As part of an initiative led by the cultural services of the French Embassy in Canada, with the support of the Consulate General of France in Québec, coordinated by Alliance Française de Vancouver in partnership with Xn Québec, we are proposing a series of portraits of the XR industry in Canada. Through this series of portraits which discuss the history and vision of these companies, we invite you to discover the talents behind the immersive and techno-creative studios listed in our database of XR in Canada.
This ninth portrait focuses on Dark Slope, a Toronto-based real-time content producer pushing the boundaries of virtual production.
Philippe Bédard: Can you tell me about yourself and how you came about working in the field of XR?
Dan Fill: Historically, I was VP of Decode Entertainment—which is now WildBrain—before getting hired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to run their new media Digital Services division. My work has always been a combination of high-end animation for broadcast and video games, for mobile, interactive television, location based entertainment as well as streaming services. After 13 years in Australia, I eventually connected with Raja Khanna and two other partners, and I moved back to Canada to start Dark Slope.
One of the studio’s first major projects was Scarygirl Mission Maybee, a warehouse-scale activity that was eventually licensed by Zero Latency. It is currently being shown in Montreal, Vancouver, and up to fifty other venues internationally. The experience is based on a graphic novel. We put eight people wearing VR headsets and full haptics inside a 2000-square-foot space where they work together to takedown the evil Dr. Maybee.
That was the start of the adventure. Along that route, we also built a motion-tracking facility which opened us up to doing broadcast quality content using motion capture (mocap), virtual production and, of course, virtual reality activities that use spatial tracking.
PB: Tell me more about Dark Slope's activities. What sets you apart?
DF: Our vision has been consistent. Even if it sounds cliché nowadays, we have always seen this future of a fully immersive Metaverse, which brings about new forms of engagement. And of course, we are nowhere near that yet, but some of the things we are currently doing with multiplayer experiences in artificial worlds already give you a glimmer of where this might be going.
In addition to Scarygirl, we have done a lot of these theme park, family entertainment-style experiences. We have one for Hologate called Slugterra, which is a four-person VR experience. We also did a Magic Leap project called Bogey Ogres which unfortunately did not work out for several reasons, not the least of which is the current pandemic. Still, it was a very formative experience.
Even though most of the family entertainment and theme park based content that we are doing has been affected since March 2020, we were lucky to have already started to pivot in a few different directions. The first one is we started a separate company called Lumeto that deals with education, simulation and training. They focus on police de-escalation using VR, as well as helping train nurses for remote intubation.
On the entertainment side, we have continued some location-based content. For example, at the moment we are working on a large simulator ride experience for a AAA brand. That being said, our main focus has shifted to virtual production, using mocap, spatialized content, and a game engine to create linear content as well as hybrid shows. For example, we are working on a series for NBC Peacock (Babble Bop!), as well as some other content for Nickelodeon (Ready Set Dance).
Ready Set Dance. © Dark Slope
PB: Are you active in other fields?
DF: Currently, our sweet spot is in what we are calling hyperreality TV. This initiative is a hybrid of our games team and the television side of our business. We are working on new show formats where people put on VR headsets, mocap suits, haptic vests and so on before effectively entering “the Oasis.” I can’t say more on that right now, but this one of the areas we are currently actively developing. Our initial tests look unbelievable and I’m hoping this will lead to a new format. We have a solid base in games, motion capture, and television development and we are aggressive about developing these new kinds of projects. That’s why we are always looking for partnerships around the world to try something new in this space and to continue developing these projects.
We have also done some motion capture work on Secret Location’s Waking Wonderland, which is an amazing projection mapping experience. It’s a reinvention of Alice in Wonderland with all these fantastical characters and it’s meant for 24 people to go through the experience at any given time.
PB: What about at home experiences?
DF: We are always open to partnerships with people that bring in new ideas or content. Generally speaking, we look for projects where the IP has the potential to be extended into other areas. We are also interested in projects that could progress our curiosity into the Metaverse, whether it’s VR or AR. In either case, there has to be a social aspect, whether it’s collaborative or competitive.
The LBE space is the most exciting for us because it gives us more control around the kind of experience we craft. Instead of having people trip over wires or needing very powerful equipment, we can make sure to offer them an untethered and fully immersive experience. That’s where we want to go. Ideally, we also want reach at-home users one day, but the technology is nowhere near the level we are aiming for at the moment. Hopefully, the technology will catch up. The question is when!
PB: What kinds of challenges would you like to undertake in the future?
DF: On the linear side of our business, we have targeted two areas. One is animation, which covers everything from preschool to young adults. There, we use a virtual production methodology that leans into projects where movement is important, such as dance. On the other side is our hyperreality initiative, where we are looking for partners that have a strong background in reality TV who might be looking to contemporize their offering. Finally, on the games side, there are games that could easily support the hyperreality TV model. Here, multiplayer experiences where participants are at the centre of the story are what really interest us over, say, first-person shooters.
When we develop our own IP, we always think of the different ways it can be exploited. The key is that each one should be thought out and planned individually. It should succeed in its own right.
PB: What are some of the lessons you've learned from past projects.
DF: Our company is full of people that are brave and curious and who are constantly trying to achieve a wow factor. But whenever you are trying to be on the leading edge, you are bound to face challenges. In the case of Bogey Ogre, which was developed with Pukeko Pictures in New Zealand, there were some problems with the technology, logistics, and so on. The Magic Leap headsets we were trying to use are still in development and didn’t play nice with Unreal Engine. The headsets are also cost prohibitive ($2500 USD per unit) and are not even available in Canada at the moment. They’ve also since stepped out of entertainment.
Logistically speaking, we faced issues with the fact that the experience was built inside shipping containers. Our goal was to transport the experience all over the country, from the CNE in Toronto, to the Calgary Stampede, to the PNE in Vancouver, to all over North America. The issue is this requires very specific engineering certificates in each new region. That was an unforeseen challenge. Another issue was obviously due to Covid restrictions, where our throughput of sixteen people was cut to two. We did amazing work on this project, but we also faced a lot of unforeseen challenges.
PB: Why should studios look to Dark Slope for their next co-production?
DF: As a co-production partner, our strength is in taking on unusual challenges and in creating a spectacle out of it. By doing that, we keep learning, building, and taking that experience into our next projects. We have an awesome technical art team and a top shelf visual effects and animation team. Whether you are looking or a partner in linear media or game development, I think we’re the right studio for you.
Mapping XR in Canada
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