Greetings from London. This is the fourth post in my series on Virtual Reality Cinema.
Cinema is a technological art, which means that the technology helps to define the art, and vice-versa. So far, in this series of posts, we've detailed some of the technology that makes VR movies possible. Now let's look at the content.
What follows are some characteristics of VR movies I’ve seen and some thoughts from VR practitioners I’ve spoken with. I purposely limit my remarks to videos made with cameras, as opposed to computer-generated animations. I've also excluded VR movies that can only be seen with Samsung Gear or Oculus Rift prototype headsets.
The refugee-camp bakery in Clouds Over Sidra
1. simple beginnings
2. being there
3. fixed or moving 360
5. documentary versus fiction
6. theater without a crew
9. Clouds Over Sidra
1. simple beginnings
In some ways, today’s VR movies are as simple as the first films shot by Edison and the Lumière brothers in the 1890s. I have not yet seen a great VR movie, but I have watched many interesting ones.
iPhone App Store screen shots
The best Cardboard movies I’ve seen can be downloaded to your smartphone from Vrse or Jaunt, however both offerings require a powerful recent phone model like the Samsung Note 4, Galaxy 6s or iPhone 5s.
Movies on vrse app, screen shots from Jaunt VR of performances by Paul McCartney and Little Sean
2. being there
I’ve recently had the opportunity to show 360 VR movies with a Google Cardboard headset to people around me, with ages ranging from 6 to 90 years old. Every single person was amazed and captivated. The immediate reaction is that VR gives you a taste of being there.
Interactivity is essential to VR. It is the fact that your angle of view changes with your head motions that convinces your brain you are in a new location.
A sense of immersion is key to virtual reality. In 360 movies, there is no boundary between the screen and the screening room: everything you see is part of the screen.
In 360 VR, when you look down you cannot see your body. Your invisibility allows you to feel safe as you view new VR environments. This feeling of presence in VR movies is different from the film-theater experience: in virtual reality you are a disembodied voyeur. This eerie spectator role will no doubt be addressed in some future VR movies.
SNL Q & A with Jerry Seinfeld on Vrse places the viewer next to the VIP audience
Although 2-D movies can be powerful, stereo 3-D VR clearly offers more realism. As discussed in my previous posts, the advantage of 2-D is that it's far simpler to shoot and post-produce, especially for first-time VR filmmakers, and 2-D projects can work well, especially with subjects at a distance. Jaunt's The North Face is a successful 2-D rock-climbing movie that includes footage captured by drone.
3. fixed or moving 360
At present, VR movies usually place you at the fixed center of a 360-degree spherical or cylindrical environment. Typically you change your viewpoint by moving your head. Some 360 movies also have predefined “wormholes” that lead to the center of another image sphere. In Google’s Cardboard app, for example, wormholes inside fixed images lead from one city to another.
Millions March by Chris Milk, Spike Jonze, and Vice News on Vrse
With camera movies, it’s impractical to define every possible way the camera could move from the center. However, some VR movies make you move with the camera as it travels through space, like Vrse’s Millions March, where you follow, and see, the cameraman walking in a protest demonstration against police violence in New York.
Like early cinema, VR movies are shorts, usually running under five minutes. Patrick Meegan, a content producer from Jaunt, explains why his company has been focusing on short VR movies:
“At present, our end use includes queues of people at festivals. Also, the present headsets are not super comfortable, and a little claustrophobic. So we’ve limited ourselves to the duration of a song.
For the near term, the business model is serialized content that could be 10- or 15-minute pieces, with the viewer subscribing to a channel.”
5. documentary vs. fiction
The most successful VR Movies at present are documentaries or performances. I believe that, as happened with early cinema, successful VR fiction will require that filmmakers start to define a storytelling language for this new format.
Unlike fiction, documentaries simply require placing a VR camera inside an interesting existing location and/or performance.
6. theater without a crew
A basic rule of 360 filmmaking is that if you see the camera, it sees you. The director, the cinematographer and the crew cannot be in the same sphere as the actors, because they will be in frame. This also applies to light fixtures, which means that any lighting has to be integrated into the visible scene — as practicals, for example.
One crew and lighting workaround is to do “split 180s,” to shoot separate 180-degree views, like the Blanca Li 360 piece detailed in my second post. But this is a compromise solution that creates the new problem of synchronizing takes shot at different times.
For actors, VR is like a theater stage: all the people in the image sphere can be seen all the time.
