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Storytellers who use immersive, virtual reality experiences - this creative agency is pushing the limits, even as they aim to achieve social outcomes.

Kat Lintott, co-founder of Wrestler talks about her journey into virtual reality
Credit: Mark Tantrum Photography Ltd.

Kat Lintott is shown walking on the beach at Lyall Bay. The title says “Dream it. Do it. Own it.”. She says “Wellington as a place to do business is super awesome, because we have the tech industry and the creative industry. It's a really tight community.”

The scene changes to show her seated in a team room at work – the Wrestler offices. She says “Kia ora, ko Kat Lintott ahau. My husband Ben and I are co-founders of Wrestler.” We see Ben and Kat walking down a track on Mt. Victoria, Wellington.

“I head up the interactive part of Wrestler, which really focusses on virtual reality, augmented reality and gaming.” We see Kat in virtual reality goggles, in a bland space, moving hand held virtual things around in a goofy way.

“Wrestler came out of a strategy day, we looked at how the name could be changed to actually get them to think about that we are actually going to push back on creative, and have like a wrestle basically with creative (development).”

We see Kat walking through the offices, past the large Wrestler “W” brand and sitting down at a meeting with Ben and a staff member.

She says “copyright becomes a consideration every moment of our day. Whether it is our own ideas coming to life, or using other contractors, creators, using music.”

We see Kat seated in an arched relaxation space in the Wrestler office. She says “When we registered ‘Wrestler’ with the companies' office, I thought we had trademarked the name Wrestler. But we hadn't. I had this moment of like, we haven't trademarked it! I was kind of freaking out about it. I emailed a friend of mine, he was like, ‘yup, we can do it for you’.”

We return to seeing Kat on the beach, with her dog. She says “I just can't believe it took us a whole year to register it. We need to make sure the work we are doing is making the world a better place. Not just selling things for the sake of consumption. Whether it's sustainability or mental health, equality. These are the things that we really think about when we are working with a client.”

“Story telling is the most powerful tool we can use to make the world a better place, and somewhere that our rangatahi want to inherit. And that is why I think that our story is so powerful and why I love what we do at Wrestler.”

The end titles say “Own your love what you do idea” and the film finishes with the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand logo.

Within VR there are different levels. The best stuff is in volumetric VR where you can move around and interact with things, like pick things up, shoot a ball into a hoop or whatever you want...

Dream it

In 2016 Kat Lintott and Ben Forman took a leap from the safety of being video producers into the creative agency space. They rebranded their business as Wrestler and stepped up to making high-tech, multidimensional, creative projects in virtual and augmented reality.

The aim, above all, was to reinvent how clients could engage with stories. To use the empathy virtual environments stimulate in participants, to inform and build understanding about things that matter. In short, to connect people to things that matter to them, to push our collective consciousness forward.

Their new venture, Wrestler, would build on their existing film production business to tell human-centred stories that would benefit the world. “It's taken four years to build that new side of the company. It's still very early on and early adopters are clients who want to try something new and reach new markets,” Kat says.

“When we looked at the point of difference [we could offer] it was in the interactive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) space,” Kat says. “We're learning and inventing, and no one is saying ‘you can't do that’, because no one's ever done it before, so, yes you can.” 

Kat and Ben working on a customer’s problem at the Wrestler offices.

Kat and Ben working on a customer’s problem at the Wrestler offices.

Four years later, Kat and Ben have turned their dream into a thriving reality. Wrestler's client list includes blue chip businesses here and overseas, iwi, government departments, education providers, rural and city-based industries, not-for-profits, trusts, emerging and established enterprises.

Kat has flourished as a champion for their new approach, negotiating shared intellectual property (IP) agreements and bringing terrific collaborations together. “In partnership with Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, we turned the Mataatua Wharenui into a 3D photo reel-like photogrammetry environment. With permission from the rūnanga, one their whakairo – a carving of an ancestor – became an awesome digital story tracing the arrival of the waka Mataatua from Hawaiki at Whakatāne. “We did a 3D storytelling version and we did a gamified version,” Kat says. “The producers of a national educational tour were inspired by this. The producers and the iwi collaborated with us to tell a waka hourua voyage story to audiences all over New Zealand and also to gift this resource back to the iwi.”

