Canaan Rubin Exclusive – How Production Pros Can Tame Technology
Television, Streaming, & VR Veteran Canaan Rubin, currently with Iconic Engine, sat down with VRTL and outlined his path from broadcast television to immersive. Despite the differences between the two mediums, Canaan reveals some important common ground. Plus we get a real sense of what it takes in immersive production.
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Justine: Hi, it’s Justine Harcourt-de-Tourville. And in this episode of the virtual podcast, we’re going to be talking to Canaan Rubin. Canaan has a long storied history in broadcast television and was recently at Jaunt International and London as an executive producer. But with the changes there, he has gone back to Los Angeles, and he’s going to share with us his insights in VR industry as a whole and what’s next.
Welcome! And Canaan, I wondered if you wouldn’t mind telling me a little bit about your career path. What happened?
Canaan: What happened? That’s a good way of asking it. It wasn’t like a train wreck. It’s been a long, steady journey.
Justine: Well, you’re always in entertainment. This, I know.
Canaan: Yeah. And I guess I started out in the front of camera side of things at Ithaca College. We both studied in Ithaca in a small town in upstate New York with Cornell as an IC in theater and acting and directing and that side of things. And then, I quickly sort of outgrew the small town and I transferred, and went to American University, which offered me the opportunity to work at Entertainment Tonight in Hollywood for the summer and for business television and some other things that DC had going on.
So, my career, thanks in large part to AU and that internship with Entertainment Tonight, it started in broadcast TV back in the 90s.
Justine: And that got you to LA, right?
Canaan: Yeah, that got me to LA. I got the internship in LA and then the guy, [inaudible] manager, at the end of the summer, handed me a number and said, “Hey, when you get back to DC, call this woman. Her name is Joelle Norwood and she’s a mentor in my career throughout.” She still, through this day, inspires me.” She was running a field office that handled, not only Entertainment Tonight, but they did MTV and entertainment television hard copy, going back for current affairs.
Justine: We’re not dating ourselves.
Canaan: Yeah, at all.
Justine: We’re about 22.
Canaan: At the time, I was 20.
So, I was in the oval office with Clinton and Tabitha Soren back in ’95, and I literally think I was like 22 years old. I was the PA on shoots like that.
Justine: Just to be clear, you were the PA on shoots that involved a current sitting President in the United States. That’s no small potatoes.
Canaan: No. No small potatoes. You know, I was lucky, but I was also extremely hardworking. I’m part of working for Joelle at the time and doing all the stuff she didn’t really want to do. So, on weekend shoots, you know, she would send me on the field with the crew and be like, you know, “It’s no biggie. Disney wants to open up a theme park in suburban Virginia. The residents are opposed, go get the story.” I’m like, “Okay.” I had really no idea what I was doing but, sort of, you know, watch her do it during the week and then on the weekends, I’d figure out how to do it myself.
Anyway, that led me going out to Hollywood when Entertainment Tonight got Linda Bell Blue as an executive producer or for Linda for the better part of seventeen years, on and off, mostly on. But there’s a lot of people who worked on Day and Date TV shows know it’s a really hard schedule, and you’re in it six o’clock every day. You’re putting a half hour show on air by one in the afternoon.
It’s really intense and there were periods where I broke off. I did a serial commercial. I acted in a serial commercial. I was able to create a show for MTV that I was able to executive produce, that was called Duets. I was able to do a lot of projects on the side, but it’s pretty much stuck with… I eventually became a director at Entertainment Tonight, and then helped Linda launch The Insider, which is sort of a spin off show. So, there’s a lot of spin off DNA in the room. We’ll get to that, but at digital domain, spinning off that kind of engine, I’m sort of familiar with one big entity giving birth to another and then, you know, setting it off into the world to…
Justine: And you’re always with the baby portion?
Canaan: I guess yeah. In real life, I’m not good with babies. But I guess, in my career, I’m alright.
Justine: Alright. Career babies are your things.
Canaan: Other people’s career babies.
Justine: And then, what happened though? How did we go from Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight somehow into immersive?
