New Technology, New Rules: A Look at Some of the Earliest Examples of Virtual Reality Cinema

In a few months, the first Oculus Rift headsets will be available to buy, and from advance sales it looks like the most anticipated technologies since the iPad. The technology has already begun to be applied in a variety of ways, utilized by doctors and astronauts, and the potential for use in education, video games and other forms of entertainment are huge.

Here in Montreal, there are currently two exhibitions for people to sample some of the examples of what I call Virtual Reality Cinema, which is to say that it tries to use VR technology in a cinematic and artistic way. One is The Library at Night, by Robert Lepage and Alberto Manguel, at the Grande Bibliothèque. The other is the Virtual Reality Garden, which is part of the Digital Spring.
As a first-time user of this technology I found it a little challenging at times. The headset, which covers the eyes and ears, is quite bulky, and it can be difficult to get the focus to a point where I would see the image clearly. This could be a result of the headset being used repeatedly by many different people, so perhaps it would be better for people who get their own. And the different buttons take some getting used to as well. But the effect is still impressive and all of the filmmakers have used the technology in a creative and innovative way. What I love about it is that it is able to capture both the epic scale of IMAX as well as the intimate feel of television. As filmmakers Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael have said, it’s impossible to create a whole new art form in just six months. But here are some early results.

Here’s a rundown of the different films:

Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace, Chris Milk and Gabo Arora

In his TED talk, Chris Milk talks about the ability of VR to give viewers a sense of empathy, what it is like to travel in someone else’s shoes, and both of these films capture important issues told from a first person perspective. Clouds Over Sidra begins with a panoramic shot of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where twelve-year-old Sidra has been living for several months. (I should add that in VR, every shot is a panoramic one, as you can look side to side or behind you as you wish.) Other shots show children playing, the tent she lives in, her classroom and other parts of the camp. Two interesting techniques are deployed here. One is the large scale allowed by the large 360 degree canvas. Another is the intimate experience that comes from being physically transported into someone’s home and to see people as life-size.

 

Waves of Grace is narrated by a survivor of the Ebola virus who, now immune, helps orphaned children afflicted by the virus. Like Clouds Over Sidra, the story moves quickly and from location to location, which to me is not the best use of the technology as it doesn’t give the viewer time to look around and absorb a particular atmosphere. The most powerful part is when the viewer is right next to Decontee Davis as she walks by and looks out onto the ocean. It can be a little jarring to be so close to someone’s face, while hearing their voice as well, but it’s hard to remain unmoved. As with Clouds Over Sidra it would be good if the film were longer, so that the viewer got to spend more time with the subject; ten to fifteen minutes is not very much, and it’s hard to argue that this would have more impact than a longer documentary. However this raises the question of whether a viewer would be able to handle an extended stay in the virtual world. Another barrier is the distance between the filmmaker and subjects of the films—you get the sense that they were shot quickly without spending much time in these surroundings. They are presented as very conventional third world documentary subjects, which is to say that they don’t have much personality beyond the problems that they face. I think there is more potential here to utilize the “fly-on-the-wall” documentary approach in having the camera follow the subjects throughout their days and routines.

Inside Impact: East Africa by Felix & Paul Studios and M SS NG P ECES for Matter Unlimited

You know that VR is getting big when Bill Clinton gets involved. It starts in his office in Manhattan, giving you the chance to look in his eyes, or out the window at the New York skyline. Watching it on YouTube doesn’t have quite the same feeling. It was startling to feel like I was in the same room with him. It felt more intimate and I found myself surprised that he looked so thin. With most other types of film and television, people generally tend to appear larger than they really are, but with VR you have a sense of people as they really appear in proportion to yourself. As you can see, Clinton continues to narrate throughout, giving the film a first person perspective similar to the others described, though here the filmmakers allow the camera to linger longer, giving the viewer more time to look around. The following shots move slowly but have lots to look at in many directions. There is a busy city street scene right in front of a peddler. A road overlooking a slum. A classroom filled with children. Since I’ve never been to Africa, it gave me the first chance to feel like I was there and to have autonomy over what I saw, like travelling on a tour bus where you don’t have total control and are a little removed but still get to look around and watch what catches your eye. There is lots of potential to expand on this. Watching the solar energy at work would be another great film on its own, as would the impact of mobile technology, which Clinton also mentions as transforming the region.

Nomads: Maasai by Felix and Paul Studios

Felix and Paul have created a series of short films showing the lives of different nomadic tribes, and the sweeping vistas and closeups of tribespeople in ceremonial dress recalls images of Ron Fricke’s great IMAX films Baraka and Samsara. Like those films, Nomads has no recognizable language, but while the IMAX films have a larger-than-life feel to them, Nomads has an intimate quality to it as well, allowing the viewer to make eye contact with different tribespeople and step into a traditional hut. With no narration, the viewer is left only to observe, which is well suited to this technology, as the shots are long with much to explore in every direction, though it might have done well to have some sort of narrative by having one person in more than one shot. I found the subjects fascinating, and would have liked to know what their daily routines were, how they put on their ceremonial clothes, though it’s only a short film. With this so close to the work of Ron Fricke, it would be interesting to see this taken in that direction, creating a meditative montage of shots around the world organized around a central theme. This is actually part of a series showing different nomadic tribes around the world, so it will be great to see the complete product.

The Library at Night: Robert LePage and Alberto Manguel

This exhibition is composed of several different segments in different libraries around the world. You’re able to choose the order and go at your own speed. Some of them are similar to the other films I mentioned in terms of form: a narrator describing the history and some personal experiences while the camera stays still and gives you the chance to look around. Examples of this would be a segment about a library in Japan where wishes are written into scrolls and deposited, a library in Austria where priests point out which books are dangerous, and a library in Mexico City with a whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling and performing artists outside the front door. At the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., the camera starts up high, with a view of the stars, then slowly moves downwards, giving you a chance to appreciate the different textures of the walls as the narrator describes them. In a couple of instances, some simple effects are used, with ghosts walking through an abandoned books library in Denmark, and birds depicted in an old book coming to life in the National Library in Ottawa. But the most inventive uses are where you are thrust into a completely animated world. In a library in Paris, the lines from the blueprint come to life, and then you can watch as the library is lit up by the sun during the day and by candles at night. At a library in Sarajevo, you are in the middle as the library is burnt to the ground as a cellist plays in mourning and gunshots are heard outside. In one case the two are combined, like the library in Alexandria, where you see it being burnt to the ground, then are transported to the new lighthouse overlooking the city and where the ancient library has been rebuilt. And finally, the library in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea comes to life in black and white drawing (shown at the end of the trailer above). This gives us a glimpse of some of the potential of this new technology: to take us right into new worlds, whether they are real or imagined. Again there’s a sensation of being fully transported, more than with a conventional film or even IMAX, and personal stories work well. Libraries are perfect subjects for VR because the buildings have grandeur and intimacy in equal parts. In terms of travelling different types of buildings and adapting fantastical literary texts, there is lots of potential for what VR can do.

But here’s a recap of some of the new “rules” of VR:

  • A still or slow-moving camera works best. Give the viewer time to look around, to absorb the surroundings.
  • It is a good medium for first-person narrations: it can transport you into someone’s world, home or even imagination
  • The best shots are those with things to look at in every direction, and enough time to look at them.
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