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Technological Tease: Virtual Reality

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Virtual reality has been the technological tease of the film world since Morton Heilig debuted his multi-paneled viewing box, Sensorama, in the 1950s. The concept resurfaced in the tech boom of the 1990s, as a computer head tracking device evaporated from the popular zeitgeist almost as soon as fast as it appeared. VR resurged again, courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, in 2014. Staggering as that price tag was, it might have been merely the tip of the VR iceberg for Facebook. Zuckerberg stated in January 2017 that he foresees investing up to another $3 billion in VR over the course of the next decade. Meanwhile, other global tech heavyweights such as Google, Sony and HTC also have plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into VR technology in the near future. Perhaps the stars have finally aligned for VR and the technology can meet the expectations. The question in the minds of film lovers is this: what impact will the VR arms race have on cinema?

Technology has always played an intimate role in cinema. William Dickson’s kinetoscope provided the peep show, while the Lumière brothers’ cinematographe advanced film history to the projected image. Talkies, Technicolor, panorama, surround sound, IMAX, digital and CGI; the list of technical advances is long. VR appears to be next on this list of technology integrated with film. Zuckerberg and company are taking enormous financial risks pushing VR technology into the foreground of modern society, advancing the visuals of social media, gaming and storytelling. Their focus is largely on the technology, but they are acutely aware that they will need content for their new toys to be embraced. Cinema, however, has not embraced technology for its own sake. Only those technologies that have enhanced the quality of the narrative — the central ingredient of cinema — have earned a place in the director’s toolkit. Dickson, Thomas Edison, the Lumières, et al, provided technical genius, but cinema was created by gifted storytellers like George Méliès, D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. In “The Myth of Total Cinema,” André Bazin states, “The cinema is an idealistic phenomenon. The concept men had of it existed so to speak fully armed in their minds, as if in some platonic heaven, and what strikes us most of all is the obstinate resistance of matter to ideas rather than of any help offered by techniques to the imagination of the researchers. Furthermore, the cinema owes virtually nothing to the scientific spirit.” Bazin, the father of auteur theory, would probably have viewed VR as just another chapter in the “guiding myth” driving the director’s vision and desire to distill the realism of their world.

The efforts of the tech geeks will mean nothing if the content it produces lacks artistic vision. Herein lies the rub. The principal challenge for a VR film is if (and how) the director can control or focus the audience’s gaze at critical points in the story. Virtual reality’s greatest strength can become its biggest cinematic weakness. When audiences can look anywhere, anytime, how will directors compel them to focus somewhere at a critical moment? Will VR audiences be cheated out of amazing “tunnel vision” chase sequences like the one in The French Connection (1971)? Without a specific, constrained POV, will the psychological confusion of Mia Farrow’s character in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) become a thing of the past? Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and recall the embrace of Scottie and Madeleine when he pledges to always keep her safe. They kiss passionately and the camera zooms to the surf crashing against the rocks. There is a perfect crescendo of mise-en-scène with the Bernard Herrmann score getting louder and more powerful by the second. Also, consider the staggering challenge for VR that would be posed by the spinning top scene at the end of Inception (2010). In a VR version, viewers may question whether they see it wobble, or just imagined it. Will VR audiences miss out on the artistic direction and message of a film due to the distraction of “exploring” the surrounding environment?

