How the Atlanta Design Studio Is Making Its Mark in Immersive Through Creative Ingenuity and Marketing Savvy

TCM came to Sprocket Creative looking for a dark alley. Seriously. The classic Hollywood mavens at TCM were seeking ideas for a digital promo that would attract a younger audience to Noir Alley, a series of midnight Saturday screenings of classic and obscure film noir titles. So the idea made sense — an immersive experience set in a dark urban alleyway, peppered with a few Easter Eggs for devoted explorers.

But Sprocket’s Dean Velez and Billy Reese were ambitious. They knew they had good ideas. And they knew Sprocket Creative already had the experience and talent that could turn out gorgeous designs. What they didn’t have was a lot of experience creating immersive environments. (Heck, they didn’t even know much about film noir.) But they recognized an opportunity when they saw it. So they responded with a more expansive pitch — a full-on seven-episode whodunit, saturated with the spirit of classic detective stories, set entirely inside stylish environments that users could experience with their smartphones and Mobile VR glasses or using mouse-around controls in Facebook or YouTube.

TCM was impressed. A 360 web series could reel in new viewers outside TCM’s core demographic. The project got the green light. And that meant Sprocket had to get up to speed very, very quickly.

“I don’t know what everybody else felt,” recalls Velez. “Myself, I was terrified. This was a real thing. A lot of money was being thrown into this. And we had only done internal [360-degree] projects and one small application for Cartoon Network.” Reese had a similar response. “Dean and I walked into my office and my reaction was, ‘Holy crap. They said yes. Now what do we do?'”

Episode 1 of 360° of Noir

The “Victoria Frankenstein” Victory

Victoria Frankenstein promo poster

Sprocket Creative’s in-house immersive property, “Victoria Frankenstein,” was an important stepping stone on the way to Noir Alley.
Sprocket Creative

Sprocket’s 360 calling card at the time was an in-house project called “Victoria Frankenstein,” an immersive ghost story with a mad-scientist theme that featured spooky character designs and gothic backgrounds. It wasn’t fully finished, but it showcased the company’s design chops and proved its ability to weld audio and video to compelling effect. Best of all, it was an original property, which gave Sprocket free rein over every aspect — including its presence on social media.

“It was great because it was ours, so we could make mistakes,” Velez says. “We decided not to go with anything that research tells us about social and asked, instead, ‘What would get us interested in something on social? So that’s where we cut our teeth.”

Sprocket demoed the Victoria project at VR Day Atlanta in January 2017, generating positive feedback and spreading buzz about the studio. And that gave the team the confidence to move forward on the webseries that would become known as 360° of Noir.

It was going to be a fairly expensive proposition for the client, so Sprocket crafted its pitch to include substantial promotional value, as well as creative.

“The teasers, the trailers, the posters, all of that we had in our strategy, because we knew if we went straight to the immersive video experience it was going to be an instant fail,” Velez explains. “I’d guess there were about 13 people from TCM in that meeting, and we had to get them to sign off on the rollout strategy if the project was going to succeed. We planned to have this promotional push and then later we would populate their social media with questions, clues, and gamification.”

And Velez knew it would make sense to go big. “We presented seven episodes because we felt that doing just one would fall flat — you see it in Facebook, and then it disappears,” he says. “So why not build a longer story? We also didn’t want to build it in one chunk, because we don’t feel viewing VR should be longer than 10 minutes at a time. So, let’s build it like the old cliffhangers. And, thankfully, they agreed.”

Brushing Up on Film Noir

Film noir DVDs

Sprocket’s Dean Velez watched more than 100 films noirs in four months.
Sprocket Creative

“We came back to the drawing board and sat in the room with the rest of the team, and I said, ‘No one knows film noir, huh? That’s just great,’” Velez says. “We’re doing a seven-episode film noir whodunit and they’re all into anime and Star Wars and Marvel but no one watches film noir! I can’t tell you how many film noir DVDs we bought, but it was well over 200. I watched every single one of them. I am a film noir fanatic now, by the way. But that is what the project needed. If it was to become everything it could be, we had to totally buy into the genre.” Taking Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule to heart, Velez dove in to become as much of an expert as he could.

Velez started picking out favored titles for screening at the studio, where he encouraged the team to analyze the films’ storylines alongside their shadowy visuals and philosophical underpinnings. With all that in mind, he wrote three scripts, solicited edits from Sprocket’s Bazyl Dripps and Liah Honeycutt, and then handed them, with some trepidation, to TCM’s Noir Alley team.

“I had written promotional scripts for on-air, but I had never written a script like this before, so I expected them to get ripped apart,” he remembers. “But they loved the scripts. They said, ‘Yeah, this is film noir. This is it.'”

Ramping Up with Evolving 360 Technology

And then it was off to the races. Sprocket had to deliver the promised immersive whodunit without a clear picture of the technical procedure from start to finish. Fortunately, their core competencies in motion design and illustration meant the project would look great; the only question was how it would be assembled. So, the first episode was built using the same laborious, Photoshop-heavy process that Sprocket had used on “Victoria Frankenstein.” And the state of the art advanced quickly from there.

“The first episode was a nightmare build,” Velez recalls. “The tools just weren’t there yet. But at almost the last week of the first build, the Mettle Skybox Suite [of plug-ins for Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro, now part of the Creative Cloud package] was out, and Maxon Cinema 4D switched on its spherical camera. It’s funny, because technology caught up to this project. If those new tools hadn’t come out, we probably wouldn’t have been able to finish on deadline.”

