After mounting incredible virtual reality experiences around Ghostbusters (Dimension), Wreck-It Ralph (Ralph Breaks VR) and Star Wars (Secrets of the Empire), The VOID and ILMxLAB have partnered again to create the ultimate wish-fulfillment opportunity for fans of Marvel Studios Entertainment: Avengers: Damage Control, an all-new interactive playground where participants not only get to don their own version of Iron Man’s suit, but fight alongside the Avengers against Ultron in a battle filled with fun, excitement and just a little bit of danger. Nerdist visited the Disney Accelerator building in Glendale, California offices last week to experience The VOID’s Damage Control first hand, and speak with several members of the creative team that made it possible for ordinary people to become heroes for a day.
Set after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Damage Control opens with a visit to the Wakandan Outreach Centre, where a typically irreverent Shuri (Letitia Wright) shuffles you and your companions through a brief introduction to the technology she’s added to suits based on Iron Man’s armor. Combining the energy-absorption technology she implemented in the Black Panther suit with Stark armor and repulsor rays, Shuri outfits participants in the suits – and none too soon, because an alert sends them out into the field to learn on the job how to use them as Ultron threatens to wreak havoc once again on earth’s populace. Before long, you’re bouncing from one familiar Avengers landscape to the next – including Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, and eventually, the launch pad of a Helicarrier – as you fight off Ultron’s foot soldiers, and occasionally interact with members of the superhero team.
Marvel Studios and ILMxLAB
Although not all of the real-life Avengers actors were able to reprise their roles for Damage Control, it’s a thrill to trade dialogue with Wright as Shuri, Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly as Ant-Man and Wasp, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange. Additionally, the interactivity of the experience feels unparalleled in terms of its technological sophistication, and tangibility; ID cards pop up in your view screen to identify foes (and friends), help direct you to the next location, and test your orientation as the creators skillfully explore what it would be like to utilize various Avengers’ superpowers, such as shrinking or growing.
Afterward, Nerdist sat down for a conversation with three members of the creative team: Dave Bushore, Executive Producer, Michael Koperwas, Visual Director, and Ian Bowie, Experience Director. In addition to touching on the elements of existing mythology they hoped to expand for this virtual reality experience, the trio talked about some of the initial challenges they faced enabling users to become superheroes in THE VOID, and reflected on some of the more specific hurdles – and opportunities – they looked forward to tackling as they created Damage Control.
What was the original concept for Damage Control, and given the relationship of the actors to the characters, what were the initial hurdles you faced integrating the Avengers so actively into an experience like this?
Dave Bushore: It was really trying to find a way to tell an Avengers-level VR experience – giving people the opportunity to immerse themselves in that world, so that it feels like you’re in the movie. Because people want to relive their favorite moments, but inside of that do something new. So it was about how do you make it feel emotional and still epic in a medium with which we’ve never worked before as Marvel Studios. But xLAB, this is their third go-round, and that was actually great because I’m coming at it from being a newbie, but they’ve been down that dark, dark road before. But they never really said no unless it was like, “Look, we literally can’t do that.” So it was about how can we push the boundaries? How many characters can we get in there? How much dialogue can we get in there?
Michael Koperwas: Your enthusiasm is just so infectious and that you would just constantly come in with like, “Okay, I’ve been thinking about this for the past 16 hours. I haven’t slept, and I’ve got this crazy idea.” We’re like, “Well maybe, okay, let’s try this thing and this thing.” And we’d all just push each other and we were constantly like, this is for fans – this is going to make this incredible experience. That was our goal.
Bushore: But I think you run into challenges, like when Spider-Man shows up in the experience and you have that shrinking moment. So many people have come out when we ask them what’s their favorite moment, and they say, “Oh, I love the shrinking because it was unexpected,” and the perspective change and so on and so forth. And those are always things we wanted to explore was changing perspective, and traversability and all that. But then you start to go, okay, if Spider-Man’s going to show up, why? It can’t just be that he shows up and leaves, because people have waited their whole lives to be there with him. So it’s all a balancing act and I think the xLAB team took the challenges of us saying, “All these characters, all these locations, make it look a real,” and did it and pulled it off in amazing fashion. And for us it was about, as long as it feels like it hits that Avengers bar for people then, then that’s a success, in that people get to step in there and experience that.
Marvel Studios and ILMxLAB
You guys also play with the mind and the body a bit with an Escher-like stairwell in Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum.
