en

The VICE Channels

    Image: Nick Melillo/Badoink

    Behind the Scenes of a Virtual Reality Porn Shoot

    Written by DJ Pangburn

    When Todd Glider, CEO of virtual reality porn studio and media company Badoink, asked me to drop in on a VR porn shoot, I couldn’t help but think of that scene in The Big Lebowski where the Dude meets Jackie Treehorn at his palatial Malibu home, and the porn magnet tries to sell Dude on the future of pornography.

    “Standards have fallen in adult entertainment. It's video, Dude, now that we're competing with those amateurs, we can't afford to invest in little extras like story, production value, feelings.” Jackie says. “New technology permits us to do very exciting things on interactive erotic software. Wave of the future, Dude. 100 percent electronic.”

    Like the Dude, I thought, well, I still have sex manually. But, away I went to a five-story Hollywood Hills home for Badoink’s VR porn shoot.

    Badoink’s VR shoot occupies a location on the top floor of the mansion. Within this space, the action is restricted to the front door and living room areas. Both are spacious and modern, with white walls and tasteful furnishings. Nothing exotic, nothing ostentatious. It’s remarkable only for how standard it looks—for Hollywood Hills mansions, that is.

    After a quick glance at two VR camera rigs off to the left in a dining room area, Glider introduces me to the director Nick Melillo, who stands by a desk in a small office area located the living room’s open floor plan. He moves around the desk and quickly shakes my hand before telling an assistant to “get that Bill Clinton picture off the wall,” then roams around taking photos of the VR camera rig. Other producers and assistants move about like any other film production.

    Glider, puffing on his ever-present e-cigarette, says of Melillo, “That’s the Burt Reynolds of VR porn”—a reference to Reynold’s Boogie Nights character Jack Horner.

    The crew setting up the lights in the living room. Image: Nick Melillo/Badoink

    By appearances, Glider and Melillo exude no real smut peddler vibe. Glider looks like a businessman and talks like a tech geek. Melillo, with his gray hair, black glasses, shorts and short-sleeved shirt, looks like your uncle. His voice, however, is pure Hollywood, like a more tranquilized version of the Capitol Pictures studio boss Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink.

    Glider tells me that Melillo is the guy who created the “Brazzers look” years ago: “big tits, big asses, rich, bright color and high-quality lighting.” The subtext is that Melillo is bringing big tits, big asses and great lighting to VR porn.

    Upon initial inspection, the set—a living room that looks out upon a pool, a large marbled deck and Los Angeles—is professional enough. There are a pair of Kino Flo lights, a nice monitor setup, electrical cables running here and there, and an area by the pool where the production team and adult stars give video interviews.

    For this production, the scenario is pretty stereotypical porn: actress Christie Stevens plays a Hollywood trophy wife who answers a doorbell to find a vacuum cleaner salesman played by Isiah Maxwell. After a back and forth scene in the doorway, they move to the living room, where Stevens tells Maxwell she doesn’t have any money and her husband would kill her if she found him in the house. Maybe, she wonders, some other arrangement could be made. Whereupon Stevens disrobes and whips out Maxwell’s dick, remarking, “You must sell a lot of vacuums."

    I can’t help stifling laughter. It’s surreal enough to hear this type of cheesy porn dialogue not more than ten feet away from me, but even more so when I begin picturing people at their homes watching this video through their VR headsets.

    Euclid Virtual Reality Systems' Sony a7RII rig in their DIY 3D printed case. Image: Nick Melillo/Badoink

    Euclid Virtual Reality Systems, a company founded by Samuel Burton and Robert Sledd, handles the shoot’s VR camera rig. Judging by their company's overt reference to the father of geometry, Burton and Sled fancy themselves the geeks’ geeks, and they reveal themselves as such. (Euclid began as a VR research and development lab, but moved into porn, amongst other areas, to test the company's methods.)

    While Euclid's offerings include a 360-degree camera rig of 12 GoPro Heroes housed in its own 3D-printed case, the team opted for a 180-degree system outfitted with two Sony a7RII cameras and Rokinon 8mm fisheye lenses—mated with two Metabones Speed Boosters for an even wider view—also housed in a DIY 3D-printed case.

    "I just stare into the camera like I would look at the end user if they were actually in the room"

    They decided to shoot in 180 degrees because Melillo really wanted to control the lighting and be able to position me, and some other journalists, front and center at the shoot. Glider, Melillo and Burton all say that the shoot would have been less interesting had we been in another room while using the 360-degree rig.

    Euclid runs a real-time video feed through software called Video Stitch and into an Oculus Rift, a system Burton says allows them to create a temporary spatialization of the two cameras’ footage to “tune the 3D effect.” This is to ensure that cameras are properly creating the 180-degree arc or dome. Stitching, he explains, really only applies to 360-degree shoots, where footage from ten-plus cameras must be fused.

    “Typically, 360 video requires a good deal of stitching before it looks clean,” Burton says. “It's a process that is getting better and better as the space develops. We're hoping Adobe decides to add support for stitching in After Effects or Premiere someday.”

    To test whether or not any sacrifice was made in satisfying press curiosity, I put on the Oculus Rift headset just before filming, and realize that 180 degrees offers more than enough immersion. It’s about the sex in front of the users, not about the wall behind them.

