Filmmakers Inventing the Language of VR
As a filmmaker, imagine you being able to capture any moment, idea, or feeling so anyone can relive it. Now think of something different which you can put your audience into. You can create a world for your audience to be a part of which is entirely different from the usual rules of cinematic experience. A film director at Penrose Studios, Eugene Chung thinks virtual reality is like the invention of moving picture and how it took over the stage.
In an interview before his company debuted its second VR animated feature, Allumette, a movie which talks about the sacrifices a mother makes for her daughter, at the 2016 Tribeca Film festival, Chung said, “I don’t think anyone alive really knows much about the language of VR,” Chung said “In the last great art transition, the major stage play directors tried to become film directors, and a lot of them didn’t succeed because they did things like put the camera in front of the stage,” said Chung.
To make a great film today, it is not dependent on an Oculus or HTC headset. At the beginning, the medium may look like film but it is really something different entirely. The audience controls the camera in Virtual Reality. Technologists and directors are inventing language and tools for telling stories as they go as there no existing ones.
Chung says, “Like the stage and theater, there’s a unity of time and space in VR in a way that there isn’t in cinema, so things just tend to take longer to do. You have to actually wait for that person to walk across the room. You can’t go: ‘OK, she’s here” and then you cut to another scene where she’s across the room. “We have experimented with lots of things — including scale. … For us, we want to create these big open worlds. We actually think about ourselves as creating world’s first, and then the stories and characters as secondary”.
In Allumette, you watch while standing up and the audience is made to experience a god-like view as each scene as if they were perched in the clouds. Like any other VR experience out today, you move the camera by looking around while also changing the scale of the set and characters simply by walking toward them.
Director Rose Troche, whose second VR piece, Perspective Ch. 2: The Misdemeanor, also debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival said, “You can’t try to fit the square hole of cinema into the spherical hole of VR. It’s not like … ‘Oh my god, I have a script laying around, I’m going to do this in VR.’ If you’re going to do it in VR, then you have to rewrite it. In complete contrast to Allumette, Troche’s film which is watched while sitting down explores bias by capturing the perspective of police officers, suspects, and bystanders as an altercation spirals out of control. The viewer sees the film from the perspective of each character — you’re the cop pulling the trigger of a gun, or a 15-year-old collapsing onto the ground.
In each film, there’s the feeling of being there in person — and yet not. Chung said. “There’s a really interesting question of identity in VR”. “Have you ever seen Patrick Swayze in the movie Ghost? In virtual reality, you kind of feel that way. Let’s say there’s a dog here, and I’m like, ‘hey dog,’ and the dog doesn’t respond to me the way I think it would, you feel this weird effect — you feel like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. It’s ‘the Swayze Effect.’
“That’s the weird thing about working in these new mediums,” said Chung. “You work in a brand-new medium, you don’t have a name for things, right? When you don’t have a name for them you just have to make them up.”
Interactivity is a characteristic of virtual reality which is mostly absent in VR film today persists in the description of the ghostly sensation by Chung in The Misdemeanor.
It’s not like either of The Misdemeanor or Allumette are interactive in any significant way but each of them does a good job of transporting the viewer somewhere else. In both films, you don’t have to worry about how awkward sitting there is with a goofy headset while other people take snaps because you have already left the room for another world.
Another film which debuted at the festival, Google spotlight stories’ latest animated film, With Pearl lacks interactivity too. However, Google and the film director Patrick Osborne found a way to give the viewers a reasonable level of control.
Rachid El Guerrab, a project lead working on Google Spotlight Stories says, “With Pearl, is a story that happens in a car and is a story of a dad and his daughter growing up. The story happens in their lifetime in a sense — at least, the growth of his daughter. There are moments where, based on how you look or who you’re looking at, we move the story … or not, or we take you somewhere else, so you see a surprise — an Easter egg in a way — but it makes sense in the moment,”
The lack of complex interactivity in VR films today can be criticized, but a major challenge for filmmakers is shooting 360-degree video. While recording continuous 360-degree scenes for The Misdemeanor, Troche and collaborator Morris May, founder of VR studio Specular Theory, had to blend in as extras in the film.
“We’re hiding [in the scene]. I’m in the crowd of people … the sound guy, he’s in a cyclist uniform. You just make your crew extras — whoever’s willing to come on board,” Troche said. “Try directing that way — it’s really crazy. You’re like, ‘Did we get it?’ It reminds me of when I shot in Super 8, and I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll see it when it comes back from the lab,’ you know?”
The easiest way to realize that VR filmmakers have yet to realize the full potential of the medium is when you think about how it is possible to not just watch a movie but exist somehow inside of it. But that’s what makes the evolution of VR so mesmerizing. VR cannot compete yet with cinemas in terms of polish but it can absolutely compete in terms of impact. The ideas to make the medium work and the idea makers are there, technologists and directors are also there making the medium come to full blown reality before our own eyes. While the medium is a work in progress, it has already proven that it is worth the attention and it possesses the potential to replace the regular cinema.