Wrestler has found its way to get inside each story it takes on. With new technologies and working for clients that want to collaborate, the brand brings empathy, creativity and nerdy tech together. There's a new initiative underway too. Describing Wrestler Studios as their “next adventure”, Kat is looking for ways to build on the value of Wrestler's four-year store of creative intellectual property.

Do it

Kat and Ben's previous business experience ensured they were well-prepared to take the next step with Wrestler. Originally their big OE started them off on this path. “We did some travelling around the world, made videos … developed an understanding of international markets and relationships, which was super awesome,” Kat says.

They had the necessary entrepreneurial skills and knew how to develop strategic frameworks and methodologies to support their projects. Furthermore, they were experienced creatives who knew how to tell and sell a good story, and they had long-since mastered the art of content production.

But the world was changing and with new creative technologies flooding the market, it seemed the perfect moment to get their dreams for their new business into gear. “Ben and I were just looking, you know, at developing … an agency, a creative agency really,” Kat recalls. “When we looked at the point of difference we could offer, it was in the interactive virtual reality/augmented reality space.”

Kat says she loved the idea, but when she and Ben started thinking about the content they'd need to create, she got scared. Imposter fears – the disabling idea that she didn’t fit the mould of a typical content producer – hit hard. “Then I thought we need a really diverse range of people to feed into this new technology and software so we have a proper representation of how the technology is going to serve us – serve the humans and serve the earth.

“I had to understand what the technology means for me in the wider context of the world and get a handle on new things like the AI (artificial intelligence) robots and virtual reality. It all freaked me out. Then I thought, ‘I have to understand all this technology, in order to create content that is actually going to benefit the world’.”

“I took a stance around creating empowering content, so that once people step out of the virtual reality world, it's going to empower them.”

A key aspect of Wrestler's purpose is in enabling its clients “to achieve what they need to achieve, to hit their business goals, their environmental goals and society's goals,” Kat says.

“We have a very values-led approach, we have an innovation approach, and we have creativity. Those are the three core areas that we like to work on, within the company.”

Intellectual property

About a year after starting Wrestler, one of Ben and Kat's friends who works as an intellectual property (IP) lawyer encouraged them to protect Wrestler's IP.

They were advised to get their trade mark protected, which they did – firstly just for New Zealand, but now the company's doing so well in the United States, the Wrestler trade mark will be protected there too. Going through the trade marking process was “really easy” and a sensible move, Kat says.

“I think because we've got such a good reputation and we're getting more and more into that values-led area for our clients and for ourselves [where we're trying to do work that is ethical], it would be easy for someone to come in and start another company with a similar name and completely confuse the brand we have built for ourselves.”

The trade mark registration – the brand – represents the quality of all the work Wrestler produces, Ben and Kat’s creative ideas, and staff work too. It also includes everything commissioned from contractors. “In one project Wrestler engaged four artists,” Kat says. “We gave them the brief and asked for the outputs. We own those as we bought them … then the client bought the end product from us. We don't reuse any work between clients, unless there is a mutually agreed thing.”

Having said that, Kat says Wrestler's partnership with Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi and Ngāti Awa created a special opportunity to share IP in a unique way. The Film Commission had provided an Interactive Development Fund, which the partners decided to use to create activities to encourage Māori struggling with new technology to learn to feel comfortable using it. Between them, they researched, developed and produced a selection of stories and games using custom-created VR and other IT media to tell Whakatāne's founding story. “Then Ministry of Education saw this and got inspired,” Kat says.

She explains the Ministry was planning to send a truck around the country to educate the community on Aotearoa's history – and after seeing the work the partners were doing on the Whakatāne story, wanted Kat to turn the truck into “a virtual reality Waka Hourua experience”. (A Waka Hourua is a traditional Māori double-hulled canoe like the ones that carried the first settlers from Hawaiki to Aotearoa). “The truck became a big museum that we designed, showing Aotearoa from the beginning of time through to when Pacific Islanders arrived, through to settlements, European arrival, Treaty, post-Treaty up to now and into the future. It was a huge project.”

