Virtual Reality Backlash: Charlie Chaplin’s Thoughts
Cinema is little more than a passing fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” – Charlie Chaplin, 1916
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Criticizing transformative technologies by eminent people has always been part of history. Apart from Charlie Chaplin historical prediction that motion pictures were a fad, historical accounts also showed that few decades later, people thought the same thing of television (and the iPod a few decades after that). Today, the pre-backlash is facing the emerging VR industry. It is an expected phenomenon.
The phenomenon, however, is thought provoking, since such condemnation is often as result of the messages inherent rather than of a medium itself.
The remark by Chaplin concerning “flesh and blood on the stage” conveys a whole lot about storytelling in early days of cinema. Admittedly, storytelling for centuries has been a totally physical act. It was flesh and blood, showing in superb physicality in front of the audience. It has physical and touchable presence which early films don’t showcase. Early films are distance and impersonal, therefore, out of people’s reality. Or, how do you compare great stage plays like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet to The Black Imp, no doubt, cinema would look nothing more than a momentary fancy — a fancy doomed to fail for lacking narrative essence.
Naturally, ideas progress rapidly once it has come to stay — notable studios such as Universal, Paramount, and Fox became a part of the moving picture landscape between 1910 and 1927, and within short period major developments became noticeable in film in the form of “talkies.”
What Chaplin didn’t see was the subsequent realization by filmmakers on figuring out how to utilize the fact that the audience wasn’t in the room to their own advantage. And, film only get to become a theatrical medium rather than a simple means of narrative delivery when film-producers began using complex camera work, cuts, fade, jump cats, and montages. Suddenly, the act structures became complicated and writers began adopting experimental departures from conventional storytelling. Given the successful transformation of cinema, it was obvious that Chaplin was short-sighted to think that cinema did not have the tendency to reinvent the conventions of theater.
Therefore, it is worthy to look back at the shortsightedness of Chaplin in the wake of the Oculus Rift. This is so important given critics complains that VR, though useful, won’t give storytellers ground-breaking new tools. That might sound true as of now, but like the cinema, VR in actually passing through the phase of disappointment in its early attempts at VR storytelling.
In a major address at FMX last week, Andrew Cochrane, Digital and New Media Director of Mirada Studios, spoke about “Creating Narratives for Virtual Reality”. He discussed about immersive cinema and impossible perspective, of inclusion and character, of focus and attention. Cochrane liken the present stage of the VR to the early days of cinema, with Méliès camera plays and simple films, but emphasized that the future is better than what it is today.
In conclusion, Chaplin’s thought was absolutely erroneous concerning the role of cinema in culture and society. For society would have remained on stage displaying humanity’s most essential and impactful stories if audiences hadn’t been so impressed and filmmakers so devoted to the innovation.