Podcast: Brett Leonard

Noah Kadner: Brett Leonard is an American film director, producer, and music video director specializing in science fiction and horror. He also hosts a podcast called “What the F is the Metaverse.” One of Leonard’s first films, The Lawnmower Man, is considered the first significant movie to feature virtual reality as a cautionary tale long before our present fascination with all things virtual production. But before getting that far in his career, Leonard had plenty to learn about filmmaking.

Brett Leonard: I wanted to make films from the time I was two years old. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and my mother was a film fan. , and so, she raised me watching movies with her sometimes on the afternoon show, she’d keep me home from school. I could fake having a fever for my father who was a school principal.

So. Cinema was connected to me with mother love. So I just love cinema. And of course, being in Toledo, Ohio was very far. Where cinema was created. So, once I, hit teenage years, I started going out to California and, based out here very young, around 20 years old and, just, started to develop feature projects. I mean, a thing that can almost not happen now, someone from completely outside, no family money, no connections, nothing. Just, working a job in Santa Cruz, California. I did base up in Northern California and that really did affect my career because of course. Santa Cruz was the bedroom community for Silicon valley, the developing Silicon valley.

And so I got to hang out with people like jobs in Wosniak at a time when I was just forming as a filmmaker, and then of course, George Lucas and, , Francis colo were in bay area, Phil Kaufman, I mean, , this sort of red gate grew it of Renegade group of, , filmmakers who were also, extremely successful in Hollywood.

So, I never felt I needed to go to Hollywood to develop my career. I. from Santa Cruz. My first film was the zombie movie called The Dead Pit, which I made. Very cheaply. And it did very well actually, uh, in the home video world globally. And even in the dead pit, which is a very low budget film, I was doing miniatures explosions.

Trick prosthetic effects. I just was always into, how to integrate the tricks and tools of, cinema, from a special effect standpoint, which I didn’t see as special. I saw them as cinema . So when the digital computer came along, and that changed everything in terms of digital production.

I was part of that. I was there during that process of shifting from, the analog world to the digital world and at the very beginning of seeing, , the eruption of computer graphic effects and how that was changing everything. I came into contact with virtual reality, very early through a guy named jar Lanier who actually coined the term virtual reality. and then that led me to my second film, the lower man now the long man was really a movie designed to showcase. A true sort of cyber aesthetic of the CGI.

It wasn’t, , trying to be photo realistic, New York being blown up yet. It was more fanciful, , in . Connection to this, idea of virtual reality. So for me, I’ve been associated with, since the lawman popularized the term virtual reality globally as a film in 19 2 30 years ago, I’ve been, bleeding from, being a, just a storyteller of virtual reality and technology to actually working with the actual medium and.

Technology of virtual environments, virtual experience, immersive experience, all of those things writ large many, many projects over the years. So I’ve been thinking about virtual production and these tools for a very long time.

Noah Kadner: Leonard faced intense challenges in depicting the high technology and virtual worlds we take for granted today but thirty years ago were science fiction concepts.

Brett Leonard: It was crazy. To make future films and especially to make cutting edge, technologically sophisticated future films on a budget means you have to be mad. But you have to find other people that are mad and insane and. Talented in their areas to go along with you.

So I found these great companies, chaos images, and angel studios who were not the big companies in computer graphic effects at that time. And they wanted to show their stuff. And we had 27 minutes of digital effects in The Lawnmower Man, for a $5 million film. When the other film that year was teach you with seven minutes at 120.

of course our aesthetic was different but we were, celebrating the idea of doing things, with these tools that were more efficient, more cost effective, And that’s actually where we’re at right now with virtual production, finding ways of making real time processes and even procedural processes at the core of.

Image production is of what media production is of what feature film and television production is. And ultimately what world building is for this new thing. That’s not really new that everyone’s calling the metaverse.

Noah Kadner: With fantastical technologies becoming a reality, Leonard is interested in how they can also serve filmmaking.

Brett Leonard: How do we create something from first thought on that is using the technology? Not limiting ourselves by the 1935 thought process that almost all production is still based in, even to this day, even using a lot of the virtual production tools, it’s all still toe dipping now, of course, there’s a Halloween component that’s using it very effectively, , and affects projects like Mandalorian and utilizing things that we’re calling a virtual production technique. But of course, that virtual production is basically rear screen projection with LEDs, with tracking.

Which is brilliant combination, very simple. It actually goes back to first principles. in many ways of the effects world. But there needs to be a whole rethinking of the front end process of virtual production to what the tools are capable of outside the usual metric of how we think about, especially feature film production, which is very tradition and custom bound. because the truth is, is that real time procedural generation of content and the democratization of creation.

