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For the next two months the Westfield Shopping Center in Shepherd’s Bush, London will be the home to a unique portal into the Star Wars galaxy.  Via the brain trust at ILMxLAB, the Lucasfilm story group and virtual reality pioneers the VOID, fans will have the opportunity to enter the Star Wars story in what is the most immersive VR experience yet.

I was fortunate enough to be among the very first journalists to take the opportunity to experience – and I use that word often and for very good reason – this immersive step into the GFFA.

Kitted out in VR helmet and body armour we enter a darkened room where we watch Cassian Andor as he explains our predicament. The rebellion need to sneak into an Imperial facility and steal a crate (no, not a Crait) from under the Empire’s nose. Dressed as Imperial stormtroopers, we will infiltrate the base, grab the crate and escape.

Easy, right?

Intro video over we enter a holding room, pull down the goggles, tighten the straps and on instruction open our eyes. A second ago I was in a shopping mall in Shepard’s Bush – now I’m in hyperspace on a rebel starship.

The immersion is amazing. Look at your hands and you see white Imperial armour. Look up, the ceiling. Behind me, the iron-clad walls of the room. As K-2SO explains what we need to do you can feel the ship wobble as it hovers over the lava of Mustafar and the blast of heat as he opens the door, so we can step onto a lava skiff and travel to the facility.

I won’t give any further details, as to spoil this incredible journey would benefit no one. Simply put, this is a trip you absolutely need to take when it comes to your region, and that’s something I made sure to relate to Ben Snow, VFX Supervisor at ILM and ILMxLAB, Cliff Plumer, CEO of The VOID and Diana Williams, Story Group and Content Strategist from Lucasfilm when I sat down with them and a trip of journalists from a variety of UK publications to discuss this impressive innovation.

Cliff Plumer began, explaining the social aspects of Secrets of the Empire.

Cliff Plumer: The thing we always try and emphasize is the social aspect of this versus most other VR experiences, which is usually a solo experience.

FT: It’s definitely a collaborative experience, I played with a team of three and we did really well together, it was a good little team.

Ben Snow: Did you guys shoot at each other?

FT: No, but with me being the numpty, there’s a little grommit under the trigger and I was pressing that instead of the trigger, and for 2 minutes I was complaining that the trigger wasn’t working. (laughter) When I got my eye in I was fine.

Cliff: The puzzle panel is always a true test if you’re a Star Wars fan. What typically happens in a movie to open a door? What do you typically do?

FT: Shoot the panel. I was too busy shooting the Stormtroopers.

Cliff: Then you’ve got to come back. There’s a lot of little easter eggs. Another one is when you were shooting the lava fleas.

Ben: We want to make it feel immersive, we want you to see something and feel rewarded by it. We have to animate everything, and have everything covered because someone might still be in that room.

Diana Williams: Because I’m a big gamer I’ll just come in and start shooting everything, but if you just want to stand there and look all around, then for those people you want to provide – whether it’s an easter egg or just the look or the feel of everything that happens on Mustafar – then you want that all around you.

Ben: Some people want to hang with K-2SO and some people want to blast things.

Cliff: We don’t want to tell the guests everything, because a big part of this is discovering your own little story within the experience.

FT: You’re obviously keen on everything being driven by the story, but does the advent of new technology drive the story processes or does the story always lead?

Diana: Story will pop first, but what technology is able to do is to make each of us work better and work faster and be more efficient in terms of what’s the story we want to tell, and what’s the important story that can work well with that tech.

What’s great about the VOID is realising this is the first time anyone will step literally into the Star Wars universe and into a Star Wars story. The feel of it, the smell of it, everything. Then it was figuring out what is the story that can best encapsulate what the VOID does really well.

Ben: We ask ourselves, what is unique about the VOID and what is unique about VR, and tailor the experience to that. Could I tell this in another way? If so, then maybe it’s not so relevant. How do we make this something you experience in the way you get in the VOID? What can we do to exploit that?

FT: With the adventure being set in the era before the events of Rogue One and A New Hope, the presence of a certain Lord of the Sith is sure to draw attention. Why chose this particular era, especially with the Sequel Trilogy in full swing.

Diana: There’s always going to be an interest in the life of Vader, other than what you’ve seen on screen so far. Mustafar is so fascinating and once we started talking with the VOID we realised that the heat and smell, it became a smart marriage between story and platform.

Ben: Mustafar is a rich environment and there’s an element of mystery that people are interested in, particularly in this era.

FT: A project the size of Secrets of the Empire required immense innovation. What makes this project different?

