ACL Shoots VR Features

Austin City Limits uses virtual reality technology for online series of short documentaries

  • by Chad Swiatecki
  • Published: February 7, 2018

Austin-based VR tech firm SubVRsive led the filming of the "ACL: Backstage" series at the ACL Live at the Moody Theater. (SubVRsive)

Virtual reality technology has become a part of one of the best-known live music brands in the industry: Austin City Limits.

The iconic public television program has produced a series of online 360-degree short documentaries called "ACL: Backstage" that feature interviews and performance footage from recent performers including Ed Sheeran, Father John Misty and Run the Jewels, with the full slate of docs set for gradual release through March.

Austin-based VR technology company SubVRsive led the filming and production of the series at the Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, using Google VR capabilities in a partnership sponsored by Apple Music.

The "ACL: Backstage" episodes present a mix of the series' well-known live music performances with interview footage and segments with artists traveling around Austin and interacting with the community, but with the option to change the perspective and viewpoint of what's on the screen. Those behind the episodes said that telling a story using the emerging technology was an important consideration, rather than simply releasing raw performance footage that users could manipulate but could quickly lose interest in.

"We're not just letting them feel like they're in the venue and that's it, and instead these are stories about the artists with a narrative arc," said Tom Gimbel, general manager of the Austin City Limits television series. "We wanted to use this technology in a subversive way and be storytellers with it. We've found that people tend to watch the entire episode once to get the story we're telling them, and then go back a second time to look all around at what Ed Sheeran was seeing while he was performing."

The VR episodes had their premiere in November on the ACL YouTube channel, with the content viewable on mobile and desktop platforms and through the use of Google's Daydream View and Cardboard headset.

Gimbel said he and others involved in the series started taking meetings four years ago with VR companies interested in leveraging the ACL brand. Considerations included the quality of the technology available and the ability of potential partners to integrate the VR filming with the stationary, handheld and crane cameras used to produce each episode of the television series.

The two companies are in talks to film a second set of "ACL: Backstage" episodes for the show's coming 44th season.

Looking at what the technology could mean for the live music industry as a whole, Gimbel is bullish.

"As a fan I don't think there's a way to beat being there live, but I think VR can be a game changer for live music on TV and can be the next best thing as the technology improves and we start to experience audio in a 360-degree way," he said. "It's a fun way to experience live music, sports and any events that revolve around being in a community and sharing a common experience."

The ACL series is the latest high-profile production for SubVRsive, which has also produced content for "Showtime Championship Boxing," MTV and brands such as Marc Jacobs, Comcast and Sam's Club.

Austin Mace, the company's co-founder and chief creative officer, said live events represent some of the content most effective in attracting new consumers to the format and educating them on the ways VR can be presented and consumed.

"There's still lots of education going on, like how do you experience it, where do you go to try it, and what kind of hardware do you need?" he said. "These kinds of series are necessary to help the technology evolve and become more commonplace. With people like [sports owners and entertainment executives] Mark Cuban and Peter Guber investing in this, there's more coming on the horizon.

"For a while there were maybe a dozen players trying to do things in VR, but as the cost on cameras and other technology has come down, that has created more opportunity to create content in VR. There's lots of experimenting going on and people finding new ways for the medium to enhance the story, the live concert or other event."

  • by Chad Swiatecki
  • Published: February 7, 2018