Bushore: That it was something for us where people want to go to iconic locations, and they want to go to new locations to explore. But when you’re going to the Sanctum, you know what it is to some degree and you’re going to have the blanks filled in your mind when you walk in there. And the Void working with ILMxLAB came up with that trick – and that’s the great thing about having a technology partner in the Void that can do traversal-based LBE VR and you have someone like xLAB that can then execute that on a technology perspective and bring it to life visually for us. For me, the first time I stepped in there it was like, yep, okay, that’s the Sanctum. Cool, right? And so it’s very much a partnership in that way.
Koperwas: And so much of the partnership also came from creating something that was, I think, greater than the sum of its parts. We’ve been working on this for a while, but not always all together, and pieces don’t feel right until they all come together and you get the traversal, you get to walk, you get the 4-D effects, you get all those moments and you get the right actors involved. And then suddenly everything just sings and we’re all clapping like kids again.
How much in advance of the last two Avengers movies did development of this begin in terms of knowing what the story was going to be?
Bushore: We were developing this while those films were in production and in post and then in theaters, so that was definitely part of the thought process. When you say it’s Avengers, there’s so many different ways you could go, so many different avenues. And there was plenty of stuff on the cutting room floor of this project just like there is with everything else – actor dialogue, like Paul and Evangeline are hilarious, Benedict’s hilarious and so you end up not putting stuff in there. But when you’re looking at what’s going on in the zeitgeist and in the last 10 years and you get the chance to do gesture-based mechanics, you are exploring a fantasy in that “I get to be Iron Man, I get to go to these places.” So the development of it from a story perspective was what did we want to take to the next level? We knew it was going to be the conversation of, “Oh, I get to step into this world for the first time?” You wanted to it to be a little bit familiar when you get to the Wakanda Outreach Centre for the first time. So we wanted to have those new things mixed with some of the “greatest hits” and nostalgia.
Did you have any concerns as you saw those movies come out about which iteration of a character might or should appear in the experience?
Bushore: Well, there’s always an “Oh, dammit”, right? And with this one, I think the oh, dammits are actually, wow, we could’ve done more, and not in a negative way, but it was always more characters, more dialogue, more story. We saw the designs from Endgame early on. We knew it was “fat Thor,” and we’d be like, can we do that? But then it was a conversation of, is that right here? Maybe not. But that’s also the fun of the Marvel Universe – it’s constantly evolving. So it’s was what was right for this experience. Because had the conversation around smart Hulk, and if you’re stepping into the universe, you want to smash with Hulk, right? And when Thor lands with the Bifrost Bridge and catches Stormbreaker, you want that [feeling]. So it’s a little mix of everything, which is the fun of having a new medium to work in.
Marvel Studios and ILMxLAB
Speaking of Thor, I’m curious about experiential Easter eggs. For example, I was wondering if when he shows up, he can charge your suit with his electricity. Are there opportunities to piggyback on the heroes like that?
Bushore: There was an iteration of that. When you look at how a Wakandan suit works and you look at the iconic moments from Avengers and the scene in the woods between Thor and Iron Man when he hits him with the lightning at 400%, we were like, “People are going to want to do that. They’re going to want to get charged up by the heroes.” But that actually became a creative point where we looked at that idea and then went, “If we need them to be the hero, well then we’re not really stepping in and becoming one in that vernacular.” It’s about you doing it – it’s about you and Ultron, and the suit’s there to protect you and keep you safe and so on and so forth. But when you look at the technology of it, it definitely came up creatively and then it was, “Can we do it?”
Ian Bowie: And for a lot of the answers, we would actually go through and get things to a point where we proved that it was working, but it’s always driven by what’s right for the story and the guest experience. And at that point, if Thor comes down and charges you up, and it’s like, “why is he wasting time charging us up instead of just attacking Ultron directly?” So we wanted to create situations that were believable and allowed us to step in and own that hero moment at the end and save the day yourself as opposed to just witnessing saving the day.
That idea makes sense, but there’s this other idea in the Avengers that’s integral, which is the complementary nature of their powers.
Bushore: We talked about that. And some of the development boards of how that final battle progressed, there’s stuff on the board that’s not in the experience. And then you have the conversation, why isn’t Dr. Strange just fixing this problem? We’ve seen what he can do and we’ve seen what they can do. Again, it’s about you being here and you want Captain Marvel to show up. You want her to cut them in half and then feel the heat from the blast. And then you look at those heroes and they go, “Oh well we solved the problem. See ya.” And then Ultron’s like, “I’m not dead yet, homies,” and comes back to life and now it’s on you. So there were plenty of moments where it was like, yeah, there’s plenty of Avengers that could fix this problem. They don’t need us. But that’s not much fun.
Featured Image: Marvel Studios and ILMxLAB.