Character designs by Ahmara Smith

Character designs by Ahmara Smith
Sprocket Creative

After auditioning character designs from six different artists, concepts by Ahmara Smith were selected. For the sake of expediency, the characters were built, posed and lit in 3D before being handed off to Smith. “That sped up her whole process, kept the characters consistent, and allowed her to draw in the immersive space,” Velez said. “We would give her the immersive plate, and she would draw on top of the 3D models.”

Do I Have Your Attention?

Yellow text box

Yellow comic-book-style boxes are used to direct the viewer’s attention to different areas of the 360-degree sphere
Sprocket Creative/YouTube

From a creative standpoint, the biggest stumbling block was navigation. How do you get an audience to look where you need them to look in a 360-degree scene? The answer ended up being strategically placed pop-up boxes, with notes lettered in a comic-book style. For instance, a box in the first episode warns, “If you don’t watch your back you’ll end up with a knife in it.” As you turn your head to read the note, your gaze is drawn further down the dark alley, where a figure emerges from the distance and rushes past you. As you watch, another note pops up, instructing you to look down toward the ground: “He dropped something. Maybe it’s important!”

“We felt if we did anything in narration, it would break the design,” Velez says. “So we said, ‘Let’s make this like a pulp fiction comic book and add the yellow boxes, send it to TCM, and cross our fingers that they approve it.’ And they got it immediately. For us, that was our big a-ha! moment in the immersive space.”

Another key element was audio design. Sprocket’s Juan Baez added layers of aural atmosphere to sell the illusion that each 360-degree space was part of a larger, inhabited world. “It’s almost like a radio play,” Velez said. “He had never had to build this extensive of an atmospheric audio session, so we had no idea if he could do it. But our jaws dropped the first time we heard what he did with the audio. His sound design was the key to bringing the project to life.”

The main immersive aspect that’s missing from 360° of Noir is stereoscopic images — at the time, a stereo version would have been risky business. “We didn’t want to take the risk of adding stereoscopic and screwing up,” Velez admits. “The process requires this split-screen render, and we didn’t feel we could successfully connect Cinema 4D and Skybox to keep the stereoscopic look correct on the timeline we had. We did a test and it looked great, but it took us a long time to match the feel, so we just said no, we can’t do this. We loved the way it looked, but we just couldn’t take the chance.”

Recycle, Rebuild, Re-Use

Velez is up-front about the fact that he’s not a miracle worker. His team got 360° of Noir out the door on time by being smart and resourceful under pressure, not by having all the answers. And they leaned heavily on existing technical resources to keep them more nimble in the creative aspects of the project, where it mattered most. “There is no way we could keep in budget or on deadline if we had to model all the pieces ourselves,” he says. “We call ourselves VR designers because to get the speed up and the cost down we look to repurpose any elements that are out there. We build what we have to build, but if we can purchase something similar from Turbo Squid, Daz3D, iStock or wherever, we can design whatever we want it to be.”

Sprocket’s Ahmara Smith works on one of the many detailed posters featured in the 360 environments
Sprocket Creative

And Sprocket made sure the decorative elements peppering the 360-degree environments, which give curious viewers more to look at in each episode, did double duty as well. For example, the environments sometimes feature carefully designed posters, which take their graphic cues from vintage film noir posters. Sprocket used them in teaser videos for the series and made sure they were built at a high-enough resolution that they could be printed, as well. “Most of our projects are illustrator-driven,” Velez says. “It’s illustration inside motion graphics.”

“That plays into our social media strategy,” adds Reese. “Because Facebook lets you zoom into 360-degree still images, we could use a still to give an extra clue or show part of the frame that you might not have been able to make out in the episode. It allowed us to have a lot of fun with the environments. For instance, on Mike’s desk there’s a notepad with a list of suspects, and it’s the names of the TCM team that worked on the project.”

Next Up: VR Board Games?

Despite Sprocket’s success with 360° of Noir, the team found that introducing people to the world of immersive experience is still a sticking point, since there’s no easy way for people to discover immersive media. (“There is no Netflix for this stuff,” Reese laments.) So, Velez and Reese turned their attention to a new method of presenting immersive content for a different kind of experience.

Chimera's Rift prototype

A prototype concept for the Chimera’s Rift board game. (Click to enlarge)
Sprocket Creative

Sprocket debuted Chimera’s Rift, a tabletop board game with VR and AR components, at Atlanta’s MomoCon, a gaming, comics and animation event, where it focus-grouped the concept to more than 400 attendees. “We needed to find out if we were going in the right direction, so we self-funded a launch at MomoCon, and it was amazing,” says Velez. “The response we got from the audience, and the questions they asked, were fantastic. People understood it and how to get into it.”

The response was encouraging enough that they are even exploring the possibility of creating a licensed, VR-enabled tabletop board game that could be designed to accommodate different brands, with unique stereoscopic VR gameplay elements to match. They are currently talking to manufacturers of game boards and taking the idea to partners like TCM and Cartoon Network.

Reese is similarly high on the possibilities. “The only way to truly win in the new immersive landscape is to become pioneers and risk-takers,” says Reese. “That has served us well so far and has brought in new business, partnerships and opportunities. Our next big leap is taking us in a direction we never would have predicted.”

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