January 06, 2017

The Mill’s Angus Kneale Describes How Today’s Virtual Reality Ignites Immersive Storytelling For Advertising And Brands Across Industries

The Future Trust recently talked with Angus Kneale, Chief Creative Officer, The Mill, a VFX and creative content studio owned by Technicolor.

The Mill The Mill
  • Recent VR advancements, including improved screens, accelerometers, smart phones and faster GPUs are coming together to enable VR, giving advertisers and brand managers powerful new ways to connect with customers and tell their stories.
  • It is still early days for VR, and difficult to predict exactly how it’s going to be used. One challenge is how to develop narratives and stories that successfully capitalize on the medium.
  • VR encompasses multiple mediums that require different skillsets. Technicolor’s creative content studio The Mill is working to develop all the different VR mediums because they are all relevant to different types of markets and different types of customers.

Virtual reality (VR) has emerged as a powerful new platform for storytelling. Advancements in technology are delivering immersive new capabilities for VR and advertising and brand managers are eyeing VR to bolster customer connection and propel their stories.

Angus Kneale, chief creative officer, The Mill Angus Kneale, Chief Creative Officer, The Mill

The Future Trust recently talked with Angus Kneale, Chief Creative Officer, The Mill, a VFX and creative content studio owned by Technicolor. The Mill is headquartered in London, with three offices in the United States, and works with clients around the world on film, digital media, and ad campaigns. Kneale shared his thoughts on how VR is evolving, the challenges it still faces, and how VR is poised to become a major fixture in advertising and branding across all industries.


Virtual reality has been part of pop culture for decades, but it’s only now beginning to gain traction as a technology that has commercial viability. In your opinion, what does VR have to offer and what kind of interest is it garnering from the advertising and brand management community?

Kneale: Sure, thank you. VR is an interesting medium to be working in. It has been around for a few decades but it’s recently had a big resurgence, probably because the screens and accelerometers and phones and GPUs all got faster. Suddenly all of these different technologies are coming together to enable VR.

What brands are realizing is that with the VR experience, the way you can connect with the audience is so powerful. It’s much more powerful than just doing it on a regular screen. I think people have realized that VR creates an emotive connection with the audience. That being said, VR these days—right now—is still pretty rudimentary.

It’s going to get so much better over the next five to ten years, and as it gets better and as the technology gets cheaper, we’re going to see more and more consumers have access to this technology. The penetration’s going to be higher; therefore brands are going to be more interested in actually reaching people. So there is a very clear roadmap in my mind in terms of the adoption rate and brands getting involved and getting psyched about using this new medium to connect to people.


How does an emotive dimension, or the dynamic of being in virtual reality, manifest itself? What is that makes it different and how have you seen that change the way you would deliver a persuasive storytelling experience?

Kneale: It is the one medium that we’ve got now that completely overtakes your sight and sound. There’s nothing else like it that we’ve had access to before. You can have a great big screen, great surround sound, mobile phones in everyone’s pocket – the proliferation of content in the palm of everyone’s hand is fantastic.

But when you’ve actually got a headset and your peripheral vision is covered, you’ve got the full attention of the viewer. You’ve got a captive audience, who’s wearing headphones, so you are very close to the person’s senses. You have such power over their senses that you can take that person to places that they’ve never been taken before, because you’re utilizing two of the key senses that people have in order to take them on a journey.

We recently did a project for The Guardian newspaper called 6x9, which was more of a documentary awareness program about what it is like to be in solitary confinement in US prisons. This project taught us so much in terms of the power of VR and what you can actually use it for.

It actually puts the viewer in a situation that they would never otherwise be able to be in. You’re removing the barrier of looking at it through the screen because you’re bringing the experience close and immersing the person in it. Because of that, their emotional reaction to things is much more intense, it’s much stronger. And coming out of it, their overall impression is that they’ve just had an experience that is far greater than that of just watching it on the television set. It really is quite extraordinary.


That creates a whole new avenue for brand managers and advertisers to consider, and it does seem like there is a lot of momentum behind deploying all of the trends—the cost of networking, the cost of processing technology, etc.—toward developing a critical mass. Are brand managers and advertisers trying to get in front of this and begin integrating VR into their brand management and consumer connection strategy?

Kneale: We’re starting to see that. I think people that are forward-thinking and are actually looking at where things are going, the people that are extrapolating the curve and looking at where we are going to be in three or four years’ time...these are the people who are coming to us and saying, “We can tell this is going to be huge. We want to be part of this. We want to have an integrated campaign. Let’s work closely with you.”

More and more companies come to us, with brands, wanting to know how to capitalize on -- and make use -- of this new medium because they can see it’s going to be huge.

Anyone who’s not taking it seriously right now is almost like saying -- before the internet happened -- “I don’t think it’s going to become a big thing.” This is going to be huge.


