Athomas Goldberg of Shocap Entertainment: “Build excitement in the days and weeks leading up to an event”

Do your research, and have a clear vision for the type of event you want to create, and most importantly, the experience you want your audience to have. Learn everything you can from what others have done, what’s worked and what hasn’t. The clearer your vision and plan, the better the outcome, and you’ll save […]

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Do your research, and have a clear vision for the type of event you want to create, and most importantly, the experience you want your audience to have. Learn everything you can from what others have done, what’s worked and what hasn’t. The clearer your vision and plan, the better the outcome, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time, money and energy by avoiding a lot of wrong turns and dead-ends along the way.


As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Athomas Goldberg.

Athomas Goldberg is the co-founder and executive director at Shocap Entertainment, a company that specializes in live events that bridge in-person and online audiences through the use of immersive XR and VR technologies. Athomas is a 25-plus year veteran of the computer graphics and video game industries and is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on real-time animation for interactive entertainment. Over the course of his career, he has lent his expertise to leading VR and interactive entertainment companies, including Electronic Arts, Relic Entertainment, Epic Games, 343 Industries, Disney Imagineering, and Oculus VR.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I had a fairly typical childhood as a kid in the suburbs of Long Island in New York, but I went to a high school that had an amazing theater program and a fully-equipped full-color 3-camera television studio, and so I spent every afternoon in the theater working on plays and musicals and every weekend making action movies and music videos. After high school, I spent 4 years at NYU Film School in NYC studying cinematography, but it was my first job out of college, working on the lighting crew on a summer tour of the Big Apple Circus, that ultimately led to a lifelong love for circus performance as well as my first real career as a lighting and set designer for live shows.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

I would probably have never left the New York City theater scene had it not been for a chance encounter with my childhood friend, Rajesh, while walking down Broadway in Greenwich Village one afternoon. He was working at New York University at the time, (where, as you’ll recall, I’d gone to school a few years earlier) for a young professor named Ken Perlin at the newly-formed Media Research Lab. Coming from the world of theater and film, I had no idea that Ken had already made a name for himself as the inventor of “Perlin Noise”, a computer graphics algorithm that is still widely used in the visual effects community to simulate natural phenomena, and for which Ken would eventually win an academy award. To me, Ken was just this cool guy trying to make art with computers, something I didn’t even know existed.

After several fascinating conversations, Ken invited me to join the lab as an artist-in-residence on a project we were calling “immersive environments”. Today, that phrase immediately brings to mind video games and virtual reality, but at the time we were actually designing and building physical sets and equipping them with sensors, projectors, and other devices to create narrative experiences that came to life as participants physically made their way through the environment.

During this time, Ken began experimenting with applying his now-famous noise function to animating interactive digital actors. This was 1993, and the characters were barely recognizable stick-figures running on million-dollar super-computers, but in my mind, I saw a future where casts of characters in every visual style imaginable engaged global audiences in fully-realized interactive story worlds. Needless to say, I was hooked, and within 6 months, with research funding from Microsoft, I finished my last theater gig and dove headfirst into a world of real-time computer animation that I wouldn’t emerge from for another two decades.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Back in 1995, a little over a year after I started working at the NYU Media Research Lab, we were preparing an interactive exhibit for SIGGRAPH, the largest international conference for Computer Graphics professionals, held that year in Los Angeles, California. In this exhibit, as I had designed it, participants would interact with a cast of digital actors who would recognize the participants’ gestures and respond to them in order to build up a rapport between them. As the lab’s artist-in-residence, I had a clear idea in my head of what I wanted the experience to be, and what the audience would get from it, but I had to rely entirely on the programmers and technicians in the lab to turn this into reality. Early on, I prepared a list of the gestures that the characters would recognize and how they would respond, and I was told not to worry, that everything I asked them to do was possible. Fast forward a few more weeks, it’s the day before the conference starts and we’re setting up the experience at the LA Convention Center, and when it comes time to test the gesture recognition system, the only thing we can accurately detect is where the participant was in the room and whether their arms were outstretched or at their sides. At around 2am I realized that no amount of adjusting the infrared camera’s position or direction was going to improve the situation, but that we might have just enough to salvage the situation. Armed with determination and the giddiness that comes from two days without sleeping, I created a 3D model of a bat, added it to the digital world, and as the participant moved around the exhibit space and flapped their arms, they could “fly” the bat through the virtual world and each of the digital actors would respond differently, based on their individual personalities. It was absolutely nothing like what we set out to create but ended up being a huge success and we had long line-ups every day of the show.

