VR Cinema

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Introduction

VR cinema (virtual reality cinema) is filmmaking adapted to the new media of virtual reality. It has the potential to be the next major innovation in filmmaking following the previous developments in sound, color, and 3D [1]. Even though VR was expected to impact mainly videogames, the technology is intriguing and attracting filmmakers all over the world. VR cinema holds the promise of new and better ways of experiencing stories, to immerse the user in a story by utilizing interactivity and non-linearity – that are new techniques to cinema -, and to increase the story’s emotional impact. The potential for greater immersion can be achieved by making the user believe to be present in the space the protagonist is in. VR headsets like the Oculus Rift or Google cardboard provide 360° panorama for the user to explore. To increase the story’s emotional impact, the user will be able to experience the journey of the protagonist, while also being able to change perspectives and putting himself in the shoes of another individual [2] [3].

The approach to cinema in VR has to be completely new from traditional filmmaking. For example, script writing will have to change when applied to VR cinema due to the different nature of the medium. It has been suggested that the role of the director will change more to one of a designer. Although it is expected that VR cinema will have a great development during the next few years, it doesn’t mean that traditional film on a movie screen will disappear. The different media will co-exist, and film directors will make the choice to experiment with the new tools and skills required for virtual reality, creating a potential niche opportunity for filmmakers and new production companies. Indeed, startups like Jaunt and MindVR are already exploring storytelling in virtual reality [2] [3].

Filmmaking in VR can be made several ways: live action films, computer-generated (CG) films, animation films, or a combination of live action and CG/animation films. Some of the mentioned ways of filmmaking in VR will be more advantageous. The incorporation of interactive and non-linear elements is easier in CG films than in live action, although it could be that, over time, there will be technical and creative solutions to introduce a high degree of interactivity in live action films [2] [4]. The possibility of the user being able to be someplace else in VR – to be in the film -, instead of a raditional film which is confined to movie theatres, allows for a greater sense of “presence[5]. These new characteristics of cinematic VR will possibly lead to a shift in the dynamic between the audience and the director. According to Heather Wright, an executive producer at Aardman Animations, “storytellers of the filmmaking variety traditionally like to lead the viewer on a journey which is predetermined for them. With VR, viewers are essentially being let loose in a story to explore it for themselves. This requires a whole new film grammar which is certainly exciting but does turn the tables on the filmmakers [1].”

Even though VR cinema is still early in the development some general rules have been suggested by Oculus Story Studio’s creative director Saschka Unseld - that were used for Henry (an animated VR short) – in order to produce a VR film. These are: “make eye contact”, for the user to have a direct connection with the character; “show the viewer around”, adding elements to draw the viewer’s eyes to different places they can look and explore; “pay attention to scale”, since not all objects sizes are in real-world ratios; “get it real but not too real”, in order to transmit through visuals certain points in the story; “don’t overload your rendering machines”, to use techniques that reduce the computational burden, and “focus on movement that matters”, adjusting to the viewer’s perspective when necessary [6].

The success of cinematic VR in capturing the mainstream audiences will depend on the quality of storytellers and producers that it can attract [1]. Penrose Studios, responsible for the animated VR short “Allumette”, said that “VR movies are a new art form, wholly different from cinema, the stage play or the opera that came before [7]." The novelty of the technology and filmmaking VR methods may lead to the fact that, in the immediate future, the focus will probably be in large, two dimensional screens within a simulated 3D space. A VR movie theater in which the viewer will watch the movies of his choice that could be a stepping stone to the proper and novel VR cinema format [8].

State of development

VR cinema is still in the early stages of development, in need of projects that will inspire an early adopter fan base that would have enough impact to eventually become accessible to a wider audience. According to Ran Mo, co-founder of a pop-up VR cinema (Vivid) in Toronto, "everyone is trying to discover the way we tell stories in VR and no one has really figured it out — not even the major studios at this point — so everyone is at a learning stage [3] [9]." As the VR technology develops, filmmakers will have to work out new approaches to develop and express their ideas in this new medium. Movie making is an industry that is ripe for VR. If done right, it could capture the imagination of the audiences, being an essential player in the success of virtual reality as a whole. Gaming is a multibillion dollar industry, but it can still be considered a niche when set side by side to the potential audiences who watch videos in the media-obsessed culture of the present days [4].

