Virtual reality is everywhere. It’s been a constant buzzword of late at film trade shows, film festivals and markets. Yet, unlike the 3D surge of a few years ago, which took over much of filmmaking and still lingers in theaters, VR has yet to make much headway in content production or consumption.

Film schools such as the for-profit New York Film Academy are hoping to change that. The NYFA conducted an eight-week VR workshop earlier this year and is gearing up for a second round,
set to begin Sept. 11. Classes offer hands-on training to create both live-action and interactive-animation VR, providing students with a virtual reality portfolio that could clear their path to the market.

“A lot of people have been talking about [VR], but only a handful of them knew how to do it,” says NYFA VR department co-chair Jonathan Whittaker.

Caitlin Burns, the program’s lead instructor, adds that while there’s tremendous interest in 360° filmmaking, the program needs to go beyond exploring the basics to gain the traction required to survive in a fickle industry. “Unless you’re willing to commit to full production,” she says, “it’s hard to get a deeper understanding of all the disciplines that go into creating VR pieces, even if you have a background in traditional filmmaking or game design.”

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“Anyone who dives into exploring the craft is showing they’re investing their time in learning how to do it right.”
Clint Kisker, Madison Wells Media co-founder

The NYFA students get to walk through an entire project workflow — brainstorming and concept development, pre-visualization, prototyping and building. In the process they gain feedback from a panel of VR pros and end up with a portfolio that includes playable content.

Among those pros: Buzz Hays, founding chairman of the Advanced Imaging Society and general manager of technology company Lytro Cinema. His credits include visual effects production on such films as “G-Force” and “Beowulf.”

“I’m an avid fan of technology that supports storytelling,” Hays says. “NYFA has a well-established program of teaching visual storytellers, and the idea of developing a curriculum for VR based in story rather than in technology was a perfect opportunity for me.”

Whittaker says NYFA can introduce students to the VR community of production houses, investors and fellow creators. That, coupled with several completed projects by the time they graduate, will place them at the head of the line when they’re out trying to find work in this nascent sector, he says.

But is the film business really looking to hire VR-savvy job seekers?

“Anyone who actively dives into exploring the craft is showing us they’re not only dreaming big but also investing their time in learning how to do it right,” says Clint Kisker, former exec at Legendary Entertainment and a co-founder of production company Madison Wells Media. He adds that he would take a closer look at candidates who’ve had a VR concentration in school.

One NYFA VR graduate is already prepping “Fordlandia,” a Brazilian VR documentary. Another started her own VR production house. Adds Burns: “We want our students to understand the art, practice and business of an emerging art form so that they can leave the program and start to blaze their own trail in the uncharted country of immersive experiences.”