Tom Sanocki walks into the crowded restaurant with what looks like a nuclear briefcase. He casually leans it against the table and informs me that I shouldn’t worry – it’s just a demo for his VR startup.
His company Limitless Entertainment is venturing into the newest frontier – Virtual Reality – an area that the VFX, Animation and Tech fields are scrambling to figure out. From text adventure games to years at Pixar and Bungie, Sanocki’s path into the world of VR has taken a few twists and turns. Yet to him, it all boils down to one crucial element – telling a good story.
You’ve had an interesting career thus far. How did you end up getting started?
I was lucky. I got into it when folks weren’t doing too much in terms of computer animation. I would go to my day job, come home and then work on my computer animation at night, during weekends and vacation days. Animation took the thing things I loved about games and added a little more. Eventually I ended up moving to the west coast and because I had some friends who had started working at Pixar, I was able to get a technical director position, working on characters at the beginning of Finding Nemo.
What was it like at Pixar during that time?
It was great. We were still at the Point Richmond offices which were small and scrappy. Tons of twisty little corners. You’d get lost and come across a wall that had all this beautiful artwork from Toy Story or randomly stumble across John Lasseter’s office. The offices were in two buildings separated by a railroad so sometimes you had to wait for the train and you were late to a meeting. It was a 250 person company, so still reasonably big, but all the good things about a startup were still there.
What sort of things did you gravitate towards?
Here I was a guy practically out of school, I’d done a couple shorts but I didn’t really know what I was doing. Yet I was still able to go in and say “yeah, the character pipeline on Nemo is kind of a disaster. I’m going to go ahead and make it better.” And people said “go for it.” I wasn’t pigeonholed and told, “you have to do these ten tasks.” Folks let people do the things they wanted that were useful and valuable.
My boss, Brian Green did a great job of giving me opportunities to teach myself things. I asked for the jellyfish on Nemo because that was something that had a strong technical component and also allowed me learn the art as well. So I wrote code to model and animate the tentacles, then hooked up a cloth renderer to it which was super new at the time. I think that was the third thing to use cloth in a Pixar film after a couple of things in Monsters Inc. It was a great way to use the things I knew in order to create art that you couldn’t create easily any other way.
Do you see that technical skill informing artistic decisions more or less now?
Done right, you see it a lot. Sure, the tools and technology are better. On Nemo, we had to be clever to do just about anything. That cleverness is especially prevalent in games, where you still have these hard constraints. The challenge for us in the digital entertainment industry is to be willing to embrace new ideas that might potentially be disruptive in order to create better results with better iteration and speed. Real time game engines are a great example because they do things in very different ways. For example, a cloth simulation in real time uses very different techniques than in film. Even if it’s not as physically correct, we can still get the right intent across. In a sense, that’s getting us back to the early days of computer graphics where it’s about cheating and finding clever solutions to get the image.
You’re building your own company now. What were the things you’d carry over from your Pixar days?
When we moved to the new building (designed by Steve Jobs), we got to choose our own offices. I ended up in an office area with a fantastic group of people – some that had just started and some that had been around for ages. We didn’t really care about our ranks or titles.
We had tea time every afternoon. There were two rules – no shop talk and if anyone mentioned Star Wars, tea time was over. Those conversations were a good example of the culture at Pixar at the time. We cared about social interaction. Getting to know people. Doing good work. Being egalitarian. Obviously there were leadership positions, but the structure was designed to support people rather than be constrictive. The fact that I didn’t have a title to build character pipelines didn’t prevent me from doing it.
You started out by being trusted. I was able to make technical decisions without a whole lot of pre-approval or oversight. Folks could give feedback and say “that was a bad decision, let’s go back fix that” and it worked great as a company culture.
There was a big culture of education too. Everyone started out by going through a 3 month training program called Pixar University before being placed on a show. The classes were only 10-12 people, so you met folks from all different disciplines. Later on, if you had some issue, you knew someone to talk to. On top of that, you learned what you actually liked. I came in to Pixar wanting to do Lighting, but I fell in love with character articulation (rigging). That kicked off my career. Really that’s where you’re creating the company culture where learning from other people is valued and you can see why the whole is more important than the parts.
What led you away from Pixar and into games?
I had a great time on Cars, Ratatouille, then Up for about three years as a character lead, then some time helping develop a new cloth and hair pipeline for Presto (Pixar’s proprietary animation software) which was used on Brave. I was on Monsters University for a little bit when I got the urge to try to be innovative and clever again.
Right now in film, a lot of the big problems have been solved. It’s easy to take off-the-shelf solutions and run with them, even if they’re a little inefficient. I wanted to go back to the way things were back on the early days of Finding Nemo when we had all these huge problems and had to be clever to solve them. Games seemed to be the place for that.
I started out making text adventure games on my dad’s PC when I was eight or nine years old. These days, games are getting closer to film in a lot of ways – and it’s running at 30fps. Technically, that’s super exciting, but it means you always have to be clever. So, I ended up going over to Bungie to work on Destiny.
What was your role on Destiny?
I ended up tackling all the things that didn’t fall neatly in one department, often stuff where you had to blend technology and art. I was spinning up small teams to run cloth simulation, face rigging animation, hair modeling and shading, procedural animation, cinematic loading screens, and finally working with a number of other leads on the social space in the Tower. Basically building a lot of little things to add a little flavor and love.