Canaan: Yeah. They weren’t really decisions that I woke up one day and I said, “I’ve got to work in immersive.” Rewind to when I was leaving broadcast to go into more digital, that sort of with an evolutionary thing. You know, as more content was being made for digital first networks, website streaming and all that, then into immersive, I see it as no matter what fields you’re working in, whether it’s broadcast, radio even or podcast like this, there’s are still elements of basic production that you need to be successful.
Justine: Right, like hundreds of emails and timing, coordinating, all the things, yeah.
Canaan: Call sheets. Let’s start with that. I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how small the production is, just do the basic diligence. Do call sheets. Make sure everyone confirms and then scale it up from there.
Nowadays, when I was running production for Jaunt in London, for Jaunt internationally, the first thing I needed was a great producer, production manager then someone for postproduction. It’s really the basics and the basics that I learned in broadcast TV going back all the way to Joelle and being a PA in the White House on that MTV shoot, followed me into the deserts of Saudi Arabia and America’s Cup yacht in Bermuda, the kind of stuff we were doing in immerse. So, the basics of production will get you through.
Other people you will talk to through the course of podcasting will talk more specifically about the technologies. But behind all these technologies, you will have to have the basics.
Justine: Call sheets, okay. so, have your call sheets and directors and sound engineers in years all the, all the elements we, we do need. But take us to a specific moment in time when you knew you were going to immersive. I understand that a lot of the things that you were doing in broadcasting and film or directing, they go with you. But was there any moment in time where you said, “This is interesting. This has a lot of impact. I’m interested.”
Canaan: Yeah, 2015 or 16, the hype curve of immersive reality. And that’s when a lot of companies receive funding. They put up a sign on the front door saying, “We do VR” and they had absolutely no idea what they’re doing and how to really produce it.
So, you know, a lot of small companies sort of knock to my door and wasn’t necessarily interested. Eventually, Jaunt came along. They knew what they were doing. They, at the time, were the leading company. To me, it was a privilege joining a company like that. And in the case of Jaunt, there’s a lot of catching up on my part to do with immersive.
When I came aboard in Jaunt mid-2016, people have been there for two to three years already. Jaunt was one of the first early on VR producers. So, I was privileged to join them, but also had a lot of catching up to do.
Justine: And you went to London?
Canaan: I did. Yeah.
Justine: And anything interesting that happened while you’re at Jaunt maybe or possibly? Do you have anything to share?
Canaan: Well, you get everything we did at Jaunt was interesting. First of all, Jaunt still exists. They’re still doing incredible things in volumetric capture and streaming over 5G, which is not even really cracked yet. I think there’s a lot of companies announcing their 5G that aren’t really 5G yet. So, when that actually comes to the technology that Jaunt’s working on, it’s going to be awesome. But in terms of the VR business that they’re no longer pursuing unfortunately, everything we did was interesting, and nothing was the same.
So, there again, I think that, you have to have an ability as a producer or director or writer or DP or sound technician to be able to adapt to any scenario if you want to work in VR or if you want to work XR, let’s just say, because nothing I’ve done or no two projects have been the same.
There are rare instances where, for the Olympic channel, we created a series of small films. In that case, we were using the same cameras, the same sounds, the same DPs so there was a bit of a flow to it, but that’s an anomaly in this industry. It’s more often that you’re going to be starting from scratch in terms of what technology we’re implementing and onboarding and what crew we’re using. Nine times out of ten, it’s going to be people that haven’t worked together before that you’re putting into very demanding situations, often in remote challenging locations with complex technology to operate.
Justine: And I know one of the biggest projects at Jaunt or one that got a lot of press and rightly so was something you did with Uber. Can you share a little bit about that?
Canaan: As much as I can…
Justine: Well, how about we talk about the actual football element at least. I mean it was a lofty goal.
Canaan: Yeah, it was a lofty goal. I mean no pun intended.
Yeah, we were lucky to work with several football clubs when I was at Jaunt in London. The first was Manchester City. We created a pilot project for them. The second was Paris Saint Germain. We’re on the field in Paris. Our junior stepped out on the field for the first time. That was incredible. I think the third one then to come around was Manchester United.
