Virtual Reality Drama Defrost Debuts at
Courtesy of Randal Kleiser Productions

Years before Randal Kleiser started working on his hit musical “Grease,” he wrote a sci-fi screen play about cryogenic life extension. The idea: A woman gets woken up from decades of sub-zero temperature suspension, to find herself confronted with a much older family, some very advanced technology and a nagging suspicion that some things just don’t feel right. Kleiser wanted the whole film to play out from the protagonist’s point of view, but never really got a chance to do so. The script disappeared in a drawer, and remained forgotten for decades.

Then two years ago, Kleiser got to try the Oculus Rift for the very first time. He marveled at way the virtual reality (VR) headset led him to believe he was really there — and then it clicked. “I thought about that old script that I had written,” Kleiser said in an interview this week. Kleiser realized that VR would make it possible to actually led the viewer experience the woman’s emotional shock and bewilderment first hand.

So he dug up the script, called in a few favors with friends in Hollywood, and produced “Defrost”, a 12-episode serialized VR Sci-Fi drama that is debuting at the Sundance film festival as part of the New Frontier Exhibition Friday. The “Defrost” cast includes Carl Weathers, Bruce Davison and Tanna Frederick, who also co-produced the series with Kleiser, as well as Christopher Atkins, Ethan Rains and Clinton Valencia.

And then there is Joan, the protagonist, who isn’t played by a live actor at all. Sitting in a wheelchair while she is reunited with her family and the world, Joan is really just a dummy with a VR camera instead of a head — which turns out to be a really smart choice for mobile phone-based virtual reality.

The team behind “Defrost,” which also includes IM360, 3ality and Furious M, decided to go for mobile VR to give the show the widest possible distribution at a time when more advanced VR headsets still aren’t available to consumers. “The Samsung Gear VR will be the best way to look at it,” said Kleiser, but the show will also be available for Cardboard-based VR viewers for Android and iOS phones.

Mobile VR lacks positional tracking, which means the headset doesn’t know when you move about in a room — something that’s possible with more advanced VR headsets like the aforementioned Rify and the HTC Vive. The good news is that with a protagonist confined to a wheelchair, it’s only natural not to move around, and let the action play out around oneself on 360 degrees.

Final distribution details for the fist season are still to be determined, but Kleiser is already thinking about taking the show to the next level with more advanced technology in a second season. Eventually, he wants Joan to be able to move around, while still allowing viewers to experience the world through her eyes.

Which brings up an interesting challenge: With viewers being able to look everywhere as part of a 360-degree video experience, how does a director make sure that they’re not getting lost in the moment, unable to follow the story? Kleiser, who is also known for directing “The Blue Lagoon” and “Honey I Blew Up the Kids”, directed his first play last year. This experience told him a lot about capturing the audience’s attention, and making them look where he’d want them to look, he said: “It’s very similar to VR.”

Overall, Kleiser is bullish on VR, which he believes to be “much more personal” than traditional filmmaking. Right now, the focus most VR experiences and shows is on short-form content, he acknowledged, but eventually, viewers may get used to watching longer features. “It’s the beginning of a new type of media,” he said.

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