: Robert Stromberg – thank you.

IMAX will also roll out VRC’s Raising a Rukus to its IMAX VR centres set to open in New York City, the UK, and other locations worldwide in the coming months.

Images courtesy of PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company. Special thanks to Jeff Fishburn. Article updated 05/26/17.