Of media is where virtual . Production really goes. Procedural generation of characters, environments, even story tropes, things that really are world building assets, world building components that lead to a metaverse version of an IP that also spins off other traditional forms of media, like TV series and feature films.

Noah Kadner: Although many see the leaps made in virtual production lately as futuristic, for Leonard, it’s only the beginning.

Brett Leonard: The effects world and the real time gaming world are all converging right now. And it’s going to democratize the creation of content, , and content that’s also interactive and really a world, not just a static piece of media.

I’m actually working on a project right now that I can announce kind of for the first time here on this podcast, it’s called Dark Star. it’s written by Sean Stone, Oliver Stone’s son. And it’s an interdimensional.

sci-fi thriller, with metaphysical overtones, , so very much in line with lawn Mo man in many ways, but also an expansion of those ideas and themes, into the modern moment right now. And, uh, we’re starting to create it with fully procedural tools. With a company that has developed those procedural tools in a very different way than a lot of the other virtual . Production techniques.

It’s not volumetric capture. It’s not sort of, chunky production process. It’s actually being able to very quickly synergize different assets together to create a world and then be able to up level the quality of that. Very easily, , as the technology becomes available to do so. So it changes the nature of the timing of creation.

It changes the nature of your collaborative process. , you can actually involve the quote unquote audience, which are really now participants. In the virtual world so for me, virtual production, as a theme is way beyond just getting tools to make special effects better, or make special effects, more efficient and cost effective.

It’s something that revolutionizes the idea of content creation itself.

Brett Leonard

Noah Kadner: Although he’s a filmmaker, Leonard also sees vast potential for therapeutic applications of virtual technology.

Brett Leonard: I’m part of a company called VPI virtual psychedelics incorporated, which, one of my primary co-founders is Dr. Albert skip Rizzo, who runs the I C T lab at USC for almost 20 years now. And has been the foremost virtual clinician. In curing PTSD addiction issues with virtual behavioral therapy, he’s been doing it for over 20 years, has 300 plus peer reviewed papers.

He’s got the Corpus of knowledge and data and actual science behind how virtual behavioral therapy changes you. One of the reasons he got into it, not the only reason, but he saw my movie 30 years ago. And so the reason we’re working together is because we have this connection. I told a story, he looked at it, he was going for his, psychology PhD.

And he said, I’m gonna shift my stuff into VR. And I think he’d already been thinking about it, but then he, you know, the lawman really codified that conversation for a lot of people. , especially since he actually showed, therapeutic outcomes. I mean, that was one of the positive aspects I was showing of virtual.

Reality, of course the film is also a cautionary tale. about the more negative aspects, which I think are still very, very apropo in terms of the discussion, we have to really be aware that the stakes are high with immersive virtual experience, and we need to really, create in a positive direction.

So for me, part of that is being part of a company, , that is focused on therapeutic , health and wellness outcomes with VR as, a concept.

Noah Kadner: Along with the potential for good, there is also the possibility of technology’s use for evil purposes, which Leonard explored by depicting rogue AI in movies like Virtuosity.

Brett Leonard: This is a kind of crazy time because I made these movies and one of them 30 years ago, now that really established me and connected me as one of the OG people in the VR world. , and they’re more apropo now than ever. I mean, the whole idea of rogue AI, , blending the metaverse with the real world. There’s, you know, one of the first times nanotechnology was shown in that film virtuosity.

So I look at it now. I. Man, that’s actually sort of like a movie that’s being made right now. It was a very forward thinking film and it was made, , with Sherry Lansing heading up paramount, she was fantastic to work with, one of the only women that ran a studio, , except for Dawn Steele and her, and it was fantastic, uh, process where we’d got to do something very.

For thinking, it was a little too forward thinking for the audience when it first came out, it was like, what the hell is this? Matter of fact, some of the critics were like, this is a very sophisticated movie, but it seems like a video game. And they said that as a, slight, and I go, yeah, well, that’s the theme of the film.

It’s about gaming and game characters coming into the real world. And of course, That’s really what’s going on. I mean, it’s, a kind of interesting arc that we’ve had. I thought it was all gonna happen much quicker than it did. , but now here we are 30 years later and the themes of these movies and the realities of these movies that are very fanciful in many ways are actually coming to be.

Noah Kadner: As a visionary who showcased virtual reality gear as commonplace more than three decades ago, Leonard believes it will one day surpass the headset as an interface.

Brett Leonard: The more frictionless we can get virtual experience, the better it’s going to be. And that delivery friction is part. Of the thing that.

