(Wavelength #3) A Pioneer of VR Story and Cinema

Wavelength #3: Notes from a veteran innovator - Josh Gonsalves, VR Filmmaker, Alien focal powers
Photo-interviewer: Jacqueline Lee

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Who: Josh Gonsalves, 24, filmmaker, designer and founder of cinematic VR company Contraverse

Style: Anything that’s an immersive experience

His roots: His childhood home in Ajax, where little Josh obsessively watched Men in Black and E.T hundreds of times

Criminal Quirk: A focus that breaks the laws of physics

His Wavelength: Imagining stories from perspectives that he could never experience in real life and bringing them into (virtual) reality.

What’s the New Wave to you: Breaking the screen barrier to get people to experience other worlds and perspectives through immersive cinema.

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Josh was once a kid who imagined VR cinema before VR as we know it existed. He loved the way a good movie or video game could whisk him into another world and always wondered what it would be like to be a character in a movie. When the Oculus developer kit was released, he knew his dreams were within reach.

I remember being twelve or thirteen at the movie theatre thinking, what if I watched a movie through a helmet and experienced the movie as the character?

He made his first three VR films with no guidelines, just uncharted territory he explored with one question: What could I never experience in reality? Now he’s bringing together his game development background with his creative filmmaking side to bring a better immersive experience to the world. Josh is pushing VR Cinema through his company Contraverse so VR stories can be experienced the way they’re meant to.

For VR-curious readers, this is Josh’s starter pack to get into the headspace for VR filmmaking.

1. Don’t be intimidated

Expose to yourself to as much VR content as you can to learn the language of VR. The technology is more accessible now, so get a cheap headset and 360 camera and get some ideas for what can be done.

2. Go out in reality

Be more aware of your surroundings in 360 degrees. You want to tell your story spatially, so maybe you hear something in your left ear at an intersection that draws your attention to turn your head and see a car drive by. Close your eyes and just listen.

3. You can’t crop 360 video

The camera sees it all. If you’re outside and you want continuity in your film, you’ll need to block off the areas around your “set” so a stray cat or curious person doesn’t wander in and ruin your perfect shot.

Keep on reading for Contraverse and Josh’s humble beginnings.

Peering into the screen: Childhood curiosity

In 2006, Josh was a kid who'd go into theatres wondering what it's like to be that character and experience movies from the other side of the screen, fully immersed. While his brother was a ball of energy running around the house, Josh would sit in from of the TV staring at a screen like he was in a trance. His parents said he watched Men in Black sixty, seventy times and E.T. hundreds of times on repeat.

Certain movies may not win an Oscar or be a serious art film, but they can transport you to places you can never experience in reality. Whether it’s the fantastic worlds of Lord of the Rings or the commercial exploitation of science in Jurassic Park, cinema for Josh is ultimately an experience.

Josh was always an “all-in” person. When his dad introduced him to the original Nintendo system, his eyes would glaze as he tuned out the world for hours as he played.

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In high school, he was introduced to fine arts and he would draw and paint. He actually thought he would be a concept artist for video games at that time.

I did one drawing that took over six hundred hours. I would draw from the moment I got home from school on Friday and continued all weekend to Sunday night, often pulling all nighters.

This kind of extraterrestrial focus stuck with him when he started creating videos at the end of high school for a media production class. He’d bring in the energy of video game worlds and imagine them as cinematic movie trailers, combining two of his greatest loves: cinema and immersive game worlds. That’s something he would come back to during his studies in the Ryerson Media Production program.

Head through the window: Game Development x Filmmaking

In first year university, Josh had a very strange, visceral dream. (He swears he was completely sober). It was one of those dreams that felt so real that when you wake up you aren’t truly back at first. He was being sucked backwards through a psychedelic tunnel, what he could only describe as four-dimensional space.