So, we’re working with all the top brands. This was a project driven by COPA90 who were a fantastic partner of ours. I can’t say enough good things about those guys. They’re specialists in user-generated sort of fan football content, so football from the fans’ point of view. For anyone in America, football means soccer.
Justine: That’s going to mean soccer.
Canaan: Yeah, because these are all obviously European football clubs. So, COPA90 really brought this project to us. And, you know, we provided a VR, and in the end AR solution to an Uber campaign that was global in nature. We produced the film that was premiered in a nine-meter igloo in Bangalore, India. And, you know, the idea was to basically transport fans in India to Old Trafford Stadium. That’s about as much as I can say about it. The campaign’s out, but it was an incredible experience.
Justine: Well, bridging continents and cultures, it was quite [accentive].
Canaan: It was. And as other people say, it’s all that evoking emotions. So, to see that I flew to Bangalore to make sure that everything worked. That’s something we learned early on too.
Justine: Executive producers to go on location?
Canaan: Well, but you have to with this technology because the devil is in the details and so many things can trip up and go wrong. You know, the audio 7 channel verse 5, I mean just anything can go wrong, the speaker set up. You have to be there when these things are executed to make sure that they go right. And yeah, that’s the lesson we learned from not being in a place previously, where things could have gone better than they did.
But just watching the expression on these people in India or Indians walking in to have this experience.
Justine: [inaudible] of Manchester.
Canaan: It was incredible.
Yeah, we set up in a parking lot outside of a shopping mall in the suburbs of Bangalore. And you know, some three thousand people came through. I think we could fit about 30 to 35 in the dome at any one time, but the content was happening all around them. And COPA90 were really in their execution. They put fake grass on the floor. So, I mean, you really felt like you were standing on the pitch and you saw the stadium all around you and, you know, interactions from the players. It took you through the history of the team and everything.
Justine: Now, let’s go to transport…
Justine: Yes, there. That word. And after that and or was it before, you did some work for the Olympics?
Canaan: Yeah. Actually, the first project that I got off when I went to Jaunt was for the Olympics, specifically the Olympic channel. And they were looking for three different possible VR shows to do. So, they asked for three different pitches in three different angles, and ended up choosing one, which was regionally called Pathfinder, later renamed Trending Gold, global rights, global distribution. Again, the basics of production.
When you brand a show a name, make sure you do due diligence. Check it against global trademarks, and you know, “Is there anything out there in the space called that?” Whatever creative genius name you think you have, make sure no one else has beaten you to it and registered it in some small place.
[inaudible] great to work with but incredibly detail-oriented. And what they made sure of was that when we went to market with the name Trending Gold, eventually it’s what it was is that it would be clean globally.
Justine: It’s yours.
Canaan: Well, yeah, but a bit also on a global scale.
Canaan: So, not just in the US and you know. So, this was basically following winter athletes on the road to the 2018 games in Pyeongchang. And we did snowboard. We did alpine ski. I think those are the obvious ones. We did speed skate. But the sort of the beautiful one was, in my opinion, the Nigerian bobsled team.
And I remember sitting in the Starbucks in Santa Monica at home. I was on a vacation writing this. At the time, I was living in Europe. And I was just researching and I’m like, you know. I think Germany had one gold the previous games with the runners-up. And there’s that natural, competitive, you know, you’re always looking for some conflict like “What’s going to be the conflict in this?”
And just none of it was resonating and I just started scratching deeper and deeper into the Internet as you do and discovered these three women who were going to be the first team from Nigeria to ever compete in the Winter Games.
They had a beautiful story and it just felt right for the time to focus on women and this challenge. They’re in a country that tends to be very male-driven and male-dominated. But here they were rising up and they had this dream.
One of the episodes is called Dream big, Nigeria. And we sent a crew, basically, around the world with them. We went to Lagos. We went to Nigeria. We went to Canada and then Calgary where they train. And then, a couple of them live in Houston, Texas, so…
Justine: Lots of snow there, so…
Canaan: Yeah. Well, that’s why they go to Calgary, for training. It was incredible. And just that series alone brought us, I think, to seven countries on four continents.