Jessica Brillhart, principal filmmaker for VR at Google, said that “it goes beyond headsets. It’s cameras, it’s [development kits], it’s other folks who are making this stuff, who are coming together frequently and talking about it. Sharing what we’ve made, experiencing what folks are making, and then thinking about what else might be possible. Having an open dialogue about that.” The shared pursuit of this uncharted territory, of developing techniques for a new art form, is bringing together artists and creators from different industries to push forward a new mode of human experience, although movie executives might ask if it will catch the imagination of the public [8] [10].

Potential and difficulties of VR cinema

The visual language in film has benefited from more than a century of traditional filmmaking, evolving into a common language that people grow up with, watching films and television. The overall rules are the same and can be used by filmmakers to tell the story and evoke emotions. There are traditional rules for framing, cutting, and editing, and not all of these elements transfer well to VR. From this difficulty comes the need for a new language for cinematic VR [2].

Telling a story in VR

As mentioned before, the VR cinema industry is trying to develop new ways of expressing a story in virtual reality, not simply immersing the audience in a new world [11]. This main question was summarized by Nurulize CEO Philip Lunn who said, “how do you do storytelling in this new medium where you have a full 360°, or ability to roam anywhere you want within a scene? It causes all kinds of new questions, and answers are still being sought for today. So many companies are trying to sort this out, and figure out the best way to utilize this new thing, in order to tell amazing stories that people feel an emotional connection to [4].”

In a traditional film, if the viewer faces away from the screen he does not apprehend the vision, story, and focus of attention intended by the director. In VR, since the viewer can look around, it creates a new experience. Eric Neuman, CEO of Sprawly, explained that “storytelling tools of VR have leaped forward our capabilities for communicating visuals, but they are sending us back in time in our ability to communicate story, because we’ve lost all the techniques on how to direct people’s vision, to use auditory cues to get people riled up into certain states [5].”

Focusing the viewer’s attention

VR cinema allows for a subtle shift from viewer to participant, in the sense that he is immersed in a 360 video, being free to look wherever he wants. The viewer may miss something by looking around or see something relevant to the narrative [5]. There is no POV in VR. The viewer is the camera. In regular filmmaking, there are several ways to put a camera but in VR there is only one. In a sense, it can be compared to theater [12].

The freedom that VR allows when applied to film raises a question: how much freedom should the viewer be granted? This point is essential and VR filmmakers are trying to develop ways to get the audience to pay attention to what they’re supposed to. One way to achieve this is by using certain sounds that are natural and integrated into the specific film scene to attract the viewer’s attention [3] [11].

All of this has to be taken into consideration when making a cinematic VR film. The film creators have to think about how to make the whole world interesting and balanced in order to achieve an equilibrium between what might be considered distracting and the actual subject of the story [5]. This element of the viewer’s freedom in VR has been criticized by Steven Spielberg who has concerns over cinematic VR. He mentions that it is “dangerous, since it allows the viewer too much freedom to make their own choices about which parts of a story to engage with, instead of a single, fixed narrative path characteristic of today’s movies [7].

Field of view

Another factor to consider in VR cinema is the type of headset. Strarbreeze’s StarVR headset has a wider field of view than the Oculus Rift, for example. A regular VR screen would be like holding a phone in front of the face while sliding it to the side and tilting it back towards the head, so that one end is at the nose and the other is headed towards the ear gives a general idea of what the StarVR is like. This added field of view can be compared to upgrading from a 4:3 to a 16:9 screen. The viewer doesn’t need so much head movement in order to catch what’s going on around him, simulating the way people normally look at things. While this can benefit filmmakers, in how they stage action, it also creates a limitation. If the filmmaker doesn’t know in which headset their content is going to be viewed on, this will limit the staging of scenes, and not take full benefit out of them [13].

To know how far apart the filmmaker can space actors and still have them within a viewer’s field of view is essential. Again, the relation of where the filmmaker wants the user to look at and what the whole scene is doing to grab the user’s attention to a specific place is of great importance. The elasticity of attention is a key differentiator between VR filmmaking and traditional filmmaking. The intention is to toy with the attention of the viewer, leading them, misdirecting them, and surprising them [13].

Interactivity

In cinematic VR, there is the potential for the user to be treated as a persona in the narrative. He could be acknowledged by other characters, or have a clear presence in the space of the story. Roleplaying could serve to further increase viewer’s immersion and has a new incentive to boost engagement with the film, although this could prove to be unnecessary for a good VR story experience [2], but leaving the viewer just as a spectator in a virtual reality setting could leave him feeling like a ghost due to the lack of interactivity [14].

