Ravindra Velhal, Intel’s Global Content Policy Strategist and 8K lead, wants to democratise technology and make it affordable and accessible to even the novoice immersive and volumetric filmmakers in order to help transform the creative industry from Lights, Camera, Action to Lights, Compute, and Action. The man behind many revolutionary ideas and creations opens up in a candid interview with Pickle explaining how technology is pushing the boundaries of filmmaking globally
From pixels to voxels, you have been part of the digital transformation in the media. How has been the 25-year journey? Intel has been at the forefront of computing innovation for more than five decades.
It’s been a thrilling ride, to say the least. For more than five decades, Intel has been driving innovation in computing that touches every human being on the planet. We have been at the forefront of emerging technologies used by the entertainment industry worldwide to deliver rich content and provide consumers with exciting immersive digital experiences for the past 25 years. In the early 1990s, under the visionary leadership of Intel’s CEO Andy Grove, and now current CEO Pat Gelsinger (Andy’s Tech Advisor and Jeff Lawrence, Andy’s Copyright Lawyer back then), Intel began driving and establishing content/technology policy with the “Market not Mandate” principle between US Regulators, Hollywood, Consumer electronics, and Technology providers.
It all started in the 1990s with the creation of the Broadcast Flag, contributions to DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) regulation, the DVD standard, the first CDN (Content Delivery Network), and DRM for content access. A typical media format transition cycle lasts 7 years (e.g., from SD (DVD) to HD (Blu-Ray)/4K/8K). Work begun in the mid-1990s and early 2000s with a slew of associated technologies and standards (H.264/H.265, DVD, Blu-Ray, DRMUltraViolet, USB, WiFi, HDMI, Cloud, AI, now 5G) was critical in bringing high-quality media playback of Hollywood blockbusters to PCs, laptops, gaming consoles, STBs, Smart TVs, and mobile devices. Intel technology has powered the digitization initiatives in Hollywood and the global media industry for the last three decades and continues to drive the future of storytelling through 8K, immersive Cinema, and beyond by constantly engaging with global studios and innovators to bring the first ever Volumetric and immersive Cinema experiences to life.
Intel technology is used in the creation, distribution, content protection, consumption, and other stages of nearly every major Hollywood and global film. To provide the best viewing experiences for consumers, major studios, postproduction houses, virtual production and visual effects companies rely on Intel technologies such as Intel® Xeon® Scalable and Intel® CoreTM processors, memory technology, AI, 5G networking solutions to drive transformation at network-edge-cloud, and One API, development toolkits like SDV is for open source raytracing.
From the time you had landed from India to the US, you had a breezy journey. Could you share some of the most memorable moments in the convergence of tech and content?
I had a humble upbringing in Sangli, Maharashtra, India, where I completed my Engineering degrees despite numerous setbacks. We had few technical resources, but our college library had every issue of IEEE journals. During our school days, my younger brother Ajit Velhal and I developed and patented a prototype and research paper on “Genome sequencing and pattern recognition,” which received awards from the Instrument Society of America and widespread attention in 1994. This sparked my interest in imaging, which grew into a passion during my internship at Siemens Medical R&D and has taken it to a whole new level over the last 25 years with Eastman Kodak Research, Intel Research, and since 2008 with Hollywood initiatives, Immersive Cinema productions, and driving 8K live initiatives at the Olympics games in Tokyo 2020.
In 1998, I was working at Eastman Kodak Research in the outskirts of Washington, DC, on an early consumer grade flagship digital camera and “film to digital” consumer project, which was producing only thumbnail quality digital pictures. Within a year of joining Intel, I began working on the Proshare initiative, which allowed users to video conference with someone on the opposite side of the world over the internet. That was just wow. At Intel Research, I worked on several early stage media encoders technologies, media devices and phone that can consume media.
The rate of invention and convergence of “Tech Meets Story” has been exceptional, from thumbnail size digital photos in the mid 1990s to 8K quality live video and now “beyond resolution” volumetric filmmaking. From the legendary “Thousand songs in your pocket” moment to today “Million movies and TV episodes at your fingertip delivered from the cloud,” technology and the art of storytelling are revolutionising our lives on a daily basis, and I’ve been able to do my small part. Platforms are continuously multiplying and borders are blurring day by day.
What is the most ambitious global initiative in media and entertainment that you want to fulfil?
Help transform creative industry from Lights, Camera, Action to Lights, Compute, Action to drive tech meets story globally along with democratization of technology and affordable access to anyone who desires. More than 100 high resolution cameras filmed everything that light can see during the production of Grease in Volumetric at Intel Studios (the world’s largest Volumetric stage), generating and processing more than 5 Trillion pixels in less than three minutes. This is a cutting-edge technology production from Hollywood. How can this be democratised and made available to even the most inexperienced volumetric filmmaker? We did just that with the Museum of Tomorrow lab in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where a small but dedicated team of filmmakers and technologists used a less than $1,000 setup to capture Amazonian Tribal ritual artists in volumetric and completed a project that I presented at CannesXR. This is the power of storytelling unleashed through the use of affordable technologies, regardless of where you live.