Justine: That’s nice.
Canaan: Including South Korea and Nigeria, Switzerland, Canada, US obviously.
Justine: Well, I like the way that you’re actually making a point for story does matter and having a compelling story to tell makes something different.
Canaan: A lot of that credit on this series goes to Nicolas Delloye who’s the Commissioning Editor for Olympic channel. And he and I, right from the start, just have the same vision. We’re like, “Well, I also saw it from the promotional point of view.”
I thought, you know, “What story can we lift out of this that people are going to care about?” And that is going to get covered, Jaunt, ESPN and other things. Because sure, we’re doing a VR series for the Olympics. That’s interesting from sort of the tech point of view and I know tech crunch and wire and those guys are going to be interested in that, but how are we going to get more broader press like maybe ESPN and maybe CNN?
Justine: So, that was a contest decision on your part?
Canaan: Oh, a hundred percent.
Canaan: But whenever I look to create anything at work, it’s always, how are we going to amplify this and get the message out to the world. And that goes back to my recent Entertainment Tonight, for everything was a promotion of something.
Canaan: Whatever set we were visiting, whatever news story we seem to be doing, it was, you know…
Justine: In context of a…
Canaan: The final video of the piece was always “Coming Thursdays on Fox.” It was some promotional piece to it, so yeah. But that’s extremely important because otherwise you’re creating an amazing story in a vacuum and no one’s ever going to hear about it.
Justine: Well, what we can learn from these two pieces that you mentioned; first, the Olympics and the other with Manchester United; you had some great opportunities at Jaunt. And can you tell a little bit about the end, what that meant emotionally or how that happened? Or anything you want to share about that? Because for the VR community, it helps keep that mean going that VR is dead, but I don’t think you share that vision.
Canaan: Well, no. VR is definitely not dead. I think it taught the broader VR industry a small lesson in that, right now, VR is more geared towards enterprise and it’s more geared toward training, training police officers, training doctors, training pilots. It’s things where a company is going to have more of a budget to invest in creating a product than an IPR or rights owner.
It’s going to make great content because the headset penetration was sort of slow. I think that was the thing that no one really counted on. We all thought that headsets would sell faster than they did globally. And they did, so lesson learned.
And to answer your previous question, it was emotional, but for me it ended kind of get a great way because we had one last wonderful project that took us to Ibiza and we filmed four back-to-back shows, which was basically the closing season of David Guetta, Black Coffee, Eric Prydz and ANTS. ANTS is a collection of sort of DJs. So, that way, it wasn’t bad to go out .
Canaan: Listening to David Guetta every day and screening rough cuts.
Justine: That’s fun. I mean that is fun, literally fun. So, from there, what happened next after Antoine Laurent?
Canaan: Well, after Jaunt, sort of a natural career progression, a lot of clients who really enjoyed working with me and my team at Jaunt, some have been in touch afterwards and looking for a new home in the VR space. Interesting story, I connected with a company called Iconic Engine through a previous colleague at Entertainment Tonight, who’s a senior producer there.
So, again, it’s the basics. It’s a very who-you-know business. Your relationships are everything. And she was, in a way, my supervisor back at ET. We did Cannes probably a dozen years together. We did Sundance more than a dozen years; Oscars, Globes and all that. And now, we’re both able to take our skills and help Iconic Engine spin off and grow from the digital domain.
Justine: Two things I want to talk a little bit about is… and you kind of mentioned that you didn’t foresee in the industry how headsets are not being snapped up at a higher rate. Is there anything we can do in the industry other than buying headsets to help propel this VR adoption?
Canaan: Is there anything we can do to the industry? Yeah, keep creating great, compelling content that makes you want to put a headset on and experience it.
