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L.A. Stories: Facebook and Verizon Bring Video Production In-House

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"Would you guys consider going on a real-life mission together?" an off-screen interviewer asked Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. The pair were in a Facebook studio promoting their movie The Spy Who Dumped Me. Before they could answer, Kunis saw something that stole her attention. 

"Mary Traceman!" Kunis screamed.

"Do you know her?" McKinnon asked.

"Yes!" Then a moment later, "She's Mary Traceman! Mary Traceman, my friend from childhood. Guys, that is freaky! That is Mary, and we would go on a mission together."

This could only happen at Facebook's in-house video studio in the Playa Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles, where celebs field questions from the internet's largest social graph. After Kunis saw that familiar name, the studio crew hunted down the long-lost friend, and what started as a standard movie promotion developed an unexpectedly sweet human connection. 

Celeb visits are common at Facebook's Playa Vista office, but they don't come just to create opening weekend promos. Facebook reaches out to influencers of all types and invites them in to learn how to create successful content for Facebook Watch, Facebook Live, and Instagram. Its crew brings experience from the TV, advertising, and online video worlds and always has a few best practices to share. 

"We primarily teach public figures, creators, any kind of media partner, how to put video on Facebook," explains Kelly Michelena, production partnerships lead for Facebook. "We're mainly focused on Live and Watch. A good example is, if you are a creator you might say, ‘Hey, how do I record an IGTV video or just an Instagram Story? I'm a little intimidated. It feels like you've just got a new feature that came out.' And instead of having one of Facebook's or Instagram's partner managers blandly explain something like that over the phone, they say, ‘Why don't you come in? Come to Playa Vista. Come check out our studios. Why don't I just show you? Let's live it, let's experience it instead of just telling you over the phone.'"

Creators with followings large and small take advantage of that opportunity. K-pop dancer Susie Meoww, for one, brought her crew in for a few tips on shooting social video. She was able to test out ideas in front of and behind the camera, so she could re-create the same elements in future videos. 

"She's actually really up-leveled her production quality since visiting us," Michelena says. "She was just sticking her phone in the corner and dancing in hallways at UCLA where she is a student. And then she came to us and we showed her a couple of tricks to make it look a little more premium."

Susie Meoww 

K-pop dancer Susie Meoww has more than 300,000 followers on Instagram, but she was just shooting her videos in the hallways of UCLA until she came into Facebook’s studio and upped her production game.

Jada Pinkett Smith hosts a successful on-demand show for Facebook called Red Table Talk, and sometimes she drops by the studio for a live after-show. "We've actually sent our teams, our crew, to her Calabasas home a couple times when she said, ‘Hey, I want to do this in the comfort of my house.' And when Jada says that, you say, ‘Be there in five minutes,'" Michelena jokes. 

The Facebook crew also conceives of fun one-shot events for creators to take part in. The studio includes a full gaming setup, and it recently hosted Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and gamer GoodGameBro to play through football titles from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. 

"The two of them were stoked to be working with each other," Michelena says. "GoodGameBro gets to meet the NFL MVP and the NFL MVP gets to meet someone that they admire. And they're playing together. We captured their interaction live and then showed them how they might work on future collaborations together." 

Facebook is no longer encouraging news partners to pivot to video, but video is still a big part of what it offers. According to company stats from June 2019, more than 720 million people around the globe spent at least 1 minute in Watch monthly, and 140 million spent more than 26 minutes on Watch videos daily. The Playa Vista office isn't the company's only video studio, as it counts 18 around the world, with four in North America, nine in Asia-Pacific, three in Latin America, and two in Europe and the Middle East. 

Besides recording at Facebook, some creators use the platform to help shape their ideas. Hispanic comedy duo The Crazy Gorilla tests video skit ideas in front of their Facebook fans to get feedback and ideas. Often, the best ideas end up as part of the skit.

"One of their recurring skits is ‘If Siri was Mexican what would she say?' And their community on Facebook, the people who are fans of The Crazy Gorilla's page, will comment below and say stuff like, 'Eat something, mijito'," Michelena says. "They'll go, 'Oh my God, that's hilarious,' and then they will go and script a skit where they're in the kitchen and they say, 'Siri, play me something,' and she responds, 'Before I play something, eat something, mijito.'" And then their audience goes nuts because they may say, 'That was me! That was my suggestion.'"

