Virtual Reality: The platinum film frontier

30 Mar 2017

Exit 6 contributor Kaylie Finn takes a 360-degree look at the future of virtual reality filmmaking and the technology audiences will use to explore these new and totally immersive viewing experiences.

I'm sitting in a Victorian drawing room. Period furnishings are visible through Gothic murk: heavy drapes and aged oil paintings. To my right, limp rag dolls lie motionless on a fireplace. I look at them, glance back, and they’re gone. A child's cradle-song is audible. It's an escape room, and they're coming to get me.

 

Sisters is the gameplay creation of Otherworld Interactive, and my first encounter with virtual reality. It was first unveiled as a New Frontier 2016 selection at the Sundance Institute, an initiative that explores the convergence of arts and technology. Described as 'jump-scare-heavy', Sisters is a VR ghost story which intuitively responds to your movements and intensifies your emotional responses – fear, anxiety, and suspense. When supernatural horror Blair Witch (2016) – direct sequel to cult phenomenon The Blair Witch Project (1999) – hit cinema screens in September 2016, a 90 second VR teaser was developed to promote the film's release. The ad featured on a version upgrade of Sisters, and illustrates how production companies are flirting with VR as part of creative movie marketing.

Hollywood, it seems, is on the brink of a digital frontier where the future is virtual and augmented reality. It will see the rectangular canvases of conventional moving pictures reinvented into 360º sensory environments. Audiences will no longer be passive spectators, but rather, assume the role of active visitors submerged in foreign worlds. In January 2015, Fox Searchlight and partners – including Oculus and Samsung – showcased ‘Wild: The Experience’, a VR promotional event for the theatre run of Wild (2014) starring Reese Witherspoon. In the three-minute video, you are part of a solitary trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, only you’re not completely alone – you’ve stepped beyond the periphery to be among characters.

 

The history of filmmaking – and screenland’s vision for its future ­– celebrates the power of interdisciplinary collaborations. Since English photographer Eadweard Muybridge pioneered the first stop motion film, Race Horse, in 1878, filmmaking has unceasingly converged with technology to bring exhilarating ages of cinema. Silent one-minute shorts evolved into surround-sound features. Vibrant animation, propelled by the likes of Pixar, rewrote the structure and semantics of traditional film. In 2009, James Cameron's 3D experience Avatar signalled a 21st century leap in technology. And now? VR for mobile and PC consoles is laying the foundations for a virtual silver screen. We’ve moved from photographic studies to computer generated simulation in a little over 100 years.

Now, we’re moving away from the familiar red and cyan glasses synonymous with 3D films to intuitive headsets. Instead of fusing anaglyph images to create an illusion of depth, modern VR systems are capable of sophisticated image projection, positional tracking and an expanded field of view, meaning audiences feel entirely immersed in their environment. Digital storytelling is the new language of gaming, performance art, journalism and film. Clouds of Sidra (2015), created by visual artist Chris Milk in collaboration with the United Nations, transports you to The Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. 12-year-old Sidra guides you through her daily life in the vast desert which is a temporary home to more than 130,000 Syrians. It’s lyrical, and evokes human empathy in an arguably unrivalled medium.

Ben Carlin is founder and creative director of Epiphany VR. His company explores new paradigms of digital storytelling, fusing virtual reality with the performing arts. He said:

 

‘I think VR works great in an installation context, where the physical space has also been curated to make you feel even more involved, where other senses are used like smell and touch – aligning the physical and digital experience,’

 

Here, immersion and emotion are the pillars of virtual reality. The building blocks of traditional filming – framing, cuts, zooms, and shots – don’t apply in VR. 3D stereoscopic cameras and microphones face in every direction, taking film in new artistic directions. However, whilst the art of transmedia filmmaking is compelling, it’s still a nascent concept with limitations. VR equipment needs to be sleeker, accessible, and more affordable. Form factor and content creation needs to refined, with consideration paid to rousing music that moves audiences beyond what they can see.

So, what can we expect to see, hear and feel in the future? Carlin has a clear prediction: 'I think we’ll be seeing live streamed 3D actors in our headsets which will be merged with game rendered environments. However, I believe we’re heading more for a future where phones become embedded into glasses and the internet becomes a tangible reality that is all around us. Augmented and virtual reality will just become integrated with everyday life.'

 

Virtual reality films: Coming to a headset near you. Stay tuned.

If you enjoyed Kaylie's contribution to the Exit 6 blog this week - follow her on Twitter: @Kaylie_Finn

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