Chapman University’s ‘The Harvest VR’ Premiere is the Future of Immersive Storytelling

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As I walked into Chapman University’s Digital Media Arts Center alongside Associate Professor Madeline Warren, her voice changed to a hushed tone. “They’re going to strap you into a chair!” she said in a whisper. It was instantly clear that I was in for something that went beyond a simple VR premiere at a southern California film school.

the-harvest-vrWhat I got, and what I can’t wait for everyone to experience, was a thrilling end-to-end journey. A glimpse into the future of immersive storytelling. A narrative that engages us across augmented reality and virtual reality, where our involvement in the story is both passive and interactive.

The Harvest VR is the brainchild of Director Sam Wickert and Producer Sho Schrock-Manabe. AMD Corporate Vice President Roy Taylor tirelessly champions VR creators like them, and saw an enormous amount of talent within these students. We enthusiastically decided to lend our financial backing and supply Radeon Pro hardware for their visual effects crew.

The Harvest VR follows the violent exploits of a deranged farmer (Brett Rickaby) and is told through the eyes of his latest victim: you! The entire story unfolds inside a barn which becomes its own character, and one that the viewer gets to view and interact with in multiple ways.

The experience kicked off with the students guiding us to an augmented reality station, where the film’s poster transformed into a top-down perspective of the barn. We peered in through the roof and got the first taste of what would lie ahead.

Attendees at Chapman University experience the horror of The Harvest VR
Attendees at Chapman University experience the horror of The Harvest VR

Then came the premiere room, adorned in rusted weapons tools like sledgehammers and crowbars, covered in creepy cobwebs, and accented by moody splashes of blood-red light.

“Is it ok if we tie down your hands?” one of the producers asked. I hesitantly agreed as he placed a VR headset and headphones on me. I was teleported to a windswept field, then inside a barn that clearly doubled as the breeding grounds for horrific experiments, carried out by a comical and downright evil farmer. I won’t spoil much of the plot, but it weaved humor, action, and a few neat twists into the mix.

By the way, one of the things that drew us to this production was Wickert’s forward-thinking approach to VR filmmaking. Many directors are understandably timid when it comes to virtual reality storytelling because they’re afraid or unwilling to relinquish direct control of the camera. Their argument is that doing so may compromise their creative vision. Wickert — only a sophomore — employs some subtle cues with lighting and audio that still steer the viewer’s eyes where he wants them to go. You’ll see what we mean when it comes to a VR platform near you.

Associate Professor Madeline Warren tours the aftermath in the film's companion VR experience
Associate Professor Madeline Warren tours the aftermath in the film’s companion VR experience

The 3rd sequence of The Harvest VR? The room scale experience with an HTC Vive, where the audience explored the aftermath of the short film, navigating their way through the barn at their own pace. This was especially awesome, because the context was still fresh in our minds. The students also added some clever physical elements such as tables and chairs in the physical space that were mapped to the in-game scenery. The player even holds a real lantern that has a Vive controller installed inside, adding to the realism.

Oh, and there are some serious jump scares. In fact, many of the 400 students in attendance frequently stuck around to revel in the terrified screams of the next victim. You’ve been warned!

The most remarkable thing about this portion of the journey: it was developed in Unreal Engine by two students in four weeks.

Finally, we were escorted into another screening room to watch a making-of documentary of the film, bringing us back to reality and giving the audience some elegant closure — and a moment to catch their breath.

All told, this was brilliant storytelling that wasn’t confined to a single medium or delivery method, but combined to deliver a cohesive narrative that was as fun as it was engrossing. This is why we’re delighted to support these VR visionaries and enable them to continue the art of the impossible with Radeon Pro.

The Harvest VR Premiere | L-R: Actor Tim Losee, Director Sam Wickert, Actor Brett Rickaby
The Harvest VR Premiere | L-R: Actor Tim Losee, Director Sam Wickert, Actor Brett Rickaby

Jason Evangelho is Senior Technical Marketing Specialist for the Radeon Technologies Group at AMD. Links to third party sites are provided for convenience and unless explicitly stated, AMD is not responsible for the contents of such linked sites and no endorsement is implied.

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