What are your major learnings working in different continents… embracing change?
A fast pace of innovation and creativity is a global phenomenon. Working with people from various cultures, backgrounds, and walks of life broadens your mind, fosters creativity and teamwork, broadens your horizons, teaches you to appreciate their points of view, and makes you more humble. The more you work with a diverse group of people (both inside and outside of your workplace) all over the world, the more you realise how little you know. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with amazing people from all over the world, both at work and outside of work, who have had a significant impact on my life.
I was fortunate to have excellent mentors both inside and outside of Intel. Legendary chefs such as Alex Atala from Brazil provided me with a crash course in the Indo-Brazilian epicurean connection dating back to the 15th century. Virgilio Martinez, a Peruvian chef, can teach us about sustainable Panchamama heritage. One encounter with legendary Spanish chefs Adria brothers, Albert and Ferran Adria can be life-changing in terms of understanding the deep meaning of Passion and Creativity. I am a firm believer in what Albert Adria once said: “Creativity is 20% knowledge, 20% inspiration, and 60% intensity.”
Working with Randal Kleiser can provide you with more institutional knowledge about filmmaking than any textbook will ever provide. Listening to Jeff Lawrence (my boss and mentor) can provide youwith encyclopaedic knowledge of the media industry’s history since its inception. As a member of the delegation, I learned about drive, determination, hard work, and dedication from world leaders like PM Narendra Modi and former US President Obama. The world is flat; all you have to do is get out of your comfort zone, find inspiration, embrace change, and go do something amazing. “Don’t be complacent, complacency will lead to failure, and thats why only the paranoid will survive,” Andy Grove had once said.
What brought you to AR/VR and immersive cinema and where are we heading in that space? How did you get immersed in the virtual reality experience in the cinema? How do you describe the immersive revolution? What have we seen, what is to be seen…
Immersion is defined as anything that allows you to experience yourself in a completely new dimension. The industry has progressed through various stages of immersion, from the first moving picture to BW Cinema, from colour to sound, and from sensory exploration (motion, olfactory, haptics) to AR/VR/XR/Metaverse. Around 2015, I began my journey into Immersive Cinema (primarily VR Cinema and later multi-format volumetric).
During 2016-17, I had the opportunity to collaborate with AR Rahman, LeMusk Sensory Cinema VRE, Warner Bros/Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk-Save Every Breath Cinema VRE, and Sony Picture Entertainment’s Spider-Man: Homecoming Virtual Reality, all at the same time (and many sleepless nights). Each project was unique, but they all pushed the boundaries of Cinematic Storytelling in a medium that did not exist before. It’s both exciting and terrifying at the same time. VREs, which have capitalised on successful films such as Oscar contender Dunkirk and Spider-Man: Homecoming, bring stories to life for moviegoers long after they’ve left the theatre. With the release of Le Musk, the first VR multi-sensory motion encoded, olfactory feature film on Positron VR chairs, VR is poised to become the newest film medium.
As virtual reality has changed the quation, technology has started to change the future of filmmaking. It has pushed boundaries, defined new expressions for storytellers, and provided audiences with new immersive multi-sensory experiences, allowing them to become a part of the story and explore and expand new dimensions. This is extremely powerful. According to Matthew Lewis, president of Practical Magic, and director and producer of Dunkirk VR Experience, the world Christopher Nolan created for Dunkirk played right into the strengths of VR.
While 360-degree VR videos are optimized for HD and 4K media, the production company had to stitch images 40 times that resolution for this VR experience. Using Dell blade servers and workstations that were powered by Intel Xeon processors, Practical Magic had real-time access to high-resolution media during the post-production process during Dunkirk VRE.
I humbly believe, best is yet to be experienced as creators and tech keep on pushing the boundaries of immersive storytelling.
How did volumetric production evolve in Sony Innovation Studios, and what was its impact on filmmaking?
With the creation of Intel Studios in 2018, the industry began to shift from pixels to voxel (pixel with depth information), allowing you to step into the movie from any angle because it captures everything that light can see. Grease Volumetric Cinema with Paramount Pictures set industry standards by capturing and processing more than 5 trillion pixels for a three-minute song using Intel technologies. Sony Innovation Studio collaborated with Intel, Dell Deloitte, and Sony Pictures on volumetric digital set acquisition, which enabled a whole new business model for virtual production and expanded technical possibilities. During Spider-Man: Far From Home Virtual Reality, the entire Tony Stark Jet was scanned with sub-millimeter accuracy using billions upon billions of point clouds, processed, and rendered, allowing you to step into the virtual set. Once set is digitally captured at extremely high resolution, possibilities for filmmakers are endless.
How did Le Musk happen with A R Rahman?
