The Mill’s co-founder joins the virtual world

Posted on Mar 20, 2020 by Julian Mitchell

Robin Shenfield, co-founder of The Mill, backs Ncam Technology for rapid expansion so much that he joined the company

Words Julian Mitchell

In a perfect-storm moment at the Games Developers Conference in March 2017, Epic Games and The Mill demonstrated how VFX was possible as a cinematic live element. 

The two companies brought their newest technologies together to produce an impressive demo of live augmented reality in a short film for Chevrolet, called Human Race. The result, also seen live on stage at the event, was a reskinning of The Mill’s specially designed BLACKBIRD mule vehicle – search YouTube for the event. There was also a demo of live re-colouring of Chevrolet’s cars as a consumer customisation tool. 

But this wasn’t as new as it seems. UK company Ncam Technology had shown a similar demo at NAB the previous year with its camera tracking and depth mapping technology – a similar effect, but wildly different tracking methods.

Also at that year’s GDC was co-founder and group CEO of The Mill at the time, Robin Shenfield. This reskinning through the use of the Unreal Engine became a wake-up moment for him. “I went to that keynote at the GDC. I had arrived a couple of days earlier, there were about 30 Epic developers in the room and probably another 50 at their HQ; the demo was running at about half-speed, but it was fine on the day. To capture all those shadows, reflections and highlights and to superimpose a different vehicle in real time – yes, that was a light-bulb moment.”

Little did Shenfield know then that he would leave The Mill in January of this year, and join Ncam as chairman a month later.

Robin Shenfield, new chairman of Ncam Technology
Robin Shenfield, new chairman of Ncam Technology

Joining brief

There’s a lot The Mill has been doing since, with Epic in particular and virtual production in general, like many companies. 

The Mill’s Blackbird 1
The Mill's Blackbird 1

There’s also a real-time animation product that The Mill has developed called Mascot, plus an app called Mill Colour. Coming soon will be Blackbird 2… So, Shenfield has experience of monetising projects within the company, something that Ncam wants him to carry on for them.

Virtual production is a subject that had kept Shenfield busy at The Mill, but his feeling was that perhaps The Mill should have been at the VP party a little earlier. “This combination of live-camera tracking and game engine tech really moving on so fast became a huge talking point for us. It seemed like a natural sequel to come and join the guys at Ncam.

Ncam’s AR technology would have made the VFX for Gladiator much easier to do
Ncam’s AR technology would have made the VFX for Gladiator much easier to do

“I’ve been looking at the kind of things they have been doing recently, especially the work that they have done with Fortnite for their world cup. There’s a lot going on in the background to make the work more user-friendly for broadcast, features and events such as Fortnite. So I do think I have joined at a time when much of the hard work has been done. 

“They do have an investor in the business, so I will be helping them scale the business as I have experience with four investors at The Mill – including U2 and Ridley Scott. I’ll also be helping them think about their sales channels, commerciality and marketing. The job of a chairman is to be a bit of everything, you don’t come in with all the answers but you come in with experience. Some of which is quite pertinent to a business that I feel has got a really exciting proposition, at a point where it feels the market is on the verge of really deploying this technology rapidly.

The Mill’s live animation tool, Mascot
The Mill’s live animation tool, Mascot

“I’m here at Ncam as a resource for the senior management team and to share some experiences, and be a sounding board and hopefully a bit of a mentor. The company just feels like its posed for a lot of growth.

“The single most talked about subject at The Mill in the last year was virtual production. We, at The Mill, weren’t involved with The Mandalorian but we looked at the creative flexibility of productions like that; the advantage of actors responding to real sets is massive. There are a lot of ideas bubbling inside production and VFX companies about how to deploy camera tracking and game engines to do new things.”

The combination of live-camera tracking and game engine tech really moving on so fast became a huge talking point for us

AR for Gladiator

Augmented Reality authoring is part of Ncam’s offering, and Shenfield thinks back to how it would have helped when The Mill produced the VFX for Gladiator in 2000. “Rather than having a J section of the Coliseum back in Valetta we would be able to see a set extension while we were shooting with all the reactions. I was there when they were producing the VFX and it was absurdly complicated between the crowd, the actors and all the elements that were shot separately. 

“As a filmmaking tool, Ncam has been involved with movies like Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Nutcracker, and TV episodics such as Game Of Thrones,” Shenfield continues. “But then you have the work they did for Fortnite with those big arenas, augmenting that experience for those watching esports. You also have the more traditional sports arena material, such as the Superbowl, and the football with Sky. 

“I suppose that’s a bit of a surprise for me, this convergence of requirement from different parts of production, and I feel Ncam’s in a really good spot to service the breadth of that right now,” he concludes. 

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