Verizon Media's 5G Future

A short Uber ride from Facebook's Playa Vista office sits Verizon Media's RYOT 5G Studio, where the RYOT Lab and its partners are creating the future of VR, AR, and immersive video. It's the only video studio in the world armed with a 5G node, allowing it to develop and test even richer experiences. 

This studio is an incubator, a place for new concepts to take shape. For one thing, it's home to Hypezilla, a purple furry tiger-like animated character that RYOT and Yahoo introduced in summer 2019 as an online host for short videos highlighting shopping deals. The character is fun and energetic, but what's really impressive is that he's rendered in real time as an actor in a motion capture suit struts and spins on the set. The fur on his body is richly detailed, and the lighting is always realistic. Rather than taking days or weeks to render the animation, Verizon's studio spits it out instantly so the actor can see exactly what he's creating. 

Verizon Media 5G RYOT Studio

Verizon Media’s RYOT 5G Studio is the only video studio in the world armed with a 5G node, which allows the creation of real-time animation
and immersive VR and AR experiences.

Impressive as that is, RYOT is doing even more inspiring work one level up, where it's combining next-generation AR and VR experiences with Yahoo's distribution pipeline and a network of partners. RYOT started as an independent company in 2012 and was acquired by HuffPost in 2016—which itself had been acquired by Verizon along with the rest of AOL the year before. RYOT's focus has changed from socially conscious VR and 360° productions, but it's still creating a new world of immersive experiences. For example, it helped start the Yahoo News XR Partner Program in spring 2019, bringing immersive experiences to news reporting. People using the Yahoo News app are able to go inside news stories in surprisingly intimate ways. A recent production called "Rebuilding Paradise" used AR to show how a Paradise, Calif., family is rebuilding their home following the Camp Fire, and it featured family photos to show what they've lost. The experience invited viewers to step inside the partially rebuilt home and look around. RYOT partners with Reuters, Associated Press, USA TODAY, and TIME on immersive content and posts to in-house channels, including HuffPost and Yahoo News. 

"News stories in particular are the most successful when they're part of a larger package," explains Laura Hertzfeld, director of the Yahoo News XR Partner Program. "We had this reporter who had been consistently covering climate change in relation to wildfires, and so we knew this is something that people would be interested in, and wondered how can we get them into the story in another way, and build empathy as well?"

RYOT is also using immersive video to create artistic experiences, which it distributes through movie festivals. One work, developed with artist Azuma Makoto and called "A Life in Flowers," interviews the viewer about his or her goals and life experiences, then creates a bouquet customized to represent hopes, wants, and dreams. It, like much of what RYOT does, is experimental, but that's how new visions take shape.

"Everything that we're creating—the tool sets, the framework, the studio spaces—we're making bets on 5G, and what this technology is going to do," says Nigel Tierney, RYOT's head 
of content. "We're not going to be the only ones doing it. That's why we want to make key partners, whether it's established companies, up-and-coming filmmakers, or folks who are digitally native, that really understand this space. There's a lot of failures with that type of exercise, but I think it's only learnings for us, to be able to see what things work or what things make us say, 'Okay, let's never do that again.'"

Some of RYOT's efforts are commercial, such as AR ads for Pottery Barn and Macy's that show people how products would look in their own rooms. And some are more personal, such as an AR experience created for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which combined detailed laser mapping of the Stonewall Inn with post-production effects to show how the bar looked that summer, then added audio interviews with Stonewall patrons. Verizon Media is reaching out in a variety of ways, creating, experimenting, and seeing what works as it prepares for an even more immersive future.

"I think augmented reality is a big use case. I'm in this field because I believe that augmented reality is the future of all human computer interaction eventually," says Theo Skye, RYOT's head of product for the mixed reality platform. "Give it a couple of decades for display technologies to evolve to the point where head-mounted displays will look like a pair of Ray-Bans or someday contact lenses—or, dare I say, neural implants down the road, where we're essentially putting information directly into our minds. That will have a pretty massive impact on a whole range of human experiences and industries."

Immersive video isn't just the future of entertainment, Verizon Media believes; it's the future of human communication. And that's a future RYOT and Verizon Media are committed to building.

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