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Immersion and Insurrection: Inside the ‘Hunger Games’ Virtual Reality Experience

The 360-degree experience immersed viewers in the world of Katniss Everdeen, presenting a recap of key moments in the previous films that led up to a short tease for the new film.

To promote the final film in the Hunger Games series, Lionsgate and Samsung Electronics partnered in the creation of a virtual reality experience that delivers exclusive content and state-of-the-art VR technology to fans. The film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, opened in wide release on Nov. 20. The Hunger Games Samsung promotion launched nearly two months earlier, in early October.

Starting on Oct. 2, visitors to Samsung Experience Shops, which are located in more than 1,000 Best Buy stores nationwide, gained access to a never-before-seen trailer for the film presented on a Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 tablet and got a one-minute sneak peek at the Hunger Games VR experience with a Samsung Gear VR headset.

The full, six-minute VR experience (The Hunger Games Virtual Reality Experience Powered by Samsung) premiered at an event at a New York City art space on Oct. 9 and was available to anyone who waited in line to don the Oculus-equipped Samsung Gear VR head-mounted display through Oct. 11. The 360-degree experience immersed viewers in the world of Katniss Everdeen, presenting a recap of key moments in the previous films that led up to a short tease for the new film.

The VR experience was designed by Reel FX. The project employed more than 25 Reel FX VR artists and technologists across many specialties and within many mediums. The team was led by creative director Colin McGreal. A mix of traditional long- and short-form VFX and CG artists teamed up with Unreal developers with gaming backgrounds to craft an experience that feels like a “mini-film” rather than a game, and features complex transitions, detailed environments and characters from the Hunger Games franchise to bring the story to life.

Following its public debut, the 360-degree VR experience became available for download on Gear VR on Oct. 12. It’s now also available on YouTube 360, where it may be watched in stereoscopic 3D VR with a Google Cardboard viewing device and the YouTube app for Android.

The Lionsgate creative team notes the challenges implicit in creating a virtual experience for die-hard fans who already have a strong connection to the brand. “Fans of this series are very passionate about their favorite aspects, characters and moments from the films,” says Danielle DePalma, executive vice president of worldwide digital marketing and research for the motion picture group at Lionsgate. “It would be impossible to include everything, so the challenge was to include enough, while also blending key story aspects into a cohesive whole, since those moments are spatially and chronologically disparate.”

To achieve the objective of presenting both general thematic elements and specific plot points, the creative team had to approach the VR project more conceptually. The experience takes viewers through a dreamlike scenario in which these iconic scenes and characters exist, caught in time, in a single and nearly continuous “meta-environment.”

The key here isn’t necessarily interaction but immersion, according to David Edwards, vice president of digital marketing for the motion picture group at Lionsgate. “We aspired to take advantage of every dimension that linear, non-interactive VR allows for. As you move gently through the experience, you’ll see actions take place directly in front of you, above and beneath you, to both sides and even behind you,” explains Edwards. “Hopefully, viewers feel rewarded for watching this piece multiple times, and looking in various directions, noticing new things each time.”

The designers were careful to avoid creating situations that would move users quickly, or carelessly, so as to avoid subjecting them to an uncomfortable viewing experience. It’s not only fans who benefit from that consideration—Edwards notes that the designers had to watch the experience countless times during development.

The Hunger Games isn’t the first film franchise to use VR for promotion, but it is among the most prominent, which may raise expectations for viewers. The team at Lionsgate was up for the challenge of designing an experience that would appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Balance was paramount to ensure that the VR film would please die-hard fans without alienating newcomers.

“There are always expectations with highly visible movie franchises like The Hunger Games,” says DePalma, “so rather than looking at previous film-based VR projects, we looked at the entire VR landscape as one giant case study to learn from. The primary objective of the project was, of course, to promote the upcoming release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. For this to be successful, the experience would need to tease the events of the final film without revealing too much, or being too coy and exclusionary [in a way that would] alienate viewers who are less familiar with the stories.”

The team accomplished this goal in part by ending on what DePalma describes as an “orchestrally-telegraphed cliffhanger,” where the final scene in the experience depicts a significant moment that savvy fans would recognize as crucial and casual fans would regard as intriguing.

While virtual reality technology has not yet been used to deliver a full-length feature film, the possibility is being considered, though the medium would change the mechanics of the experience.

“VR coexists with films and gaming as a new storytelling medium in which viewers can truly feel that they exist inside the fictitious world they adore, or simply want to learn more about,” says Edwards. “VR is already proving itself to be a wildly fulfilling entertainment medium. Seeing eye-to-eye with a beloved character, within their world and detached from your own, can be a very emotionally stirring experience, especially for a fan already predisposed and willing to let go.”