A strong emotional connection is the foundation of creativity, and this is the mutual bond that I share with AR Rahman. When I learned about A R Rahman’s vision to create a full-length immersive LeMusk, Sensory Cinema VRE, a romantic story with olfactory experiences, I began working with him in 2016. Nothing of this magnitude, with full Ambisonic audio immersion, high resolution stereoscopic 360 VR, and a scent-driven story on a motion chair, has ever been attempted in the world of cinema. That’s when we started experimenting and exploring new ways to push the bounds and boundaries of immersive cinema in ways that had never been done before. Motion elicits emotion in users who experience this on a PC-powered Positron VR chairs, allowing you to experience the subtle art of immersive storytelling without feeling overwhelmed. So far, the response to the Prelude to LeMusk and Scent of a Song from LeMusk has been phenomenal, and we can’t wait to bring full length LeMusk Sensory Cinema VRE soon.
We are entering the endemic phase in the aftermath of COVID-19; how do you see the change? You had 8K live streaming of the Tokyo Olympics at the height of COVID?
We’ve been working with 8K for several years and have previously live-streamed video in 8K during a live test trial this past December. What makes this project unique is that it is the first live 8K 60 fps 10-bit HDR broadcast of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to use the Open Public Internet, with over 4.7 PetaBytes of 8K data captured, processed, and streamed over the course of 19 days of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Despite the challenges, Intel and partners such as NHK, Globo, and the Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS) wanted to try and find solutions to advance wider 8K global adoption, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was a great place to do so. Despite the challenges, my team and I believe it is worthwhile. We did all of this to ensure that our viewers are completely immersed in the event. We brought stadium-quality immersive TV experience in stunning 8K/60FPS/HDR to our audiences across several continents because they were not allowed to be inside the stadium to cheer on their favourite athletes and teams. We really wanted you to feel like you were there. This project was named iABM Project of the Year 2021.
You’ve brought immersive cinema and virtual reality to Marche; what’s your personal experience?
AR Rahman’s Prelude to LeMusk, Warner Bros., Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk Save Every Breathe in Virtual Reality, and Rio Carnival VRE with GloboTVBrasil in 2018. Universal Pictures’ FirstMan VRE, LeMusk’s Scent of a Song, and Grease Volumetric Cinema in mixed reality and hologram were launched at on Positron motion VR chairs in 2018-19. Repangia, a Techno-Shamanic volumetric social VR experience from Brazilian Amazonian tribes in 2020, has previously made it to Marche du Film’s CannesXR during the Cannes Film Festival. The audience response was incredible, with long lines forming to see the future of immersive cinema at CannesXR. Over the years, I’ve given about 7 keynote speeches and producers roundtable at Cannes, as well as a fireside chat with A R Rahman. Over the years, CannesXR has evolved into a premium destination for advancing immersive cinema powered by technology.
You have made significant contributions to the advancement of India’s media sector (FICCIFRAMES)… Where do you see India going in the future?
In 2009, Yash Chopra, a legendary Indian director and FICCI appointed me as an advisor to bridge the gap between Hollywood and the Indian film and television industries. For the past 14 years, I have worked with the Indian film industry to provide early technology access and knowhow, as well as to lead media policy with FICCI at various levels. With a rich heritage and history, India is a land of storytellers and billion dreamers. Incentivizing the AVGC sector, embracing virtual production workflow for content creators, and developing a national level policy for digital preservation of cultural heritage and monuments across India for future generations will all contribute significantly to the industry’s growth.
5G is being deployed in a number of countries across the world; what effect will 5G have on computing and cinema?
According to the ‘5G Economics of Entertainment Report,’ 5G will accelerate content consumption, including mobile media, mobile advertising, home broadband, Cinema, and TV, as well as improve experiences across a wide range of new immersive and interactive technologies, thereby unleashing the full potential of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and new media. By 2028, immersive and new media applications – applications and capabilities that currently do not exist – will reach unprecedented scale. The average monthly traffic per 5G subscriber will increase from 11.7GB in 2019 to 84.4GB in 2028, when video will account for 90% of all 5G traffic. We brought SpiderMan: Far From Home’s first ever multiplayer VRE experience over 5G during MWC 2019 with Sony Pictures to harness the power of 5G for immersive cinema.
From Eastman Kodak to Intel… what three things have completely altered the world of media today?
Fast pace of innovation, Compute Power and Transformation happening at edge-network-cloud, AI are rapidly transforming media industry from lights, camera, action to Lights, Camera, Compute and action.
What are your plans for this year’s NABShow?
I’ve been attending NAB Show since 2008 and have spoken on several occasions. In 2014, Kamal Hassan, myself, and a fellow panellist delivered a session at the NAB to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Indian cinema. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is a global platform for learning about advancements in the media and entertainment industries. At the Intel booth, we showcased Prelude to LeMusk with AR Rahman in 2017, the first ever 8K encode-decode in 2017, and the first ever 16K playback in 2018. This year, I will be speaking at the “Capitalizing Hollywood
Technology” panel on April 26th with my industry colleagues from HP, Microsoft, and Verizon, moderated by Story-Tech, Chief Tech Catalyst Lori Schwartz, as well as showcasing 8K/60fps/HDR end to end Olympic games Tokyo 2020 workflow and Olympics games highlights at NAB Future Zone with 8K Association.