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Digital Playground's Joone

Matt O'Conner
For a young filmmaker, there are two possible paths to making movies on his own terms.

He can work the studio system, spend years churning out safe, commercial fare and hope to one day wield the power and influence necessary to call his own shots.

Or, he can subvert the system altogether, go the indie-movie route and steamroll his way to creative freedom through sheer filmic ingenuity.

Digital Playground founder Joone has built his company by doing things no one has seen before — in adult or mainstream — from making the first fully interactive movie to the first feature shot, edited, mastered and released entirely on high-definition media. When it comes to cutting-edge innovation, Hollywood chokes on Digital Playground's dust. But Joone's films aren't simply exercises in technical ecstasy. All of the sophisticated machinery and software behind them serves a greater purpose — to help the director achieve a distinct artistic vision.

"The last place you can do a truly independent movie is in adult," Joone told XBiz. "In adult, you can do whatever you want as long as the movie has sex in it."

Fortunately for Joone, what he wants to do also seems to be what audiences and critics want to see, as his films consistently snag major industry awards and top best-seller lists.

XBiz recently spoke with Joone about his approach to filmmaking, his stridently independent spirit and his company's pioneering use of technology.

XBIZ: How did you get started in adult filmmaking?

JOONE: I was directing music videos and commercials. This was in '94, and the Internet was just emerging. I didn't have a rich uncle, and I wondered how I could make money really quickly, so I started my own company. Since there weren't many adult sites, the industry was more about CD-ROMs.

XBIZ: What was the first movie you directed?

JOONE: Actually, I didn't get into shooting features until '97 or '98. My first movie was the original "Virtual Sex" shoot for CD-ROM. Back then, before DVDs, we shot everything for computer, and "Virtual Sex" was the first title to use QuickTime VR technology.

Until around '97, the only way to get interactive content was on CDs, which are even lower resolution than VHS. The picture wasn't that great. But it was an interactive medium, so I said, "Let's do something you can only get in this medium." We shot the girls so that [users] could rotate them around, switch camera angles, pick different positions and create their own sexual situations. It was so successful that we went on to do the whole "Virtual Sex" series.

XBIZ: How important was that series to the growth of Digital Playground?

JOONE: Right away, it put us on the map. It became our flagship title. People would see Digital Playground and say, "Those are the guys who make 'Virtual Sex,'" and there's nothing else like it.

XBIZ: How did shooting adult compare to your experience directing commercials?

JOONE: I'm a director. To me, shooting adult is no different.

XBIZ: Were you involved in other aspects of the production as well?

JOONE: I was also doing all the programming for CDROMs. I sort of taught myself. I started out with one computer — a Mac Quadra 950 — a video capture card and some hard drives. The initial investment to get the company going was only around $7,000.

XBIZ: Did you and [Digital Playground President] Samantha Lewis start the company together?

JOONE: Samantha came onboard later. I had a partner at the time who had put up the original capital investment to get the computer. He was my partner until '97, but we split because I wanted to bet the whole company on DVD, and he didn't believe in it. He thought it was a fad.

Samantha was selling videos at the time, and I dealt with her in my business and thought she was an amazing salesperson.

XBIZ: You have a very distinctive style. What's your philosophy or approach regarding directing adult movies?

JOONE: My style is always evolving. I just continue to come back to certain ways of thinking, things that inspire me. I'm an admirer of Bruce Weber and Helmut Newton. It's usually about a moment or a situation when imagination takes over, when the scene moves from the real world into fantasy.

Also, I used to do lots of fashion shoots in Milan and Tokyo and Spain, and you can see that influence in my work.

XBIZ: Are there any challenges finding people who can deliver the quality of work you want?

JOONE: We're always looking for good people to work with. There are people we'll continue to work with because they know what we're looking for and they know how to deliver it. Every production brings in new people, so we can see what they're capable of and pick up people from project to project.

XBIZ: Most of your films have big budgets relative to the industry. Why do you think there seems to be an industry wide trend away from full-length features and toward low-budget gonzo?

JOONE: I think it's because most people in the industry are looking for fast turnaround. Whenever the focus is on quantity, quality always suffers. Right now, most of what's being produced is about people shocking the audience and seeing how far they can push the limits. To me, that's not really filmmaking.

I feel like independent filmmaking sort of died in early 1990s when big studios bought up all of the independent companies. A $20 million Miramax film is not an independent movie. The last place you can do a truly independent movie is in adult — in adult, you can do whatever you want as long as the movie has sex in it. I always tell people to look at sex as the commercial that pays for the movie.

I'm sure there are directors out there who would like to be making higher-quality films. There are lots of talented writers and directors in Hollywood who will never have the chance to make a movie or to make a movie the way they want to make it. But they can come into adult filmmaking and no one tells them what to do.

XBIZ: As a director, was it difficult to hand over the creative reins for some of the company's projects to [Digital Playground contract directors] Celeste and Robby D?

JOONE: I love working with talented people. It's just a matter of developing trust over time.

XBIZ: How involved are you with their work?

JOONE: Basically, any project that gets done at Digital I'm involved with, at least on a conceptual level. I help to develop the story and the characters and work with writers to turn stories into scripts. I also work with Robby on the "Jack's Playground" series developing the characters so that those movies will be something more than just gonzo. If I'm not directing a digital movie, I'm on the set taking pictures for the box cover and throwing out ideas. But I do give them complete creative freedom.

XBIZ: What do you think will be the next big technical innovations driving adult entertainment?

JOONE: High-definition. We just released our first DVD ever ["Island Fever 3"] with hi-def on it, and it brings another level of intimacy to the viewer. People who've never seen it can't really grasp the idea. But once they see it, they never go back.

We're also working with some companies to develop really cool hologram technology. People always wonder why we shoot "Virtual Sex" with a black background; it's [because that's] the only way to knock out the performer for holographic imaging. Technology is being developed now that will make it so a person standing in his living room can reach out and touch the girl [in a hologram], and she'll react to it. We showed a demonstration of it at a show a couple of years ago, and it's interesting because there were actually a few documentaries done about it on TV.

XBIZ: When do you see that being commercially available?

JOONE: We're looking at [a commercial application] in about three or four years. Right now, what's holding it up is you have to get a whole new TV set that costs around $10,000. But they are being used in different arenas. In Las Vegas, one of the hotels is spending like $300 or $400 million to incorporate holograms into a show. The audience thinks a performer is on the stage, but they're really not. It's good enough to fool audiences.

XBIZ: What can we expect from Digital Playground in the coming year?

JOONE: We just finished "Pirates," probably the biggest feature ever shot in adult in terms of the production, the undertaking, the cast, the script, the costuming, the budget — everything. [Digital Playground partnered with Adam & Eve to produce "Pirates," which stars Jesse Jane and Carmen Luvana.]

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