VR FILMMAKING’S FUTURE IS BEAUTIFUL AND…TOTALLY UNCERTAIN
The director who once helped two parasols find love in The Blue Umbrella is in the vanguard of filmmakers exploring virtual reality. Frankly, he’d like some company.
“I think it was about a year ago that I saw a VR thing for the first time and fell in love with it,” he tells a small audience in a warehouse space in New York’s Meatpacking District. “But, to be honest, VR right now is also kind of the loneliest place ever. [It’s like if] you go to a cinema with 20 screens but there’s just one movie showing and you’ve seen it 20 times. And most of the cinema is also empty so you’re there alone. That is VR right now.”
That’s why he’s called these people together. They’re here for “A Closer Look at Virtual Reality,” a salon of sorts hosted by Milk Studios to bring techies and VR types together with creatives from other disciplines. Unseld hopes the event, held earlier this month, sparks more gatherings—and eventually more VR films.
There has been a lot of talk lately about VR filmmaking, and the possibilities are incredible. Animated films, documentaries, and live-action experiences could be revolutionized by 360-degree environments and a choose-your-own-adventure storytelling platform. The problem is, no one knows how to do it. Unseld has some ideas he’s exploring for Oculus’s Story Studio. Chris Milk, whose company VRSE is offering demos of its latest projects, has some really promising pieces in the works. One of them, made with Vice, puts you in the middle of the anti-police brutality protests that erupted in New York last year. Indie director Rose Troche is doing some interesting things to give viewers two sides of the same story.
But does anyone know what VR “movies” will look like? Eh, not so much.
“The stories I would like to make, I don’t even know what they are yet,” Troche says. “I think that we who are traditional filmmakers don’t really know how to write for VR yet.” Indeed. One of the trickiest things to figure out will be what, exactly, a “story” is. Questions like whether a VR tale needs three acts or where the fourth wall is in an immersive 360-degree space haven’t been answered yet. And, to Troche’s point, it’s not even clear if a VR story needs a script.
Take, for example, the night’s most popular VR experience: Framestore’s Game of Thrones experience Ascend the Wall, which quite simply allows you to ascend the Wall of Westeros. It’s an improvement of the experience’s previous incarnation, in which participants were put in an elevator of sorts to simulate the experience of ascending the 700-foot-tall wall. This version uses position tracking—people walking around the warehouse space felt they were walking along the Wall. You could even jump off—I did, and it was surreal. But it’s still not telling a story.
And that’s OK. Not every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. In his spare time, Unseld has been working with director Lily Baldwin on a VR project that will incorporate contemporary dance into the VR experience. They’re still dreaming it up, but it’ll likely be more of a scene that turns viewers into voyeurs and leaves them with a feeling rather than give them the resolution of a plot. “Choreography is sort of a relationship to lens, and I wanted to put that into a product that could basically make people feel more alive, so they can empathize in a visceral way with their protagonist,” says Baldwin, a former dancer. “So VR is kind of a creative wet dream.”
Elsewhere other ideas are being bandied about. If this night has a buzzword, it’s “empathy”—as in, “how does empathy change with VR?” Film critic Roger Ebert once said “movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” but a machine that can literally put you in the place of a sexual assault survivor—as Troche’s Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party does—is a worthy successor.
But even empathy is tricky. Everything that happens in VR obviously feels far more real than anything on a theater or TV screen, and if they’re not careful, directors could traumatize people. As the night at Milk Studios winds down, Ingrid Kopp, director of digital initiatives for the Tribeca Film Festival, tells me finding the boundaries of what is and isn’t OK to do to people in VR will be an important question filmmakers must consider.
“Even the word ‘empathy’ and the fact that it’s thrown around so much with VR, what are we actually saying?” she says. “I just think that none of those things have been interrogated and this is part of the community that needs to do that.”
There are other things the VR community needs to do, Kopp says. For one, keep it diverse and “don’t have a panel with five white guys, don’t do all the things that have been done again and again.” Also, fail freely. “The only way you’re going to learn how to do this is by doing it and probably getting it wrong,” she says. “People always talk about the history of cinema and say, ‘Oh, the movie camera came out and then an actual feature film came 20 odd years later.’ Obviously things are different now, things are moving much faster, but it still does take a while to find an art form.”
That’ll happen another day. The party is coming to a close. The final guests are ascending the Wall, and more and more people in fashionable boots shuffle out into the slushy streets. It’s cold out and Winter Storm Thor is about to dump a blanket of snow on the city. It’s odd, actually, that this salon happened in New York. Nearly everyone else in the virtual reality space is at the Game Developer Conference in the much more temperate climate of San Francisco. Then I remember Unseld, who planned the night with folks who organize the Future of StoryTelling summits, had a specific reason for holding the event here. He wants to tap into the very specific talents New York has.
“New York has this nice thing of having such a massive theater/arts/classical/fine arts scene and then also the rising tech stuff,” he says. “In the Bay Area, there is so much tech. While it’s great and fantastic and I love the stuff we’re doing at Story Studio, I feel like here there is the chance of having these more independent, artistic voices do projects in VR that ultimately I would want to see.”
And hopefully it means he won’t feel lonely much longer.
First published on trustedreviews.com.