These are, without doubt, difficult and complex challenges for VR. There are currently some directors who are attempting to tackle these issues. VR can become just another technology in the filmmaker’s toolbox. If it can augment the narrative, and does not interfere too much with directors’ style, directors will experiment with it. VR’s proponents have a crucial advantage that many previous technologies lacked — copious amounts of cash to lavish on projects that educate directors about VR and build momentum. The combination of funds and interesting technology have already lured several competent and influential directors to experiment with it. Among them is Christopher Nolan. He created a short VR in connection with his film, Interstellar (2014) because he thought it might assist audiences in comprehending some of the more abstract astrophysics concepts in his film. Guillermo del Toro created a VR game based upon his film, Pacific Rim, in 2014. Judging by the recent news to come out of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, a growing number of people within the world of cinema are ready to embrace the immersive VR storytelling experience. A prime example of the VR experience might be Dear Angelica from Oculus Story Studio. Adi Robertson of The Verge describes it as a “gorgeous reflection on the power of art and fiction, as well as a technical achievement.” Variety writer Janko Roettgers claimsDear Angelica isn’t just a deeply personal and inmate story, it’s also pushing boundaries on virtual reality storytelling itself.” Such an outlook has led many to consider virtual reality as the next logical evolutionary step in visual storytelling. It will be the first time in history that the viewing audience will have as much a say in the storytelling experience as the content creators themselves.

This paradigm shift in storytelling has led the film industry, including Fox Studios’ producer Simon Kinberg, to ask bigger questions like whether we are facing a social shift in what is now to be considered a shared experience. Will cinema and movies thrive in the future, or will the entire film medium and cinema industry be made obsolete in favor of a new form of VR interactive medium?

The genre which may most optimally adapt to VR is the documentary. Stuart Eve, an archaeologist turned media content creator developed an augmented reality app called “Dead Men’s Eyes.” Eve wanted to give contemporary visitors a better understanding of what life was like back in the prehistoric tin-mining town of Leskernick Hill, United Kingdom. Viewers can use the camera feed on their iPad to view virtual bronze houses, and depending on their exact GPS location, they can play different 3D audio sounds, further deepening an already immersive experience. I can see where the freedom that VR affords the viewer would be welcomed by the documentary director and not be disruptive to their task. Imagine March of the Penguins (2005) on an Oculus Rift VR device instead of viewing it a flat 2D surface, or watching the film in a 360 degrees viewing environment and having the option in real time to select different audio files that give more information, rather than exclusively what film narrator Morgan Freeman says. This type of device could allow documentary filmmakers, such as Werner Herzog, to create more immersive documentaries than ever before.

As for the artistic perspective, creators like Nonny de la Peña are addressing this issue by honing in on empathy driven storytelling. Her latest VR installation, Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story, focuses on Daniel Ashley Pierce, whose family verbally and physically accosts him before kicking him out of the house because they disapprove of his sexuality. By placing her viewers in short, yet emotionally powerful viewing situations, de la Peña minimizes the risk that her audience is getting distracted by anything extraneous to the narrative.

The amount of cinematic VR projects slated to come out of the film scene is getting progressively bigger. In April 2017, Kathryn Bigelow will premiere her 12-minute VR project entitled The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes at the annual Tribeca Film Festival. VR experiences are also planned for Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner 2049 and Deepa Mehta’s recently released film, Anatomy of Violence, about the 2012 gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi. Furthermore, Lionsgate Media recently aligned themselves with a games developer to create a VR game to tie in with the recent release of John Wick: Chapter 2. So, overall, it is abundantly clear that Hollywood is fully ready to embrace the magical possibilities of VR and the economic growth that will come from that embrace.

Yet, will VR creators be so willing to see themselves only as the next evolutionary step in the great history of cinema? VR creator Rose Troche is an advocate for a distinct separation of the two mediums. She states, “I’m advocating for a whole new set of words so that we stop calling it “cinema.” This needs to exist as what it is and not be put into a funnel of what is a beautiful and amazing medium, but it’s not the same thing.” Meanwhile, Chris Milk, founder of LA-based VR production company VRSE Works, believes film is an antiquated term and we need to start referring to it as “experiences.”

In conclusion, I foresee that VR will eventually become a key asset of filmmaking, putting itself right alongside sound, color, digital and CGI as an essential staple of the industry. However, as things stand now, VR is still more of a gimmick, a nickelodeon, still waiting for a D.W. Griffith type to come along and show the world all the strength and potential it has. With great interest, I will watch and wait.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture. 

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