A lot of the difficulty, I think, was in the headsets themselves. And I think there’s a “clonkiness” and an awkwardness. And my least favorite moment about working in VR in the past three years was doing demos. And that’s largely alleviated now because the headsets are a lot better. You can easily sideload content onto them, which means taking the original file, simply plugging in a cable then transfers going into the headsets out there. So therefore, you can watch it on an airplane. You can go into someone’s office where you don’t have to fuss around with connecting to the Wi-Fi anymore.
So, these are all things we call the friction points in the industry. And as they quickly get ironed out and as the headsets improve, we’re now getting some headsets with true 8K visibility. It’s an evolving industry, so right now, that true 8K is when you’re looking straight forward and then the vision right outside drops down to like 5K. But still, it’s better than the 4K we had a year ago or a year and a half ago.
So, even as the headsets get better in their quality and ability to deliver a realistic-looking image, it’s going to make that experience better.
Justine: Well then, you need to see more people wearing them at the airport or…
Canaan: Yeah. And you know, one of the great things about Jaunt camera, believe it or not, people are still using that camera. And it’s funny because they’re just now kind of realizing like actually, that was kind of a great camera. It’s a 120 frames a second in 8K. It’s a great image in stereo.
It’s the only 8K camera off the shelf that does that. But it’s again like you didn’t really realize the beauty of that in a headset that’s only showing a 4K and you’re actually looking at 2K or less. So, as the headsets get better, I think, and the cameras are now getting cheaper and faster and easier to use, storage was a big issue.
Justine: Where would you or do you foresee trans or immersive right now where you’re sitting?
Canaan: I think location-based entertainment is going not be a big thing because I think one of the bets that was made early on is that people and it’s that famous picture of the family sitting on their couch and they’re all in a headset. That’s not really how people want to engage with technology. They do want to have a unique experience and they want to be moved emotionally. They want to be transported. They want to have a connection, but they also want to do that socially.
So, you know, I still think we’re in the early stages of social VR. That’s going to get a lot better. You know, avatars are only ever going to go so far. You’re detaching because it’s not something real. It’s a cartoon version of yourself.
But I think that the location-based is where it’s going to be because ever if you’re not having experience with someone at that moment, if you have an amazing five-minute experience that they also are having the same five minutes, you can both take off the headset and you’re like, “Wow!” And that’s a different thing than just sitting at home isolated on your couch, watching something yourself.
And also shared location experience, so we’re going back to the igloo. Things like that and also spaces where you’re going not have 10, 20, 30 chairs set up and people go in, sit down, have the same experience, get up, walk out and be able to talk about it. Just like the cinema, that’s been a tried and true medium for a hundred years. So, I think we’re actually seeing VR come full circle back to that.
Justine: And bring people back to the cinema theaters.
Canaan: Back together.
Canaan: Bringing them back together in a queue outside the theater. You’re sitting them down together in a queue. And all of that should be discounted because there’s a connection to be made while that’s happening. And I think the first version of VR headsets where “Oh here, you got your Samsung phone, for just 79 bucks, you can add on this plastic headset,” there’s no sense of community in that. And people, if they had trouble figuring out how to work it, there’s no one there to troubleshoot and knows. It was a bit clonky.
Justine: Do you see, Canaan, anything for people coming up in the industry that you’d like to give them some good advice on things that they could get on or be a beneficiary of your storied history?
Canaan: You know, everyone’s current path is going to be different. Some people are going to thrive by being specialists, and really being the master of one art or technology or skill. Others are going to be more generalists. I think it depends on what kind of experience you want to have in your career.
I think specialist have a more calmer career path because they know how to do one thing. They really focus in on that and that can sort of just be their guiding light and will carry them through their career.
Generalist, sometimes you’re called upon for your producing skills. Sometimes you’re called upon to be a director. Sometimes you’re called upon to be a writer. So, it can be a little colorful and creative, but it keeps you on your toes a little bit more.
Justine: We got to be on our toes, for sure.
Canaan: Never a bad place.
Justine: Never a bad place to be but on your toes.
Alright. Well, anything else you want to share before we…
Canaan: I think that’s it. Thank you so much.
Justine: No, thank you, Canaan, for sharing.
ABOUT ICONIC ENGINE
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