As for lessons learned, I think I came away with two critical insights from this experience: The first is that nothing is real until it is, so you always want to make sure that you deal with your highest-risk, mission-critical activities first, ensure that you have something functional as early as possible, aggressively iterate, and always be prepared to re-scope as deadlines and deliverables come near. The second is that some of the most creative decisions you’ll

make will come out when your back is to the wall and you just have to do something and that you shouldn’t be afraid to embrace radical solutions to the challenge in front of you just because it wasn’t part of your original vision.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m not sure where I first heard it, but one credo I’ve always lived by is that “Readiness Pays Interest, Vigilance Charges Interest”. The idea is that you can’t anticipate everything that can possibly go wrong, so it’s better to develop the flexibility to continuously adapt to life’s changes as they come. A vigilant mindset costs you the time and energy you spend trying to prepare for every possible contingency, whereas a readiness mindset benefits you with a more open and creative outlook, even when nothing is going wrong.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

As I mentioned earlier, I began my career as a designer for live theater, music, and dance, where everything we did was in service of a live event that might happen once, run for weeks or months in one location or tour the world. Each of these situations had its own unique challenges. In more recent years, I have been producing shows that combine live music, physical theater, dance, puppetry, and circus arts with digital projections using interactive animation and visual effects techniques developed for feature films and video games.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

When my business partner, Brett Ineson, and I first conceived of LiViCi back in 2019, it had always been our plan to create a show that would be both “live” in front of a theatre audience and simultaneously broadcast as an immersive experience where a remote audience would enter and inhabit the virtual world of the projections displayed onstage during the live performance. A place where digital avatars would perfectly mimic the movement of the onstage performers in real-time within the virtual world. With Covid-19 shuttering theaters and performance venues around the world, live virtual events have become incredibly popular, as the only viable alternative to attending shows in-person, but for us, we always saw it as a unique extension of the in-theatre experience, rather than a substitute for it.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think the most common mistake I’ve seen people make is to give too little thought to “where” the virtual event takes place. Being locked in our houses for so much of the time, we look to live virtual events as a way to escape our mundane lives and temporarily get lost in the world of the performance. If a show ends up looking like just another conference call from someone’s living room, after I’ve spent a week on conference calls with people in their living rooms, I’m just not going to feel the magic, even if I really love the artist’s work. The

more you can do to create and communicate the sense of “place” in which the event happens, even if it’s an entirely fictitious place, in a way that really ties it to the performance and the performers, the more we will feel transported away from our day-to-day to somewhere really special for the duration of the event. For us, we are literally creating imaginary worlds in which the performances take place, but it can be as simple as creating a common (real or virtual) background for your performers.

The other mistake people often make is to underestimate the importance of the connection we have as audience members to other people in the audience, and the incredible power feeling of collectively experiencing a unique and ephemeral moment in time. Even something as simple as a group chat feature can be enough to bridge the distances that divide audience members by enabling them to share their enthusiasm in real-time with fellow attendees. In our work, our goal is to bring people together in the virtual world of the event itself, using the technology of massively multiplayer online games to create shared immersive 2D and virtual reality experiences, in which each “player” can see and interact with their friends and other audience members during the live performance.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

This largely depends on the type of event that you’re organizing. For the events Shocap creates, where avatars of the performers appear in completely digital environments, we rely on real-time performance capture and virtual production tools, including Optitrack’s motion capture cameras, Giant motion capture software from Lightstorm Entertainment, NCam Virtual Camera tracking software, and the Unreal Engine, along with our own proprietary, Ringmaster Virtual Performance System, to generate the cinematic digital imagery for our shows.

Even if you’re not creating a fully immersive digital world, complete with real-time effects and mocap avatars, I would caution against relying entirely on video conferencing software and consumer hardware for high-end events featuring performing artists, even when the performers are not able to come to you due to scheduling, travel restrictions, etc. Most broadcast streaming tools will enable remote callers to connect over the web while giving you, as the editor, the ability to define video sources, layouts, and transitions and control these over the course of the event. And if you have the budget and preparation time, it’s often worth it to ship your performers a custom configured kit with a sufficiently powerful laptop, camera, microphone and lighting, that you’ve set up and tested ahead of time.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

First, recognize that a live virtual event is not simply an in-person event that you live stream. If you’re just pointing a camera at a performer and doing nothing else, you’re actually just reinforcing the feeling of disconnectedness and isolation, which is the exact opposite of that electric energy you speak about. People may enjoy the performance, but the fact that it was live means little, and your event is likely to be no more memorable than a million other pre-recorded YouTube videos. Find meaningful ways for your audience to engage with performers, and each other during the show. Live Q&A opportunities give audience members the opportunity to interact with the artist directly and in purely digital XR/VR events, like the shows we produce, interactive elements and game-like mechanics that enable audiences to directly add or alter the content of the scene in real-time can add a lot of excitement to an event, especially when those elements reward audiences for collective behavior.