What is the path forward? How will people crawl, walk, or run into VR? Does VR become an ancillary part of something else or is this a stand-alone experience? For instance, is this something that hangs off of a broader campaign or does it become a main thrust of a campaign?

Kneale: It’s difficult to predict exactly how it’s going to be used. Up until now, we’ve generally done projects that have some other component to it, some form of linear film component that the project compliments. But I do see, as you start having landmark projects -- projects that really define the medium—that is when the medium itself is going to be the main delivery platform for those who want to be in a virtual environment.

I think that because it is so VR is versatile, because it touches so many different industries – healthcare, education, real estate, military, entertainment, exploration – there’s so many different things that VR can provide to all these different industries.

Consider the travel industry, like Royal Caribbean, that wants to give people a virtual tour of the cabin they’re going to be in on the ship. There’s opportunity for every company to be able to reach a client in a very intimate and immersive manner.

But what’s tricky is the storytelling. What we’ve had up until now, from a storytelling perspective, is an approach that we’ve been developing over hundreds of years as people.

VR is slightly different because you’re actually putting yourself in the shoes of another person. You have to tell stories in a different way, and you’re having to be quite respectful of the experience the person is giving because they’re kind of taking you inside their head a little bit. It’s definitely a much more powerful medium that people are still coming to grips with how to use. And I think as people figure that out, people are going to start figuring out how to actually target it towards different parts of the media or campaigns.


Can you describe some of the projects that you’ve been involved with from a persuasive storytelling perspective and some of the creative issues that you’ve encountered and how you’ve dealt with them?

Kneale: Well, 6x9 I think is a good example of that, where you’re not too sure where people are going to look. Because you have the whole 360-degree world to look at you need to guide the viewer’s attention, and kind of guide them along the way. And there’s different ways of doing that now. You can use live audios, and you can recreate the sound to the side where, say you have somebody at the door, and you’d hear somebody shouting which would make you turn to the right or turn to the left. You can have things where you change the illumination of a room to draw people’s attention from one place to the next. But your traditional skill set as a director or as a cinematographer, where you frame a shot, and you can draw people’s attention by doing a close-up or a medium or a wide, or pulling focus, doing a shallow depth-of-field… all those tools are gone.

It’s incredible because suddenly you don’t have those cinematic tools that everyone’s been so used to having. It becomes a lot more theatrical. It becomes a lot more like theatre. It becomes a lot more like having to go to a Broadway show where you choose what’s in the picture; you choose what holds your attention and what doesn’t.

And I think with every project that we do, and every project that we as creators of VR content do, we learn. You learn what works, you learn what doesn’t work.

For instance, in the early days people were doing pretty big, powerful camera moves with the camera moving all around the place. This created a disconnected feeling for the person who was viewing it and in turn created nausea.

So people are learning what is comfortable and what’s not comfortable, and people are beginning to realize that these kind of super-fast, punchy sequences that you have in a lot of modern-day video content, doesn’t suit itself to VR. VR is more of an experience that needs to be stretched out, and time needs to be elongated rather than compressed.


The Mill is dedicating a lot of resources and has made a strong commitment to this medium. Where do you go from here? How are you evangelizing this market? What are the kinds of conversations that need to happen?

Kneale: First of all, virtual reality as a term encompasses a lot of different mediums. You know, there’s VR that is basically multiple cameras strapped together, shooting at the sphere of video – 360-video – that is monoscopic so you only have one image for the left and right eyes so it doesn’t have any depth. That’s one type of VR.

The evolution of that then is stereoscopic VR where you actually have depth perception in a 360 sphere. In both of those instances, however, you’re locked into one specific space point in the world. You’re not able to move around.

The next type of VR to that is something that uses game engine or real-time CGI in order to be able to render the world that you’re in. And then past that then you start getting ring scale VR, which becomes even more interesting. That’s when you start looking at Vive and Occulist Rift with multiple cameras.

And the further you go away from the first rudimentary VR, the more powerful the experience gets. So a big part of what we do at The Mill is that we’re actually playing in all of these different areas because they’re all relevant. One is not going to take over while the other ones pull away. The wonderful thing about VR and 360 video is that it’s so accessible you can play it on a mobile phone.

Which is why Samsung Gear VR has just done so well. And now looking at the Google Daydream, it’s going to capitalize on the same thing. The challenge with these mobile phone is that the GPU is only so fast, the graphic processing unit can only do so much CGI graphics in real time, so it’s perfect for just playing back linear content.

As you start going toward things like PlayStation VR, then you can start actually creating the entire world that is fully interactive and you have the ability to change the content and your point in space where you are.

All of it is relevant. And what’s interesting is that it all requires such different skill sets. But at The Mill, we are not choosing one over the other; we’re actually developing all of them simultaneously because they are all relevant to different types of markets and different types of customers.