Editing remains an unsolved problem in the VR movies I’ve seen. Some successful VR movies, like New Wave by Aron Hjartarson and Samir Mallal, have no edits. Many movies resort to slow dissolves or fades to black. Other movies include a plot device to hide the edit, like covering your head with a cloth, or putting you in a fog. Lighting or other cues can draw the viewer’s attention to a part of the image where the cut works well.
At present VR movies are long takes, giving you the time to turn your head and take in the entire scene. It will be interesting to see if filmmakers develop new conventions to enable the creation of edited sequences in this emerging cinematic form, just as early filmmakers invented the montage and the close-up.
My friend Michael Naimark is currently a resident artist at Google VR. He stresses the impact of close, intimate VR filmmaking:
“The most exciting secret about headset-based VR is that it can present movies in the 1-to-5-meter zone in ways that screen-based never could. Whatever you do with emotional material close to camera is going to be more powerful in headset-based cinema than in screen-based.
Let's say you're in one of those war games and you're hiding behind a rock. If you sway your head back and forth with the Oculus Rift headset, the parallax will work. When you're looking at stereo panoramic cinema on the screen, the parallax won't work: the image will sway with you. Those little cues make headset-based VR much better for the intimate media zone: within arm's reach — or potential arm's reach.”
Michael's point is that there is a very real feeling of intimacy that comes from being physically close to a filmed person or subject. I was struck the other day when 6-year-old Ornella instinctively reached out her hand while looking through Google Cardboard glasses.
Chris Milk TED talk
9. Clouds Over Sidra
The brilliant media artist Chris Milk recently gave a TED talk presenting Clouds Over Sidra, a documentary VR movie about a 12-year-old Syrian girl called Sidra in a Jordanian refugee camp. The movie is a series of tableaux, stationary scenes shot at different places in the camp: the tent Sidra shares with her family, an elementary school, a bakery, a computer-game center, a wrestling match in a gym, a soccer field — accompanied by an English-language voiceover.
The resulting movie is powerful, placing the Western viewer in places most of us would never get to see. As with many strong documentaries, I felt that the sync-sound visuals had more impact than the scripted voiceover. Clouds Over Sidra was directed by United Nations Senior Adviser Gabo Arora and Barry Pousman, with Milk acting as executive producer.
In an online interview, Arora explains his motivation:
“The goal is to make you feel like you are there, and to empathize with what it is like to live there in an ordinary way. I want to influence decision makers, first and foremost. We live in a world of decision makers, unfortunately, who control the lives and destinies of other people. I don't think all of them truly know what [Sidra’s life] is like, and in giving them this experience, I'm hopeful they will be moved to weigh greater the consequences of their decisions.
Clouds Over Sidra screening at the World Economic Forum at Davos 2015. (Photo: Socrates Kakoulides)
In his TED talk, Milk explains that Clouds was shown to the powerful crowd at the Davos World Economic Forum. VR, says Milk, helped to create empathy for Sidra by putting the Davos viewers inside a refugee camp. He concludes by saying:
“VR connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perception of each other. And that’s how I think VR has the potential to change the world.
VR is a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, we become more connected, and ultimately we become more human.”
Milk and associates are going on to make a series of VR movies like Clouds Over Sidra for the U.N. Certainly, VR can and will allow us to have the feeling of being in faraway places with foreign people, and perhaps do us good in the process. However, VR movies will no doubt be used for both good and ill, for war games and peaceful sharing, for business and pornography, for entertainment and education … and everything in between.
For filmmakers, it is clear that VR cinema offers the possibility for creating a new form of cinematic intimacy, presence and empathy.
To download Vrse or Jaunt VR movies, search for "vrse" or "jaunt" on Android Google Play or in the iPhone App Store.
Note that these movies require a recent smartphone like the Samsung Note 4, Galaxy s6 or iPhone 5s
google.com: get cardboard Google’s overview
The History of the Close-Up in Film by Richard Luck
Michael Naimark's web page
Chris Milk's website
Clouds Over Sidra
Chris Milk's TED talk
thecreatorsproject: The UN’s First Virtual Reality Documentary Puts You Inside a Syrian Refugee Camp by Kel O'Neill
I thank the following people for sharing their knowledge for this post:
-- Patrick Meegan
Jaunt VR, California
-- Michael Naimark
Google VR, California
VR on thefilmbook
VR Cinema 1: Google Cardboard
VR Cinema 2: Image Spheres
VR Cinema 3: Cameras
VR Cinema 4: Content
VR Cinema 5: Futures
Carne y Arena PART 1 - VR by Alejandro Iñarritu with Emmanuel Lubezki
Carne y Arena PART 2 - Notes on Design of VR Cinema