What followed is a distinctively Aotearoa/New Zealand gift exchange that exemplifies manaakitanga – which is centred on offering generosity, support and care for others. “I asked permission from Ngāti Awa if they would gift the research and development project we were doing to the Ministry. They agreed. Then the Ministry paid for the texturing [which increases the scene detail and realism] and also contributed facts about what the waka would have looked like and felt like and what the sky would have been like – and everything. They got that up to a really amazing standard … and now they've gifted that back to Ngāti Awa, and Awanuiārangi and Wrestler.”

The upshot of the re-gifting meant Wrestler was able to use the texturing and information the Ministry provided to improve the quality of the work the Whakatāne story partnership was producing.

“That's … sharing IP for a better overall result. Knowledge sharing for Aotearoa and the tamariki of New Zealand,” Kat says.

Own it

Curiosity, inventiveness, and learning

Being creative, innovative and adopting new technologies as they are invented are central to Wrestler's identity. Along with these, Kat says open communication, trust and transparency are key to testing ideas and options against clients' goals and budgets.

She loves the creative opportunities new technologies offer. “It's fun, because we're all inventing stuff … there's no rule set. I guess that's why I like it because we're just learning and inventing.”

Kat speaks of a recruitment campaign where the client wanted a VR or interactive immersive experience. Wrestler pulled some new recruits together and workshopped their reasons for choosing their new career. Using this information as a base, Wrestler then developed and produced a fully interactive virtual reality experience, so people considering a new career could feel as if they were in the shoes of someone actually doing the job. To optimise the campaign's audience reach, Wrestler also created a mobile game, a PC game, trailers and a video.

“Everyone with a mobile will be able to experience the campaign, so that's a wider approach. On the trailers we've created 3D models of people.” Kat says they created a story-line, “mocapped” the recruits and others going about their work (mocapping is VR-speak for movement capture) and then attached the real staff and recruits' characters and voices to the models.

Kat seated in the funky work tunnel at Wrestler

The Wrestler offices encourage creative and innovative work.

Multimedia has been unlocked by new technology, Kat reflects. “It's improving all the time, which means we have more access to create better content and create better outputs in a faster and easier way. That means we can reduce the cost for our clients.

“If they have the same budget we can give them more – more than they would have got in the past. I'm learning from the film industry, the TV industry, the games industry, advertising industry and the tech industry. Not many other people are sitting across all of those and I'm bringing all of that information back in to Wrestler … and it's just making Wrestler's product so much better.

“Prices for some new technologies have dropped and some formerly specialist technologies are commonplace and affordable. It's an exciting time to be creating.”

Wrestling the future

Kat's next venture will look at ways to maximise Wrestler's original creative IP.

While requests for the company's solid core of more established creative technologies, such as videos, are continuing to flow in, a steady trickle of augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality projects are being commissioned.

“We're developing original content that is owned by Wrestler and material made possible through New Zealand Film Commission funding, or private equity funding,” she says. “You know, if you could say ‘I want to own the creative IP for Star Wars’, everyone would be like ‘well of course’. But people aren't really thinking about that from a beginning phase you know, so that's what we're looking at now.”

Just at the moment though, while Callaghan Innovation (which focuses on innovative science and technology developments) and the Science for Technological Innovation national science challenges have been granted niche research and development funds, this isn't the same for creative technologies. “There's not a space for it yet. That's something that I'm really passionate about looking at for the future,” Kat says.

Wrestler's past four years have set a firm course for the future – and the future looks bright. Kat and Ben have made their dream for a values-focused, high-tech, multidimensional, creative agency come true. They have both local and international clients, and big ideas and plans. Their ‘boots and all’ attitude to learning, and a commitment to some key values – a spirit of enabling, sharing and tikanga Māori – permeates their view of the future. What they have created in Wrestler is a funky, highly energised studio business, where enabling clients reigns supreme. New ideas, inventiveness, creative technologies, manaakitanga are the business principles they are proud to stamp their trade mark on.

Virtual reality equipment with the Wrestler brand

Virtual reality equipment with the Wrestler brand

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