Creator Profile: Nicholas Pittom, Fire Panda | Blend Media

This week we feature Nicholas Pittom, Director of Fire Panda Ltd. a Virtual Reality development studio creating exciting and innovative VR Content, Experiences and Games. Find out more about some of the work he has been creating over the past few years.

1. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started in the industry?

I’d been working in TV and video production for a number of years, working on animation and VFX and so on, and had been looking to move more towards writing and directing, which is of course in no way super competitive. I made a short film called ‘Proto’, spending a couple of years on it. I was really happy with it and got into a couple of festivals, but getting one short film made is just the first step. You need to keep making things and really it didn’t seem like the best way to get to tell stories.

Around this time VR was just beginning, with Palmer Luckey’s Oculus bringing out their DK1 kit. I’d been experimenting with Unity to maybe make some games and it seemed like VR might be a great way to tell stories, so I jumped into that. After getting to grips with it the first thing I did properly was to create a number of demoes based on Studio Ghibli animated movies, like Spirited Away and Totoro. I felt like being able to go into a 2D world would be an experience that was new and kinda mind-blowing, and it picked up quite a lot of fans. From that, I was able to get some work, and after a while found that it had basically replaced all my video work. I did, however, get a cease and desist from Studio Ghibli along the way, which was actually a pretty nice moment in a way.

I set up Fire Panda so I could expand into bigger projects and have been doing so ever since.

2. What’s the most challenging part of the VR projects you work on?

VR is pretty demanding on hardware, as it needs to run at high resolutions and high frame rates, plus the user can lean into details and see anything up close. It leads to pretty demanding requirements for optimisation to get everything performing up to standard. 

But you also want it to actually look good and have artistic integrity. It leads to some pretty fun explorations of things that do and don’t work, and with it an understanding of what things work really well in VR. So while it is challenging it is also a challenge I find very satisfying.

3. Can you tell us about a couple of projects you are most proud of?

Dispatch is a narrative VR experience written and directed by Ed Robles. It’s about 25mins in total, split over a 4 episodes and was the most ambitious project Fire Panda had undertaken. Ed wrote a really compelling story, and managed to get Martin Starr (of Silicon Valley and Spiderman fame), and character actress Beth Grant (Donnie Darko), so the voice acting and performance were excellent. The art style is very abstracted, but we used Mocap suits to get a performance and worked with a really fantastic team. It’s had a great deal of love over the past couple of years and I feel very satisfied with how it turned out.

There’s a couple of collaborations still under NDA, but one I can speak of is ‘Sweet Dreams’. I was lead developer, working with ‘Marshmallow Laser Feast’ who make awesome artistic installation experiences, including ‘An Ocean of Air’ which ran at the Saatchi gallery for a number of weeks. Sweet Dreams allowed people to walk freely around the installation in VR where they experience a poetic story. Reaching out they discover a lot of the items they are interacting with are ‘there’ as props in the scene. But the most exciting part was that the user actually got to eat and drink parts of the experience. A flower would fall apart, leaving a single petal which the user would pluck from the air and get to actually eat. The Sun would descend from above, along with a ‘horn’. The user takes the horn and is able to ‘drink’ the sun – with a specially created drink from a straw in real life. Actual measurements were taken from the action of drinking, so we could detect how much the user was drinking and have the sun react accordingly. The amount of innovative ideas, the talent of the team and the creativity of the director Robin McNicholas was pretty awesome to be a part of.

I’ve also got to work with Daniel Ernst, a VR artist who created the ‘Shoebox Dioramas’ – one of which was pretty much the reason I got into VR in the first place – which has been a personal highlight.

4. What excites you most about the industry at the minute?

Hardware is getting cheaper and better. I’ve been a massive fan of Quest since I first saw it and really like how it reduces the ‘friction’ for users. You put it on and off you go. You can take it anywhere. Oculus recently added hand tracking and the ability to use as a PC headset, and both these things really increase the value of the thing. Being able to stick someone into Beat Saber or Superhot VR anywhere is always great. The appetite for VR continues to be present, which is great. The release of Valve Index, and then Half Life Alex has pushed the high end and feels like VR has it’s system seller for games at last. If the biggest problem VR is suffering is that people can’t get hold of them before they sell out – even considering the cost of the Index for instance – then that’s not the worst thing ever.

AR has also been a surprising thing for me as the past year it has become a large percentage of the work I am doing. It shares a lot in common with VR and the convergence of AR, VR (and other ‘Mixed Reality’) is also very exciting. Headsets that allow you to cross between your real world and a virtual one are going to be pretty exciting as time goes on. 

Mostly I am just happy to be able to continue to work with people I like on projects and new technology that excite me.

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