In St Albans, UK, you’ll find a historic Roman market city just 20 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of London’s Soho – the undisputed capital of the UK’s visual effects and animation industry. But tucked beside an ornate 14th century clocktower in this peaceful location is REWIND, the creative digital studio that is making waves across the globe with its immersive experiences.
“About three years ago, we had a choice of being in Soho with a hundred other small visual effects and animation companies and agencies – or not,” says REWIND’s CEO and founder, Solomon Rogers. “I just made the decision that I wanted a point of difference, the first being that I don’t like commuting so I’m going to put the office where I live. But we did go to all our clients and ask ‘Fundamentally, do you want us here or here’ and they said ‘Well first of all you come to us, and secondly have you heard of the internet? We don’t have to be in the same location’. It was very refreshing.
REWIND’s studio is based in St Albans, UK. The creative technologists launched a second office in the US to cater to clients in Hollywood and beyond
“Being out here [in St Albans] allows everybody one or two hours extra in their day. Everybody ends up living around here and they have a better way of life. They see their families more, they can walk to work, they have a beautiful city to live in and the company actually gets a lot more out of them because they’re not exhausted by a London commute.”
That energy has led to some inspiring pieces of work, like Home – A VR Spacewalk, a cinematic, narrative led and fully interactive virtual reality experience inspired by NASA and ESA’s training programmes and the experiences of real astronauts such as Tim Peake. It’s earned the studio several awards, but has that created any pressure for REWIND? “We already create our own pressure, so awards aren’t going to make us feel any more!” says Rogers. “We made a decision three years ago that we wouldn’t ever white label again. It was a very clear decision because of two things: if no one ever knows we’ve done the job, then we can hide behind someone else and just be good enough. We didn’t want that. We are proud of the work we do and want to stand by it.
“Home won nine awards, which we’re super proud of and we got Tim Peake to try it, because it’s based on his experiences. He was very complimentary about it; he said it was better than the simulator in Houston and would be perfect for training.
Home is an epic 15-minute spacewalk that won the studio nine awards
“We never set out to win awards. We wanted to do something we enjoyed and the audiences would enjoy, we wanted to push ourselves and VR, and the BBC allowed us to collaborate in that way. The ‘pushing boundaries’ mentality runs throughout the company. The projects I bring in have to keep the team engaged, so by hook or by crook we’re always doing something experimental or something we’ve never done before, so it keeps us on the same path. If I brought in something that anyone else could do, they’d all get switched off!”
The work that’s come into the business has shifted significantly since the early days, too. REWIND has successfully made the transition from high-end visual effects, CGI and television commercials to creative immersive tech. The change was initially challenging but exciting at the same time. “I realised we had a great drive for the strange and the wonderful, the creative technology and the experiential.,” says Rogers. “We moved swiftly into a place that allowed us to play with tech, animation, storytelling. Our curiosity and ability drove us forward.”
The transformation hasn’t just been with the type of work taken, but in the type of clients and attitudes coming into REWIND: “We started out with lots of PR agencies, then they became marketing agencies and now they’re Hollywood studios and global brands.”
And a consequence of this improved understanding of the type of work from clients and a bigger variety of projects, is a whole new way of discussing VR, as Rogers explains; “We’ve had to find a new lexicon to explain the things we make! We start pulling film words, game words, we’re still figuring things out. It’s getting better! But we get people calling us asking ‘I’d like a VR please!’ and we ask them ‘What do you mean you’d like a VR?! Do you mean 360 video? Stereo? Fully immersive? Interactive? Room scale? Installations?’ There are so many different flavours. But luckily people are beginning to understand the different possibilities.”
The Jaguar I-PACE experience was a cross-global multi-user event
This gradual comprehension has led to exciting projects, including an incredible social VR event, linking 66 headsets across continents for Jaguar’s I-PACE concept launch. Guests were transported to a virtual space where they could enjoy the sleek interiors of the Jaguar I-PACE Concept with a 360-degree view of Venice Beach. “It was phenomenal,” says Rogers. “The network structure, high-end CGI, delivered globally, a PR event that had to happen when the screen went up: it was a live event running like a theatre piece. There were so many moving parts. It was one of our proudest moments, let alone running it five times, and it worked 100 per cent every time.
“We had the designers in the studio mid-way through the project. We put them in a headset, put them inside the vehicle. We were worried, that as experts in how the car should look, they would find fault. But something unexpected happened. They started leaning around and talking, pointing and said ‘You see this, I think we should change this’ they were having a conversation about the design of the interior because the VR representation made it easy for them to explore it in detail. The immersive experience allowed them to evaluate their design decisions. VR is incredibly useful in aiding the design process; many industries already use it as standard practice.”
In terms of software, REWIND has also been happy to open itself up to new tools where they’ve been shown to improve the company’s pipeline; “We’re very flexible due to our size and the diverse range of skills we have in-house,” explains Rogers. “We have Unreal and Unity developers, 3ds Max and Maya experts, ZBrush and Mudbox people.
REWIND’s work ranges from AR/VR and MR to 360 video and installations
“If we were just a VR company, VR would be the answer to everything. But we tell stories through creative technology, so maybe it’s VR, AR or MR – we find the right solution based on the brief. We are hardware and software agnostic. We are at an amazing time in which creativity is unbounded – if you can think it, we can make it.”
Unsurprisingly for such a vibrant and creative company, it’s the actual craft of candidates applying at REWIND that is more important to Rogers than which software or tool they can use; “I just want to hire good people. We are always hiring, at senior and junior levels. We have a graduate recruitment scheme, so we bring on three to six interns over the summer and we are always looking for high-quality graduates to join us on the journey.”
With 50 people in the office, and with this desire to hire many more, REWIND is evolving to become a more modern type of studio – with Rogers favouring a new creative approach to describing itself: “I often call us a village or a tribe – certain mindsets pulling together to create something exciting, redefining the use of VR, AR and MR. We’re always changing, we’ve almost doubled every year to pull more talent into the business.”
REWIND’s Ghost In The Shell experience takes you inside of The Major’s world
REWIND’s projects are being driven by growth and with a San Francisco office having just opened up, its connections with Hollywood are getting ever stronger; “You’ll see the fruits of that labour coming out in the next year or so,” says Rogers. “We’re also working with high-end TV so HBO with Silicon Valley, and the BBC and others like that. You’ll see a couple of really high-profile projects this summer as well, which are going to be amazing.”
With all of this development taking place, just what is it that drives Rogers, and keeps him excited about waking up to work at REWIND every day? It’s all about the people and the journey: “I get to work with my best friends. [And as] a CEO I feel like I’m continuously solving a Rubik’s Cube. The challenges of creating a company that can deliver diverse work in an ever-changing world is a continuously changing goal that I’m really excited about. With the energy and the wind behind us, the options of where we want to go next, we’re choosing our own destiny, and we are creating the future. That’s what’s getting me up in the morning – this thing is never going to get solved, but I’m loving the challenge and the path we’re going on.”
This interview originally appeared in issue 115 of 3D Artist. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!