Practical Magic Delivers Powerful “Dunkirk VR” Experience

Matthew Lewis at the keyboard of Practical Magic’s render farm management console. Image source: Practical Magic.

by Michelle Gallina

posted on 03-12-2018

Trying to capture the realities of war on the big screen can be a difficult feat to achieve. But that’s precisely what Christopher Nolan managed to do in the critically acclaimed movie, Dunkirk, which was based on an actual World War II event. The film depicts the entrapment of Allied forces on the beaches of Dunkirk in Northern France, and their subsequent rescue by the British Navy, as well as British civilians who used their own fishing and pleasure boats to evacuate them.

To help promote the film, Warner Bros. wanted to create immersive experiences around the miraculous rescue of more than 300,000 soldiers by private citizens. Prior to the movie’s release in July 2017, the studio called on Matthew Lewis, an award-winning producer and CEO and co-founder of Practical Magic, a full-service production company, to help create a one-of-a-kind VR experience.

Matthew, who is accustomed to pushing technology to its limits, is known for his technological prowess and creativity. Prior to working on Save Every Breath: The Dunkirk VR Experience, he came up with his own VR workflow in Adobe Premiere Pro—before those capabilities became a standard feature—to create the Assassin’s Creed VR Experience.

For Save Every Breath: The Dunkirk VR Experience, the team faced three primary challenges: how to shoot underwater VR, how to show someone in the cockpit of a World War II plane without making viewers sick from the motion, and how to put people on the beach in Northern France and give them a sense of scale. To overcome these challenges, Matthew used After Effects to merge original, on-site footage shot with 4K cameras with staged footage shot at a Los Angeles studio. For example, scenes depicting soldiers on the beach were created using actual footage of Dunkirk, and actors playing soldiers in the studio.

Ravindra Velhal from Intel (left) and Matthew Lewis (right) shooting a scene for “Save Every Breath: The Dunkirk VR Experience”. Image source: Practical Magic.

“If you look up and down the beach in the VR piece, there are thousands of soldiers that we put there,” says Matthew. “And of course, those were all real people. There were no fake soldiers in the whole piece. They all move, they all have personalities, and they all react to the environment because we shot them all in the studio. And when the plane swoops in and the bullets start to fly, they all duck.”

The same is true for the underwater scenes, which combined footage shot on location in northern France with content shot with high-resolution underwater cameras in the studio. “For the VR experience, we put all the soldiers back into the same underwater world, and filmed them so we could see the expression and the emotion on their faces as they’re sinking further underwater, with the muffled sound of bullets piercing the surface,” says Matthew.

Underwater scene from “Save Every Breath: The Dunkirk VR Experience”. Image source: Practical Magic.

Despite a tight turnaround time, Matthew was confident in his team’s ability to deliver what the director wanted—on time—because of Adobe. For example, for the scene on the beach the Practical Magic team used Trapcode Particular to turn every soldier into a particle in After Effects. “We literally sprayed the beach with particles, and within minutes, we went from having no soldiers on the beach to having thousands,” says Matthew. “What we did with After Effects would have taken forever with another piece of software.”

Using Dynamic Link, Matthew and his team updated frame sequences regularly between After Effects and Premiere Pro, which was used to edit both the trailer and VR experience. The final product was translated into 11 languages and localized for approximately 100 territories.

Part of the custom capture system Practical Magic used to acquire live action elements. Image source: Practical Magic.

With Save Every Breath: The Dunkirk VR Experience and several other high-profile projects under his belt, Matthew continues to be a highly sought after producer, creative, and technologist who is known for pushing the boundaries of what’s feasible.

“There is no ‘good enough’ in this business, so we have to produce and deliver high-quality work that ups the ante each and every time,” he says. “Having the Adobe toolset at my disposal helps make the seemingly impossible, possible.”

Learn more about Adobe 360/VR editing.

Topics: Creativity

Products: After Effects, Premiere Pro, Creative Cloud