Cliff: Look at the VR of the last several years. It’s been about the gadget. The way we tried to approach this was being driven by the creative. We developed the technology to go beyond what we had done in the past. We integrated a lot of components that we can buy, and there’s a lot that we had to develop ourselves in order to achieve an effect that we want to emphasize in the story itself. There’s a lot of different technologies that we’re using in there. What I like about it is it’s not just computer graphics, the physical aspects which make it really special.

Ben: x-LAB and story group and VOID really closely collaborated, and the VOID team wanted to try different things. The VOID pushing their side of the technology as well as us pushing ours.

Cliff: It started off with low tech.

Diana: We cleared my office out and we used masking tape on the floor to mimic what you guys went through in there. We started to walk it through, and we had post-it notes all over the place. One said ‘here we get gun, something happens’. Myself and Curtis Hickman who’s one of the co-founders of the VOID, we just started to walk through and see feel like what we could possibly do in this room, what we could possibly do in that room, with the framework being that we’re infiltrating an Imperial facility and what does that mean? Especially in this time period because not only is this parallel tracks, this is the first time that a Star Wars fan can walk into a Star Wars story. It’s also the initial time that the Rebels are asking ‘what are we walking into here, who is this guy?’ This is an exciting period for fans.

FT: It certainly made you take a step back when he enters the room.

Diana: Oh yeah, because you don’t know what it is. You are a rebel in this time period, there’s no alliance yet, you’re just trying to gather intel. Diego Luna came back especially for this. This adds another dimension to his character.

Ben: Alan Tudyk actually came to visit us at ILMxLAB and a we did a couple of days of mocap with him and then some audio and he was fantastic, he brought a lot to the part. He ad-libs and he went through it with us about a week or so ago and he was like ‘That’s my line’. He was great and he didn’t exactly know what to expect. When we did the motion capture he can see himself as K-2SO on the monitors, but not this sort of figure.

FT: How close to the edges of the technology are you?  George would famously say to ILM ‘I need this doing’ and you guys (looking at Ben Snow) would say ‘How do we do that’, and problem solve on the fly. Was it a similar thing with this, were you comfortable within the tech?

Cliff: No, you’re never comfortable. You’re always pushing it.

Ben: We were pushing the edges on this. One of the things we really strove to do with this project was push the look of it, to be as close to the movies as possible. We were able to start with K-2SO from the film, then of course we have to make it work in real time, 90 frames per second in stereo. He’s got the same shaders, the same textures, and that’s something that we pushed with this project. Likewise, for some of the biggest simulations and effects we had to make new technologies to bring that from what we do for a movie into real time.

FT: Were any of the assets brought over from ILM?

Ben: Yeah, all of them. K-2SO was, the troopers were, Vader’s ship. And then we built some specifically, but we used the same pipeline.

With an immense project like this there must have been fresh elements brought in to the show. What was the best new thing they introduced?

Cliff: You don’t think about it when you’re making a movie, but what does Mustafar smell like?

Ben: I would say my best bit was the lava skiff ride, but that’s not that glamourous really.

Diana: Yes, it’s great that we’re pushing technology and everything but we’re always iterating on it. At one point Curtis and I were doing a run through it and we get through the doors after the lava flea does the spew and you walk through I thought ‘this is lava’ so we have lava on the floor.

FT: Yeah, I stepped over it.

Diana: You stepped over it? We have to have something squishy in case you step on it, so we went out and bought a bunch of stuff and started stepping on things to figure out what could it feel like, as people who have never walked on lava, so that was pretty fun. It was low tech but it adds a little bit to the experience. Most people do jump over the lava because that makes more sense, but for those who want to walk through the lava there’s that little surprise of a squishy floor.

Ben: ILMxLAB is really committed to this kind of experiential thing, but we’re also working on other things. I think the partnership with the VOID allowed us to get the best of this, you’re actually going through it. I kind of like hanging out with K-2SO in the puzzle room, although the blasting is fun. I can see myself hanging out in there, spending time in that environment.

Diana: That’s the thing with the VR environment, location based can do things that you can’t do at home. From our angle as storytellers, especially at Lucasfilm, is that you can do things that feed into each other. What the VOID does nicely, when you’re out on that ledge, you’re seeing out into this expanse that also opens up the possibilities of other stories that can be told within the world.

FT: Is the hope that this will go on tour, are there other facilities set up, is this the one?

Cliff: Stay tuned.

Huge thanks to Myf Ryan, Chief Marketing Officer, Westfield UK & Europe, Andrew Darrow, Chief Strategy and Business Development Officer, The VOID, Tracy Hickman from The VOID, Anna Hill, Chief Marketing Officer, Disney UK & Ireland and Sarah Hird from Disney UK for their assistance.