Second, your virtual event exists in a virtual place, and that place should tell the story that binds the audience and performers together. For our November 2020 show, “Jill Barber: Live from the Palomar” we virtually recreated a famous Vancouver night club that had been closed since the 1950s, an era that heavily influenced Jill’s music, and filled the space with digital recreations of actual memorabilia from the club including actual posters advertising famous acts that performed at the Palomar, souvenir photos that were taken at tables and replicas of the Palomar’s dinner menu. Through the use of real-time rendering and digital compositing we were able to make Jill appear as if she was performing from the Palomar’s stage and to complete the effect, we gave the show a “Black & White Film Noir” look, with high contrast lighting and film grain and scratches. We encouraged audience members to get into the spirit of the show from their homes, and many people turned the show into a “virtual date night” — dressing in their fanciest ballroom attire and turning their dining rooms into an extension of the Palomar.

Third, build excitement in the days and weeks leading up to an event. Don’t just make your announcement and expect people to show up a month later. Because virtual events generally don’t “sell out”, and there are very few arrangements that need to be made ahead of time, (no babysitter to hire, etc.) there is very little incentive for audience members to buy their tickets in advance. Have a plan to release new material every few days during the run-up to the event. This might be information on the presenters or performers, or snippets of music or visuals that give people a taste of what’s to come and keeps your event top-of-mind. With each drop you’re creating a new opportunity for word-of-mouth to spread, as people ‘like’ and share your event updates across their networks.

Fourth, focus on community. How will your audience experience your event together? For our show with Jill Barber, we wanted to create that “supper-club” feeling of being in a large crowd, while sharing a table with close friends. To facilitate this, we gave attendees access to a global chat space where anyone attending the show could post their reactions for other audience members to see, and also the ability to create private invite-only chat rooms to have host more intimate conversations with friends and family.

Fifth, nothing ruins the magic of an event faster than having everything grind to a halt due to a dropped connection, software crash, hardware failure, etc. especially when people have paid to attend. Take the time to identify all of the ways your event might go wrong, and plan for what you’ll do when it does, because at some point, it will. If you can, run redundant systems in parallel, so that when the primary system crashes, you can switch to your back-up. Have your remote presenters or performers connect by computer and by phone, so that when their internet goes down, you still have audio. And if all else fails, have pre-recorded material you can play while you get your live feeds back online.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Do your research, and have a clear vision for the type of event you want to create, and most importantly, the experience you want your audience to have. Learn everything you can from what others have done, what’s worked and what hasn’t. The clearer your vision and plan, the better the outcome, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time, money and energy by avoiding a lot of wrong turns and dead-ends along the way.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

A couple of years ago it occurred to me that we were living in a world in which it was possible for anyone to reach virtually anyone else on the planet almost instantaneously. The last time the human race experienced this was over 250,000 years ago when everyone in the entire human race was living in caves within walking distance of each other. It also occurred to me that, as a result, we had reached a turning point as a species, in that there was no longer any place to go to truly and completely escape from one another. Now, and possibly forevermore, we are all in the same room together, and we’re going to need to learn to live with each other and settle our differences because we can no longer just load up the ship or caravan and head off to new frontiers if we can’t.

What it also means, is that for the first time ever we have the power to act collectively on a global scale for the good of all. In many ways, Covid-19 is the first truly “global” event, in that everyone in the world is dealing with the same crisis which is affecting everyone at the same time. Yes, there have been regional differences in the response to the pandemic, many of them devastating, but more and more we’re learning that our most effective actions have been those we’ve taken collectively, and the least effective and counter-productive actions have been those where we’ve chosen to “go-it-alone” or prioritize the needs of one group over others.

In the work we’re doing, we’re trying to create live events featuring the work of incredible visual and performing artists, that bring people together to experience and celebrate our common humanity, regardless of where they might physically reside in the world.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be for people to really embrace and internalize the idea that “we are all in this together” has gone from philosophical ideal to inescapable fact, and that we are all global citizens even if we never travel more than 10 miles from the place of our birth, and that we need to consider everything we do within that global context.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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