How a New Short Film Puts Viewers Inside a Puppet Show from Hell

Imagine a puppet show — a really horrible puppet show that’s badly acted, offensive in pretty much every way and violent to the point of puppets losing limbs. Now imagine that you, the viewer using a VR headset, have somehow become trapped as a puppet in that hellish show, which is being performed for a clueless executive who thinks it’s fabulous. Welcome to “Extravaganza,” a short film that premiered in the “immersive” category at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Ethan Shaftel wrote and directed “Extravaganza,” which artfully blends 3D animation, live action and virtual reality, and was made with Cinema 4D and the CV-VRCam plug-in. The six-minute satire stars Paul Scheer (30 Rock, The League) as an executive testing out a new VR headset that he thinks could be the future of entertainment and John Gemberling (Broad City, Marry Me) as a company underling who is horrified by his boss’ oblivious love of the loathsome spectacle.

In the Hall of Savages, a stereotypical colonial hero murders his way through the Middle East and Africa.

Here Ethan and animator Frank Stringini explain how they made Extravaganza, including how much the film changed over time as they got feedback from viewers. (For more, watch the behind-the-scenes video.)

StudioDaily: What kind of work do you normally do, and how did you get into filmmaking?

Ethan Shaftel: I’m primarily a writer and director, and I work in traditional film, but also on interactive projects, VR and all types of immersive media, including animated parade floats for Disneyland Tokyo and a room-sized video installation for Nike. I’ve also created live-action and animated screen content for artists such as Beyonce, Tiesto and Rihanna. In traditional film, I’ve made music videos and shorts, as well as a sci-fi feature.

I was about 12 when I started creating games with Hypercard on my Mac Performa. I was trying to make games like Myst and, at the same time, I was making movies with my parents’ video camera. I went to film school at USC, but when I was there I also spent a lot of time designing interactive projects. I always felt like console and computer games were too difficult and took too much time to complete, so I was never really a gamer. But I always loved interactivity and thought that there was an audience for a more cinematic, story-based experience that wasn’t a game. I think that’s relevant to VR because the promise of interactivity is there in that new medium, which doesn’t yet have the baggage of the word game.

Throughout the puppet show, scenes are viewed from the POV of one of the characters.

I got interested in VR about two years ago because it really seemed like the missing puzzle piece for all of the different parts of my career. I started writing and prototyping and, at some point, I realized we needed to finish one standalone, complete piece that wasn’t a prototype and get it into a film festival. For me, being selected for Tribeca validated that gamble. You make a lot of sacrifices to work on a no-budget project, and the whole time you’re just telling yourself that people will care about it once it’s made. It’s not like anyone ASKED you for your little movie, and the world is not waiting for it. But you still have to put your head done and get it done.

Describe the film’s premise and how it evolved during production.

ES: There is no difference between observer and participant in VR. You, the viewer, are there, so you are participating. That has to be taken into account when creating a VR movie. With Extravaganza, viewers put on a headset to watch the film and find that they have become a puppet in a puppet show wearing somebody else’s VR headset. Only it’s as if VR is not digital, but just wooden, miniature animatronics. And then this person, Paul Scheer, who is much larger than you seem to be, puts on his headset and watches you perform for him. He is an executive and has had the show built by his employees, and John Gemberling has brought it up from the company’s engineering department.

“It’s not every day that you get to create inflatable ballerinas, which was one of those tasks that animators either drool over or run from because of the complexity,” says Frank Stringini.

The show is horrible, not that dissimilar, really, from old Disneyland rides when it comes to racism and sexism — stuff that we wince at now. Scheer’s character doesn’t see anything wrong it, even though there’s a colonial “hero” doing things like shooting Native Americans and taking over African villages, and inflatable ballerinas who say, “I’m a fatty.” The boss loves it all.

That is the version that premiered at Tribeca, and it was different in a key way from the original version. In our final version, John, the employee, is extremely uncomfortable with the scenes in the puppet show. He’s obviously offended, and he disagrees with his boss. Originally, John’s character was just as bad as Paul. They both loved it, and the feedback we got was that it was really isolating. Inside the VR world, everyone was against you. The satire wasn’t clear, and it was just uncomfortable.

That change saved the film, and it’s what traditional film does so well. In a movie, you experience everything through a protagonist, so you feel what they feel and that guides your emotions. In VR, you are a participant in the story in a different way, but you can still benefit from that kind of emotional channeling by having a character who anticipates your feelings and guides you through how they react. Viewers enjoyed the movie once they saw that John’s character was offended and uncomfortable.

Paul, the executive, gives no thought to the feelings of the characters in the puppet show.


Frank, can you talk a little bit about your design and animation process?

Frank Stringini: Ethan had old amusement park rides in mind, like Disney’s animatronics from the 50s and 60s. And I’ve always enjoyed German-style craftsmanship of cuckoo clocks and other things with parts carved out of wood. We talked about what Walt Disney might have come up with if he’d had VR, and I thought about it and came up with the hula girl and the beach scene, and we agreed that the wood look worked really well.

Viewers first realize they are part of the show, and being watched, when they see themselves pop up out of the floor as a hula girl on a beach.

ES: All of the stage effects, and lighting, smoke and confetti, needed to be unpolished. I asked Frank to make everything look like community theater on a tight budget. The advantage of that analog world is that it feels warm. There is no painted surface that isn’t peeling or blotchy with wear, and that invites people in.

Describe how you used the CV-VRCam plug-in.

FS: I had developed a way of exporting 360 video from inside Cinema 4D that was pretty rough. We used it for prototyping, but when we discovered the CV-VRCam plug-in, the process was much better. There was some trial and error, but the tool is solid. The only caveat was that I had to keep things a certain distance from the camera for it to work properly.

What’s happening with the film now?

ES: After Tribeca, “Extravaganza” screened at Next VR, which is part of the Cannes Marché du Film [film market]. Right now it’s appearing at the Sydney Film Festival, and there has been some good interest from distributors. So ultimately the movie will come out and be available for VR headsets through all of the usual app stores. Some cities, like Paris and Amsterdam, are starting to have VR cinemas where you’ll see a film in a room full of spinny chairs wearing headsets, so we’ve been approached by a few of those places who want to show the film in their theaters. It’s all exciting stuff.


Writer/Director: Ethan Shaftel
Animator: Frank Stringini
Cinematographer: Hanuman Brown-Eagle
Music: David Olson, Scott Radke
Sound Designers: Patrick Joyner, Michael Anctil
Cast: Paul Scheer, John Gemberling, Will Greenberg, Annie Tedesco