Danfung Dennis sits right at the intersection of film and technology. He is an Oscar nominated documentary filmmaker and the CEO of a tech startup called Condition ONE. Condition ONE is pioneering the way video is both captured and displayed. Their technology produces 360 degree immersive video for the iPad. It’s tough to describe the experience of watching a Condition ONE video, but anybody who hasn’t heard of the company should check it out immediately. Danfung’s cofounders are equally impressive – Peter Sung has started 5 companies and Takaaki Okada, the company’s designer, has an installation permanently on display in the MOMA. They have taken the technology onto the battlefield, and are currently working on bringing it to live sports. We got the chance to ask him about his film background, his time in Afghanistan, and his first entrepreneurial venture.
What is Condition ONE?
Condition ONE is a technology startup developing software to license to media companies to allow them to create a new type of video for their tablet and mobile audiences. These immersive experiences are videos that can be manipulated using an iPad and make users feel like they are actually there. Our team is made up of four co-founders and a couple of employees – we’ve been developing the software for almost 18 months.
What do you see as the most compelling applications for Condition ONE video?
Because of my background, we definitely see it being used for news, breaking news especially – events where you want to place the viewer right there and have them be able to see it first hand. We also see a tremendous interest from sports, especially extreme sports. You can sort of capture the intensity of these events unlike with traditional video and give the viewer the sense of being right on the sideline. Then also entertainment and brands are some key use cases that we haven’t really explored yet.
Can you talk about your background?
I’m from Ithaca New York, and studied applied economics at Cornell. I went to Afghanistan and started working as a photojournalist. I showed up with no contacts, on my own as a freelancer, and on the second day a large anti-america riot broke out triggered by an incident in which civilians were killed by American forces. While photographing this event, I was nearly killed in the process, and sent the images back to New York, where they were published by the New York Times, and I started working for them as a freelancer. I had always photographed, but really just as a hobby. My dad gave me a camera when I was thirteen and I’d always loved it – it was a way for me to communicate, express ideas, and capture things I loved. Then I saw this book by James Nachtwey titled Inferno, this tome of images from the past 30 years of conflict. The images shook me to the core and changed how I saw the world, and I saw for the first time what evil really looked like. I wanted to follow in that tradition, so I trained as best as I could for going to Afghanistan, and then took that leap, knowing I would go to war. So I did Afghanistan and then Iraq, 2007-2008, then back to Afghanistan in 2009. It was all still images, I had always been motivated by the idea that the image has the power to shake people from indifference, and it could drive people towards action.
How did you move into filmmaking?
After years of working as a photojournalist, I felt that society had become numb to these pictures, that they were losing their impact. So I wanted to move into a new medium to try and convey these stories. That’s where I started with video, and making a film. Even after making Hell and Back Again, and having it theatrically distributed and going through the whole process of the film festivals and the Oscars, I was still very frustrated with the extent of how much I could communicate through that existing medium and that distribution model. It’s really an archaic model of how content is distributed, at least at that feature-length film level. And so the ideas for Condition ONE were already emerging even in the midst of making that film. It’s a flat screen, it’s this passive experience, and theres still this emotional gap between the stories and the viewers. So Condition ONE was the next step of how we can bring people even closer to stories of what people experience. So Condition ONE is connected to what was changing in camera technology, but also what was changing in the distribution and consumption of content.
Keep reading after the jump…
Can you tell us a bit about that film, Hell and Back Again?
Hell and Back Again follows one marine from the beginning of his deployment to Afghanistan and then his return home to North Carolina, and his struggle to reintegrate into a society that doesn’t really understand what he went through. It’s also about his wife and how she deals with becoming a full time caretaker. It flashes back and intercuts between the battlefield and the home front in North Carolina. I followed Echo company during the beginning of a very large offensive in 2009. I was embedded during an air assault, it was the largest helicopter born assault since Vietnam. We were dropped 80km behind enemy lines, into a village that was surrounded and attacked from all sides shortly after. The fighting was heavy, focused around this pile of rubble that came to be known as Machine Gun Hill. After the first day, one marine had been killed, a dozen had collapsed from exhaustion, and all of us had run out of water in the 130 degree heat – In all my years working there this was the most dire situation I had experienced. That’s when a marine handed me his bottle of water and I first met Sergeant Harris. I could tell he was this exceptional leader. I didn’t even know he would be the main character of the film, I just could see he was an exceptional marine, and so I followed his platoon further as they pushed into this stronghold. It wasn’t till about seven months later that I knew I would focus on him. I was back in North Carolina waiting for Echo company to step off the bus to this very emotional reunion with their families, and realized Sergeant Harris didn’t get off the bus. They said he had been hit two weeks ago and medevacked out, he was hit by a Taliban machine gun. I called him up as he was just being released from the hospital. He was finishing weeks of surgery and was in extreme pain, feeling guilty he had left his men, and he invited me back to his home town, Yadkinville, North Carolina. He introduced me as a “guy who was over there” with him, and I was instantly accepted into this rural community. I lived with him and his wife during his recovery and transition, and began to realize that the experience of war isn’t simply what happens on the battle field, but what happens when one comes back from war as well.
Other than what you guys are working on, what are some technologies that you see or expect to really change film production?
Something I’m very excited by, that has only started coming to the surface, is the integration of the Microsoft Kinect, and starting to collect a whole new type of data. These cameras are collecting infrared light, so they bounce infrared light off the objects around it. I’ve seen some really early videos playing around with it, and the stuff you can do with it is mind-blowing. You can start collecting depth, this whole layer of an actual scene. You can’t have your traditional display mediums play this content, this is going to start emerging when tablet computing becomes the mainstay. That’s something we want to start experimenting with at Condition ONE.
Is this your first experience with entrepreneurship?
I did some consulting for small businesses in emerging markets, in South Africa and Uganda, I wasn’t a hands on operator there, but I got a sense for small businesses. But as a tech entrepreneur it is a new experience, and definitely knew from the beginning I had to surround myself with much more experienced people. We are all very different. In the beginning it was a completely different idea in terms of the structure of what we wanted to do. But it was about communication, about setting a new standard in communication, pushing the limits of video technology, and trying to pioneer new business models around that.
What is your favorite part of running a startup?
Being surrounded by my partners who have such different backgrounds, and aligning ourselves to build something. That’s an incredible experience to take people from such different fields and all work together on a problem. I like the fact that you’re going into uncharted territory. You can ask others who have taken a similar route, but nobody has done it before and you’re going to have to just go with the information you have, use your judgement, and calculate your risk.