It was really great to be broad. It was great to be able to borrow people from different departments to start little focused teams while at the same time working with leads to define what we needed. In all these cases, we had to be clever. We didn’t have a ton of resources, so we had to focus on identifying the problem and finding a solution with the right people.
What were some instances where you could marry the technical aspects with the artistic demands of a particular problem?
Cloth sim was probably the biggest one because we were building a new pipeline. Our engineers were using Havok cloth as the middleware solution, but that was just the beginning. We built software that would allow an artist to set up cloth on their character in five minutes without any training or tutorials. It let us build about 500 pieces of cloth with half of one person around for support. The tool was self-documenting. It would explain what you were about to do as you were doing it. It was satisfying to figure out the artistic look using cloth technology and then building the pipeline around that so that folks could use it to be artistic.
Then we had things like hair. We didn’t have much tech time to build a really awesome hair shader, so we ended up using some techniques where we layered cards on top of each other but alpha testing them in particular patterns so that you’d have a very sparse layer over a medium sparse layer. It helped us create a look that made up for some of our other deficiencies like the fact that we didn’t have tubes for hairs.
How did you first get interested in VR?
Last summer, my old Pixar friend Max Planck called me up and said he was doing a startup to do VR film. He was convinced that this was going to be the next big thing. Since I had game experience and film experience, we were talking about me joining up with him and Edward Saatchi and Saschka Unfeld (director of Pixar’s Blue Umbrella). The timing didn’t work out, but it definitely got me excited about it.
After thinking about it for a long time, it was pretty clear to me that VR was going to be the future and that I wanted to be in on the beginning of it. I didn’t want to miss the beginning of VR like I had missed the beginnings of games and computer animation (Toy Story came out when I was a junior in college). You don’t have sea changes like this more than once per generation. Even if I failed, I’d rather try than not. I wanted to do entertainment content because that was my background and it’s the thing I love. I love telling stories and sharing worlds that you create and VR is perfect for that because you are immersed in the world.
What led you to creating Limitless Entertainment?
I wanted to build a company that has the best parts of Bungie and the best parts of Pixar, building the right culture along the way. There are plenty of companies that can do VR, but you don’t have that many places where you can actually have the supportive, creative culture that Pixar ended up building. I wanted to create that. That can be my little piece of value to the world – that I created something that will allow other people to be creative, be supportive and build a culture that will last.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know all the questions. I’m going to make all sorts of terrible mistakes. The thing that’s exciting is that we have a team that’s going to do it together. It’s not going to be me giving all the creative, technical or business decisions. It’s going to be about setting direction and supporting people to come up with great ideas. The next part is getting it to scale and to allow other folks to work with us and take advantage of that culture. Having been through that at Pixar when it grew from 250 people to 600, there was a clear sense in my mind about how to build that culture.
What are the core principles of your company?
Like Andrew Stanton says, fail fast. The bigger the company gets, the harder it is for it to embrace that ideal. It’s a lot easier to embrace consistency and to value the person who did something without any drama.
I don’t want that. I want to have a company where you have the right kind of drama, the right kind of problems because we’re trying to push the envelope. Doing something smoothly and never having any problems is sometimes a good thing, but not always. I’d much rather have someone try something really ambitious and get 80% of the way there than to shoot for 50%, over-deliver a tiny bit and call themselves a rockstar.
How does VR differ from games or film?
It all comes down to storytelling. For instance, in the typical video game there are things like audio journals lying around. But it feels fake in VR. It’s not motivated. In real life, you don’t leave audio journals around. You need to support the immersion and challenge ourselves to create a story using only things that are motivated.
You can also test and try things a lot quicker. Things are in real time. If it doesn’t work, you can adjust. We want to make experiences that feel like action adventures and take people on a journey and give them an experience.
What’s your take on the current VR community?
There are some amazing people working in that space. It’s a very supportive community, really helpful. It’s like the early days of SIGGRAPH when it was a small, intimate conference and you got to know people. We want to do our part to make VR that kind of welcoming place.
What skills might people need to make the transition from film or games into VR?
You have to be willing to learn and challenge some of your preconceived ideas. Folks coming from film are going to be used to certain techniques. In many ways, it’s like going back to the days on Finding Nemo when the tools were really primitive compared to today. You have to be willing to go back to basics and strip it down to the core. And you have to be willing to be clever. You have to be willing to experiment. You have to be willing to challenge the status quo in order to get to the goal. Folks with film or game backgrounds are super valuable. We want to staff our team with both because we’re going to get the best idea from a big diversity of viewpoints.
When did you officially start the company?
I went full time on the company in early April 2015. We’re doing story driven games and film because we believe that stories are what people love. It’s been proven by PDI, Pixar, all of film. VR is a great medium for telling a story because it is very emotional and that’s what we want out of our stories. We want you to feel something as you go on an adventure.
We want to impact people. We’re not content to be a company for folks that just love VR, we want to bring it to everyone. Pixar didn’t make movies for technology enthusiasts, or people who love animation as a small little narrow technique, they made films that everyone could enjoy whether they liked computers or not. That’s our goal. We’ll undoubtedly make mistakes along the way, but it’s exciting to be at the beginning of VR.
We wrap up our conversation and Sanocki motions to the briefcase containing the VR demo kit. “So, want to give it a try?” he says. Absolutely.