Slows the, , adoption rates of this, not everybody wants to strap a box on their head. Now, one of the things we’re doing with the API is we have something called the Chrysalis project and it’s a to create an immersive. Media environment for what I call medicinal immersive media Mim, , in a non headset based environment that screens three dimensional sound, biometric feedback smells, and attaching all those things.

And we’re deep into the creating the prototype of the Chrysalis right now as a way of delivering virtual immersive experience for health and wellness outcomes, primarily initially, but also can be utilized, , in an entertainment sense. So these are. Things that are happening . Right now.

And and of course, AR glasses that are very light and sort of transparent are gonna be coming soon. And that’s going to extend us and our ability to have virtual experience in the metaverse in a much more comfortable.

Noah Kadner: Leonard also observes how VR has become deeply intertwined with the metaverse and related concepts.

Even though there’s this big downturn happening right now in metaverse and NFTs. And of course, this is an emerging revolutionary thing. It’s gonna go through a lot of strum and drain. and

And right now is a time for separating the wheat from the CHF, , in this area. And so, for me, that’s about how can you tell a more compelling story? How can you create a story world? That people want to inhabit and exist within and interact with that utilizes the emotional engagement of cinema and of mazel sin, and yet gives the agency of gameplay and that undiscovered country.

Is where I’m most interested. And so I’ve been working on something called narrative magnets for a very long time, how to create narrative tropes and narrative fragments within the context of a world experience. Cuz story is embedded in the racial unconscious of the human.

And so we need to activate that in this new metaverse world, again, not necessarily dystopian stories or cautionary tales now, but to actually point towards the positive usage

Brett Leonard

Species and I believe it’s part of our DNA at this point. And so we need to activate that in this new metaverse world, again, not necessarily dystopian stories or cautionary tales now, but to actually point towards the positive usage, , like the positive usage of virtual experience therapy, being something that.

Can create health and wellness outcomes and there’s science behind it. Now the science that Dr. Skip Rizzo has created, and many others many other groups, John Hopkins, Cedar Sinai, they’re doing these virtual, , behavioral therapy trials that are, showing great efficacy.

Leonard also sees a world in which the virtual and physical worlds become parallel and wonders about the ethical ramifications.

Brett Leonard: We’re going to be having a digital twin. Virtual world that whole generations will think is just a natural part of human interaction. They’re gonna think of it just like we think of roads, roads came because of the automobile, first, before that horses and carriages, but it just that idea of things before roads think about that.

Before the metaverse is like that foundational. And then you have roads, you have a whole other way of human interaction this idea of travel, , and creating efficiencies around it, all these things that change everything about the human experience and the interaction between people in the species.

So that’s what the metaverse, that’s what virtual experience is going to be, which is why I’ve told stories about it. I think it’s a very compelling mythology. . That’s happening, that we’re in the emergence of we’re in the origin story of this thing. That’s gonna change the nature of human experience.

We need to really push those of us that are really in the medium towards these, things that are about feeling better as opposed to feeling worse.

We wanna push it in a direction. That’s not about war. That’s not about conflict. And this is a very challenging moment to do that because we are in such polarization.

But I think we have to create a protocol and an ethos, an ethical framework around virtual experience that actually. Pushes us into a more positive direction of interaction. I’m gonna tell stories about that. They’re kind of embedded in a lot of the films I’ve made thus far and also gonna be embedded in films and other worlds that I create from this point on, you know, it’s funny, Robert Altman, the great filmmaker who made 44 films said that you only make one movie in just different chapters of it.

Noah Kadner: Leonard also views the pandemic as a technological catalyst pushing people into new interaction modalities.

Brett Leonard: It accelerated as at least five. I really believe that. right at the beginning of the pandemic, myself, and a lot of the people in the . Virtual, world that I’m, connected with all felt this very palpably it’s like, this is one of the things that’s gonna push this into greater ubiquity.

And it has even the headsets, which are still problematic. You know, the quest too is sold, gonna be near 20 million units. I think they report 15, but you know, people think there’s about 20 million units out there . And. That is starting to become a mass marketed accessibility. So, , we are definitely in the transition phase and that’s why it’s the most important phase to establish . Things, to look at it holistically and actually produce from a holistic vision of how these tools allow from the very first thought on from ideation on to change the creative and collaborative process in making these kinds of worlds and stories and media.

That’s the more exciting thing that’s happening right now.

Noah Kadner: As a VR veteran, Leonard often gets asked by newcomers where to study to get more into this virtual world.