It was shaped like a tunnel but the normal rules of physics were out the window, with crazy warped shapes and colours floating all around him. It felt like he was being pulled out of a space time continuum. Finally when he was sucked out, this happened:

Something whispered in my ear, “Contraverse”. I know this sounds strange, but it was almost like a whisper from God or a higher form of consciousness. I woke up in a sweat, and started searching for that word in every online database I could find. The word didn’t exist.
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For a while Josh couldn’t comprehend what he experienced, but the word Contraverse stuck with him. Four years later, it would become the name of his company where he spearheads VR cinema. But at the time he was just in awe and confusion. Maybe Contraverse meant the opposite of our universe. Looking back, he realized it was just his mind trying to visualize a concept he learned in physics class while studying at UOIT. They were learning about Quaternions, which is a function for translating 3D into 4D. Josh first studied video game development in university which is where he learned this concept, but he realized that by only learning the technicals, his muse had no room to flourish. So, he dropped out and went to Ryerson.

That’s when everything changed.

Fully Immerged: Virtual Reality x Film

In 2012, Oculus came out on Kickstarter and everything came together. The idea Josh came up with when he was twelve years old could finally become a reality!

He could experience being a character in his own movie, he just needed to figure out how to make that happen. There was no rule book because nobody knew what VR could be. It was like when moving picture was invented, the first video commercial was just a still image with a voiceover. Josh started off experimenting with 360 video and spherical GoPro rigs, but it was his final year at Ryerson where he had the opportunity to do a passion project. He put together his team and together they raised eight thousand dollars on Indiegogo for the project.

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We got greenlit to do three original VR films from scratch and we figured we can be one of the first ones to figure out how to tell a compelling story in VR. We wanted all three experiences to be completely different to fully explore the potential of the medium.
We didn’t start with a story, we started with a scenario. All three stories comes from something you cannot experience in everyday life.

The first film is Pawn, a heist experience. The viewer would be transported into an interrogation for a crime they couldn’t remember committing. Slowly, their memories of being the getaway driver during the heist would emerge.

The second is Broken Mirror. It’s a psychological thriller where the only other character is your own reflection in the mirror, and you slowly go insane while trapped in a motel room.

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Finally, is Contravision, a sci-fi drama set in 2025 where everyone wears AR glasses and communicates with the help of AI. The experience is like a Black Mirror episode in VR with a satirical twist. It’s a guess at where our communication technology is headed in the near future.

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The point of all three films is to be transported somewhere else, and to become someone else. In reality, most people aren’t going to rob a bank, but what if they could experience what it’s like to be a part of a heist? How can people have empathy for someone with a schizophrenic disorder? What would life be like ten years from now?

We threw away all concepts about what we thought traditional filmmaking was.

Although Josh had a background in user experience design, which helped immensely, filmmaking in 360 space meant everything had to be redeveloped from the ground up. There were no references, and barely any cameras out at the time. They originally had to build their own camera rigs with GoPros and 3D printed mounts that Josh designed. They had to figure out how to write for VR and from the POV of the characters.. A million things went wrong and there were so many technical issues, but Josh and his team kept pushing to bring their creative visions to life.

We asked ourselves, how do you even storyboard for 360 degrees? We developed a framework to visualize what the viewer is supposed to see in VR and a floor plan next to it with a map of the space where all the characters are moving.

Josh studied video stitching and combined six separate cameras together to create a perfect spherical image. One of the biggest issues they found were maintaining continuity in 360 degrees, especially for outdoor scenes where the wrong person might wander in or a car would drive into the scene that wasn’t accounted for.

Although most of the original Contraverse team from Ryerson went off to pursue their own path, Josh and his partner Marissa are pushing the vision of immersive cinema to the public eye.

Invitation to a New World: VR Cinema x Everyone

When Josh sees what Elon Musk is doing at SpaceX, he thinks takes a leaps further. What would a VR experience be like on Mars? What would their first hours, first weeks living on Mars be like? That’s what his sci-fi movie Contravision is, an exploration of what it would look like if everyone wore AR glasses. The company he started is another push to take things further with VR cinema, to inspire the next generation of creators and engineers. After all sci-fi is all about inspiring technological advancements that were once thought of as imaginary.

At the time Josh was in post-production for his films, he realized most people don't actually have access to VR headsets to enjoy . So he built an app to distribute his movies not just to every VR headset but also to every mobile phone. From there, he came up with the idea of a VR theatre, a space for people to come together and enjoy the same experience with thirty to fifty VR stations. 

We came up with the content and now we’re focusing on the user experience, with the optimum chairs and headsets for people to watch it in.

Check out Josh's short films at Toronto New Wave and keep updated with Contraverse https://www.contraverse.co/ for the future of VR cinema!

Toronto New Wave