Inside Grateful Dead's 'Truckin' Virtual Reality Experience
This year's Tribeca Film Festival has hosted projects involving Tom Hanks, photographer Mick Rock, Ricky Gervais, Kevin Spacey — and, oh yes, the Grateful Dead. Premiering at the downtown New York film fest this week, Grateful Dead: Truckin' is a slice of concert footage from one of the reunited band's "Fare Thee Well" shows last summer.
Starting with 1977's The Grateful Dead Movie, the Dead are hardly newcomers to the performance-movie world, but Truckin' adds a new twist: It was shot in virtual reality. "You're not just looking at a screen," says Cliff Plumer, president of Jaunt Studios, who produced the immersive concert experience. "With VR, you can look anywhere. If you weren't able to get a ticket or lived in a part of world where you can't get access to these concerts, this is the next best thing."
Using five cameras — three on stage and two in the crowd — Jaunt was able to capture both the band playing the classic title song and the stadium crowd (Levi's in Santa Clara, California) from different perspectives. After putting on your VR goggles, you'll find yourself standing almost directly in front of the stage, only a few feet away from Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Trey Anastasio. (You can see, up close, the moment when Lesh looks at Weir for a nudge when it's time to launch into the bridge.) Look behind you (and up and down), and you'll see the stadium full of dancing, cheering Deadheads as well as cameramen and security guards.
At other points in the 12-minute film, the angle shifts to the side of the stage near Anastasio; with a turn of the head, you're standing next to the soundman and roadies. Elsewhere, the camera is positioned behind pianist Bruce Hornsby, and you see (and hear) things from his perspective; shift your head to the right and, hey, there's proud Deadhead Bill Walton standing near you!
And when the band starts into the most recognizable part of "Truckin'"— the "what a long, strange trip it's been" line — you'll find yourself in the front rows of the crowd, right next to fans shooting the show on their cell phones and dancing along. "There's nothing like Deadheads and their fun and spirit," says Plumer, "and that's not something typically captured by traditional media."
Jaunt has previously worked with Paul McCartney and Jack White on VR footage; the chance to film the Dead came about in part due to proximity of the reunion shows to the company. "They were basically in our backyard, Silicon Valley," says Plumer, former chief technology officer of Lucasfilm. But there's also a high-tech bond: Given the way the Dead were long on the forefront of stage and gear technology, from PA systems to MIDI, the band's interest in VR is in keeping with their tech fascination. (Longtime Dead soundman Dennis "Wiz" Leonard served as sound engineer.)
A far more immersive and less gimmicky experience than 3-D, virtual reality still has its challenges when it comes to bringing in newcomers. "We're learning what consumers are comfortable with," Plumer says. "It's still about the weight of the goggles and wearing them for a long period of time. Most of what you're seeing in VR is short form, a couple of minutes." [For example: Invasion!, a delightful six-minute bunny-vs.-aliens VR short also at Tribeca, by Madagascar director Eric Darnell.] "Whereas a single Dead song," he adds, "can be something like 20 minutes."
Still, films like Truckin' represent a potential new era for music VR. A few years ago, 3D concert films appeared to be the future; thanks to high production costs, low box-office grosses and the novelty losing its luster, the genre petered out. This year, Jaunt will again be working with McCartney on virtually-reality footage of his current tour, and the company has also discussed the possibility of shooting VR clips of summer's shows featuring the Dead spin-off, Dead & Company.
Jaunt filmed the entirety of the reformed Dead's two Santa Clara "Fare Thee Well" shows, a total of nine hours of footage, but plans have not yet been finalized about releasing the rest of the concerts. "We're working in conjunction with the band about when to release more," says Plumer. "We want to make it available to the fans." It remains to be seen if one important sensory experience will be replicated, of course: the scent of weed. "We're working on that," Plumer says with a laugh.
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