Brett Leonard: they should be embracing the tools and what they’re capable of without trying to fit into what has been, because what has been has been a very closed system. I mean, I, made it into what I think of as the last phase of the old Hollywood. That was my career span that. Transition. I I’ve watched Hollywood’s end, , essentially, and now seeing it morph into a different version of itself, there are things that are similar, but there are many things that have changed and actually, you know, ability of young directors like myself or Quent Tarantino to come outta nowhere and become BA that’s.

That’s more difficult now. So the Hollywood pipeline has become a more narrow funnel. but the tools are democratizing everything in a way that actually affords and opens up much greater opportunity for the democratization of, creative process. You know, what people call the creator economy, these buzzwords that are going around that, which is just coming off of a very true trend.

And so, you know, one of the things I did, , for my visual effects projects all through. My career because I was usually working with budgets that were smaller and had to be more effective and more efficient. I used new talent very often. I, found people in basements doing, interesting things with 3d studio max and these new tools.

So embrace the new tools and find your own way of creation. That’s going to be more organic. To what those tools are allowing and for the new generation of creators who are coming along, and then also open up the process experiment with the process experiment with group collaboration, experiment with these different modalities that this technology allows.

Cinema has always advanced through technological. Enablement and the revolutionary nature of that, and it’s changed it at every step. This is for me, another evolution in cinema. You know, cinema is sort of my core base religion. but, uh, , it really is immersive experience, a very different thing as well.

So there’s, paradoxes involved here and embrace those differences. Embrace the new procedural. Fast creation. That’s possible with these tools and then find a new aesthetic, find a new style. That’s , all your own that comes out of that process. Experimentation.

Noah Kadner: Although Hollywood is making big waves in virtual production these days, Leonard sees plenty of room for smaller teams and modest voices.

Brett Leonard: There are definitely big Hollywood entities that are playing around with this, , and they’re going to move at their pace. they’re much more tradition in custom bound than smaller, more FAL. Companies. So I think a lot of smaller groups and even individuals will be pushing this forward in ways that are gonna be astonishing.

a new generation of creators coming in that are embracing whole new modalities of creation. that’s what I’m looking at. and then of course the biggest sort of secret sauce to all. This is what people call AI. I don’t think of it as artificial. I think of it as augmented intelligence or extended intelligence and the creation and procedural creation that is afforded by.

The evolution of AI is just astonishing and it’s blowing my mind. There are things that are scary about. But let’s talk about that. Let’s discuss that. Let’s do the process experimentation that shows us what it’s capable of and also embed within that process, experimentation the discussion of what needs to be there as a protocol, , as a framework that has some ethical.

Component to it because these are very powerful things that are coming. And so, I would say embrace the new tools, find your own . Process, and also embrace the responsibility of what this new medium is affording.

Noah Kadner: He also hopes that more positive voices will work together and make the technology a benefit to humanity.

Brett Leonard: It’s going to happen, that it gets adopted and many, not necessarily positive uses will happen. That’s humanity. That’s the strum and drain the mess of this planet and the species.

But at the same time, it affords a tremendous opportunity to embrace a new way of interaction to make the virtual world a place that can have greater peace that can have at its core. Dare I say it love more so than more, more so than conflict. And I believe that that’s also very possible. I think even AI could help us in that context.

Again, these are all. Story tropes that, you know, have existed in science fiction for very long. And the mytho poetic . Nature of these story pieces. And that mythology coming in is what we have to make decisions on. And so telling the stories and asking the questions with those stories, just like I did with long man and virtuosity, there are many questions that are asked in those films.

Noah Kadner: Leonard sees young minds and fresh perspectives as key to solving the world’s problems.

Brett Leonard: There’s a horizon factor. I think we could solve climate change. I think we could solve many, many things with technical innovation that we can’t see right now, I went to this very amazing gathering of young people, young inventors you know, 14 to 17 years old and they’re like, get out of our way.

We’re gonna figure this. this young kid was developing bacteria in his garage that ate, nuclear waste and they were gonna, use it around Fukushima. This was several years ago, That’s why embracing a new process for a younger generation and really.

Leaning into that. and for me, there’s a mentorship aspect to that as I create, that’s really important right now, so that we can actually push the evolution of what these technologies are able to do both from a technological standpoint and enablement standpoint and an evolutionary consciousness standpoint.

And of course, that’s the core of the stories I like to tell.

It’s an amazing time, of innovation and we should push it as far as it possibly can go and also embrace new creative modalities in ourselves as artists, as storytellers and story worlders that allow us to utilize this technology in its most effective and positive way possible.

Noah Kadner: You’ve been listening to the virtual production podcast. Special thanks again to my guest, Brett Leonard.

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