Reality takes a twisted turn (virtually) at MindYolk

Chiller theatre: MindYolk CEO Paul Lipsky tries his hand at horror-film production, part of a new virtual-reality project.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

At MindYolk Animation Studios, ’tis the season … for demented clowns, undead beasts and other freakish feasts.

Sure, you’re loosening your belt from leftover turkey gravy, Walk 97.5 has gone all “Jingle Bells” and the car commercials remind us incessantly that this is (largely) the season of Christmas lights and Hanukkah menorahs and the Baby Jesus (in no particular order). But at the Plainview-based 3D animation studio, it’s full-on Halloween, thanks to fortuitous networking and a time-twisted gig.

The horror show took shape in early November, when MindYolk CEO Paul Lipsky was part of an emerging-technologies panel discussion at Five Towns College. The discussion featured representatives of the Social Media Association, the International Association of Business Communicators, the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island and Long Island Visual Professionals, a digital-creator community founded by Lipsky.

Macabre men: Marty Aroninsky (left) and Paul Lipsky inside the Chamber of Horrors.

Macabre men: Marty Aroninski (left) and Paul Lipsky inside the Chamber of Horrors.

Wearing virtual-reality goggles during the chat, the MindYolk CEO discussed how VR will shape marketing in the years to come – a message that caught the ear of audience member Marty Aroninski, president of Chamber of Horrors NY.

After the event, Aroninski asked Lipsky to take a look at his Hauppauge-based haunted house attraction, which annually possesses Matt Giuliano’s Play Like a Pro, an indoor baseball-training facility. Lipsky was intrigued, but there was a hook: With Halloween over, the Chamber of Horrors was being deconstructed, and Lipsky had to come right away.

“If it wasn’t a haunted house and someone had said, ‘Are you busy now?,’ I don’t know what I would have said,” Lipsky told Innovate LI. “But the fact that it was a haunted house really piqued my curiosity.”

His morbid initiative panned out. With about one-third of the haunted house still in place, Lipsky decided to do a rough test shoot, and returned two nights later with a team of actors and a small production crew.

“It was really raw,” he noted. “We didn’t have good lighting. We kind of threw it together.”

But after running the test footage through various digital and audio filters, the MindYolk team shared it with a small sample group and “people freaking thought it was awesome,” Lipsky noted.

So did Aroninski, who went all-in on a VR video shoot, with visions of scaring the bejesus out of future Chamber of Horrors customers. So the MindYolk crew – including Lipsky, software engineer Jeff Trembly, art director Linda Klahr and some per diem lighting help – joined a team of six actors for what turned into a 12-hour shoot the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

With Aroninski overseeing the production and the clock ticking – the last of the 2016 haunted house was due to come down this week, allowing Play Like a Pro to get back to its full swings – the team recorded what will become VR content inside five different Chamber of Horrors rooms.

A 360-degree camera was stationed in the middle of each room, noted Lipsky, who described the viewpoint as the central point of a sphere. That’s where VR headgear places the viewer, who can move his or her head freely to see what’s happening in any direction.

Will work for food: Bloody good acting, in any realilty.

Will work for food: Bloody good acting, in any realilty.

The effect, Lipsky noted, is considerable.

“It really fakes your brain and takes over your sense of awareness,” he said. “Your body feels as though it’s inside that room.

“There’s something that happens to your senses in VR that no other medium can do.”

What will happen in the case of the Chamber of Horrors VR, most likely, are heart palpitations and some throaty vocal reactions. Among the content recorded by MindYolk’s macabre mavens were scenes in “The Clown Room” – a guy eerily singing “Happy Birthday” becomes a crazed clown – and “The Jeffrey Dahmer Room,” which is less about the Milwaukee rapist-cannibal than an homage to modern zombie lore.

Then there’s “The Trophy Room,” where a wealthy hunter calmly discusses his stuffed-head collection – the tiger he killed in Africa, the rhino he slayed in India – before a monstrous buffalo head roars to life and attacks the viewer from behind.

“It’s story-driven,” Lipsky noted.

All told, the crew scripted, choreographed and shot scenes in five different rooms – about 30 minutes of footage over the half-day shoot, to be culled into roughly five polished minutes of actual content, about a minute per room.

Aroninski and Lipsky both have ideas about what to do with the finished product. Almost certainly, the frightening footage will be loaded into VR headsets that can be rented by customers waiting to get into the 2017 Chamber of Horrors NY attraction, which will haunt Play Like a Pro next fall. Only six brave souls are admitted at a time, with a waiting room that can sometimes be 50 deep – a “golden opportunity,” Lipsky noted, to sell five-minute VR previews of what lies ahead.

There’s also a notion about franchising the idea and selling it to other seasonal haunted-house attractions, while Lipsky – noting the increasing affordability and quality of consumer-grade VR gear – thinks the creepy content would make an ideal app.

“They can watch it and get scared, and then use [the app] to make reservations ahead of time, or buy paraphernalia from the haunted house,” he said. “I see a lot of possible revenue streams.”

Right now, “it’s just video to scare people,” Lipsky added, but whatever fresh hell it brings, the Chamber of Horrors gig marks another unique project in a year filled with interesting jobs for MindYolk.

Chain gang: Lipsky and crew set up inside The Clown Room.

Chain gang: Lipsky and crew set up inside The Clown Room.

Since bringing a Brazilian ship-repair consortium’s $530 million dream dry dock to virtual life last winter, the Plainview company has worked extensively with Colorado-based multimedia marketing firm Watermark Advertising, Lipsky noted, and in September completed a 3D-animated webpage for MyCarDoesWhat.org, an automotive-safety effort by the National Safety Council.

Now add an unexpected trip to the dark side to the 2009 startup’s résumé.

“I’m not a particular fan of horror, but our job was to make it as horrific as possible, and we had a blast,” Lipsky said. “The whole thing was insane. Wherever this goes, we had a lot of fun with it.”


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