A comparison can be made with videogames. They are not linear narratives but do contain linear narratives within them. VR storytelling is then expected to include and transcends the linear narrative limitations. This could be achieved by giving narrative choices to the viewer, incrementing his agency, or “by layering the worlds in which the story takes place with telling details that suggest greater complexities than what is readable at first glance [13].”

If there’s nothing to do in the virtual space this could lead to the viewer feeling like a ghost, as mention above, and quickly become bored. This is due to the nature of VR which is active by itself. By inserting the user in virtual worlds, it is expected that he can have some level of agency over them. This is one of the reasons why videogames are very engaging. Of course, the sense of immersion is not exclusive to VR, and a good traditional film can also immerse the viewer [12].

Editing, cuts, and filming in VR

Editing and cutting films in VR is a challenge due to the lack of it. VR filmmakers need to adjust to this just like the early filmmakers had to develop their art form. The lack of cuts in VR films means that they need to take place closer to real time, even though one can try to overcome that with a little ingenuity [11]. There have been suggestions that it is possible to have cuts in a 360° film. This was showcased in a VR short called “The Mutiny”, where a scene in which a pirate knocks the other down shifts to a different angle, rotating the world around the pirate that is on the floor. It is kind of analogous to the effect of when holding a pen and looking at it directly, one moves the head to the right while keeping the eyes focused on the object. This technique is not a perfect solution to the problem of cuts, but it serves as a future option for VR filmmakers to explore [13].

Besides this, there is the hurdle of the huge amount of data involved in VR cinema, due to the rendering process and content delivery for example. The capture, post-production of the content, and the delivery – even in a short VR film the amount of data is huge - are harder processes when compared to traditional cinema [15].

Shooting a live-action VR film can feel more natural to the eyes than a CGI one, but it introduces other complications. VR cameras shoot 360 degrees, making it difficult for crew members to stand without being in the shot. A way to get around this - that has been previously used - is to hide behind crates, or in the shadows. Also, lighting has to be natural or at least disguised. Besides this, the footage needs to be edited from 16 lenses (in the case of Jaunt’s camera) into one image. The stitching of the several images from different cameras to produce a 360° image is a lengthy process, with each second of footage taking 15 seconds to stitch [11].

Positional tracking is also a problem because currently there’s no way to bring it to live-action video capture. To get around this, some VR production companies have opted to make CGI movies instead, using game engines like Unity 3D and Unreal 4. The trade-off is that, while gaining positional tracking, it loses in realism [16].

VR cinema and theatre

In some aspects narrative VR can be compared to theatre, with the audience being the camera [12] [13]. A theater production can command the attention of the viewer, foregrounding scenes and characters, although it cannot guarantee that the viewer will look at whoever is front and center. It only suggests strongly to the intended point of interest. If the viewer is bored or distracted, he can observe any actor or look at the orchestra pit or the other members of the audience. The action on the stage keeps going but the event is shaped by the combination of the performer’s decisions and the spectator. This dynamic also exists in VR films, in which there is a relatively clear focal point intended for the viewer to look at and a periphery that can be explored. Like theater, the viewer decides to focus on the intended focal point or on a character or scene in the background [8]. The creation of dramatic tension is essential in a theatrical piece to engage the viewer. It depends on the skill of the actors, how they play off each other emotionally, and also the skill of the director. In virtual reality, this is also essential in order to grab viewer’s attention and providing a sense of immersion in the narrative [13].

VR cinema in film festivals and permanent VR cinemas

VR is now being taken seriously, with sales predicted to hit 12.2 million in 2016. It has been present in major film festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, or Venice film festival. Even the Cannes festival has had VR display of high-quality content produced by VR filmmakers, alongside VR masterclasses and panels with key players of this new industry [3] [12] [15] [17].

Another development that shows the increase in popularity of VR is the opening of VR cinemas. Samhound Media has opened a permanent VR cinema theater in Amsterdam, after a period of experimentation with pop-up theaters during 2015. More VR cinemas are to follow in other European cities like London, Paris, Berlin and Madrid. The VR cinema theater does not have a screen like traditional theaters. Instead, viewers sit in chairs and are given a Samsung Gear VR and a pair of Sennheiser HD 201 headphones. They can turn freely in their chairs, exploring the VR movie in 360 degrees [18] [19]. The audience experiences a package of VR films that last around 35 minutes in total [18].

VR cinema experiences

References

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