    Samuel Burton of Euclid talking about the VR camera rigs. Image: Nick Melillo/Badoink

    As the shoot commences, my eyes travel back and forth between Euclid’s monitoring system—hi-resolution monitors for each camera’s fish-eyed picture—and the porn stars getting busy. Some crew members seated in the dining room and foyer are disinterested in what’s going down in the living room. Others, like the cinematographer Sledd, simply stare at the monitor, making sure the system doesn’t glitch or crash, which it does twice, though it’s nothing major. Burton assures me that editing these cuts together in post shouldn’t be much of a problem.

    When Stevens and Maxwell move from fellatio to full-on fucking, Melillo gives more direction. He asks the actors to pick up the pace, “now that it's nice and wet.” This control of pace echoes what Melillo told me before the shoot.

    “The most important thing [in VR porn] is 'pace yourself,” Melillo says. “They're porn stars, they're like race horses: when the door opens they want to get going as fast as they can. They're not used to going the opposite way to build up to it.”

    After the first system crash, which occurs about fifteen minutes in because a power supply to an external recorder was reaching its limit, Stevens mounts Maxwell. Melillo’s beak gets as close to the action as possible while staying outside of the rig’s 180-degree arc. Melillo wants Stevens closer to the cameras. If she’s too far away, the fisheye lenses diminish her presence and the virtual sex’s immersive quality.

    Stevens, he says, can be anywhere from about 30 inches to 20 feet or so away and still be pretty sharp. “At a certain point, the resolution possible in the headset becomes a limitation and objects far away are harder to make out,” he adds.

    “Your tits look enormous up close,” Melillo tells Stevens. “So if you could really get them to bounce, that would be great.”

    Filming the sex sequences of Badoink's VR porn. Image: Nick Melillo/Badoink

    Melillo says the single biggest challenge in VR porn filmmaking is that the crew only has one or two angles. Stevens must do the majority of the work by looking into the VR rigs' lens, establishing the virtual first person illusion. She, more so than the male star, must play to the camera. During the shoot, Maxwell is basically locked in a stationary position because of the VR camera rig positioned over his head, while Stevens has to strip, fellate, initiate penetration and everything else.

    Maxwell, who was shooting a VR scene for the first time, says that this need to be still during sex was a huge challenge.

    “It's hard for me to stay immobile,” he says. “I want to do so much when I grasp a woman, it takes concentration not to act on those urges. And try holding your cum in when a fine woman is bouncing up and down on you.”

    “Adult entertainment is married to tech now"

    Stevens also says the camera’s fixed position is the biggest difference between a VR porn and regular porn shoot. In a typical shoot, Stevens and other adult actors do not look at the camera.

    “For VR, I basically had my eyes glued to the camera the whole time, and the male performer can't really interact with me at all except for a few hand movements so it was kind of like performing a monologue but with sex,” she says. “Great eye contact with the camera is probably the most important thing to do to make the experience more immersive for the viewer—I just stare into the camera like I would look at the end user if they were actually in the room.”

    “Doing most of the work was definitely tough, especially since we were were limited to two positions, cowgirl and reverse. My thighs were burning!” she adds. “But it's nothing I couldn't handle. We also mixed it up with some strip teasing and BJ so that helped."

    After just over a half hour of filming, Melillo tells Maxwell and Stevens that it's time to come. Maxwell obliges. And before I know it, it’s a wrap. Stevens and Maxwell disappear, leaving the crew to disassemble and pack up the equipment.

    Christie Stevens in a VR point-of-view shot. Image: Nick Melillo/Badoink

    I’m left wondering if VR porn experiences are the wave of the future. People first need VR headsets, and they’re just not in enough hands yet. Glider, as you’d expect from a VR porn producer, has no doubts.

    “Adult entertainment is married to tech now,” Glider says. “You're not going to survive as a studio now unless you're on the internet, you're tech savvy.”

    Ultimately, Glider believes—and he's not alone in this thinking—that virtual reality porn experiences will seamlessly fuse with haptic feedback accessories. As the haptic technology matures, devices like Kiiroo, which offers dildos and “masturbation devices,” will allow users to experience in real time the squeezing of a vagina or thrust of a dick as seen in a VR porn. Glider wants to take Badoink there.

    “It's not just about seeing it, it's about feeling it,” Glider says. “It's biosensors, it's all of these things tied together to give you a virtual reality experience that matches the five-sense experience that you have in day-to-day live. It will take awhile for that to be embraced: they'll have to get into VR first, then go, 'Okay, I want to go to the next level.'”

    Stevens, who said she enjoys shooting VR porn because she likes being part of the latest in technology, agrees with Glider.

    “I think VR will definitely be a big hit in the industry, and as technology in the real world continues to evolve it will become more and more popular,” she says. “I think there will always be a place for regular 2D porn, but I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of VR, it just may take a few years to fully get there.”

    Maxwell thinks it may be too early to tell if VR is the future of porn.

    “It's all about timing and fans may cling onto it right away or ten years down the line when the technology improves,” he says. “VR taps further into our senses than television or computer screens, which promotes products that enhance those features. VR gloves would be a great addition to feel like you’re really grabbing a boob, and scents that correlate with your favorite girls.”

    Until the experience gets more interactive, the studios hope that consumers will pay a premium subscription of $29.95 to stream or download VR porn. At least until the “tubes,” as Glider and others call the PornHub empire and its imitators, catch up.

    “It's not that we're going to reinvent sex or new sex positions,” says Melillo. “We're just showing it through a new experience. There are two or three other companies that are doing this, but I've seen their stuff and they're not doing it well.”

    "As long as you're number one in quality, they'll come," he added.