The Lay of the VR Landscape: How Does a Moviemaker Approach Virtual Reality – Without Holding it Back?

In case you didn’t notice, virtual reality (VR) content has graduated from sideshow curiosity to the center ring.

Sundance 2016’s New Frontiers section boasted more than 30 VR productions, drawing long lines of festivalgoers. In “Interrogation,” Funny Or Die subjected viewers to questioning by the world’s worst detectives; Fox Innovation Lab offered up a virtual extension of Ridley Scott’s The Martian; Guardian News & Media presented “6X9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement.” The subjects, styles and approaches of these demonstrations of 360-degree art, non-linear storytelling and augmented reality (AR) only hinted at the potential of this quickly developing technology.

Companies like Oculus (makers of the Oculus Rift headset), Samsung (which partnered with Oculus on Samsung Gear VR in 2015) and Google (with its brands Cardboard and Jump) have become both cheerleaders and facilitators of cutting-edge virtual reality experiences, hoping that this new media platform will disrupt audience expectations of entertainment and journalism.

While questions abound about the mainstream commercial potential of VR, the enthusiastic embrace of advertising, art, fundraising and gaming interests suggest that this may be more than a passing fad. So, what does VR harken for moviemakers versed in over a century of well-established practices and expectations?

Cinema, it’s Been Real

Go to Amazon, search for VR headsets, and you’ll be greeted by more than 20 pages of product options designed to turn your mobile device into an immersive 360-degree experience. Search for VR content on the web, however, and the options are rather limited. YouTube and Facebook provide channels for producers to share their videos and, sure, it’s nifty to virtually ride a roller coaster or get a 360-degree video view from the top of a mountain you may never hike, but where are the stories? Right now VR content seems trapped in novelty, and, much like 3-D televisions, Second Life and the Nintendo Wii, some critics are already predicting VR’s popular half-life with consumers.

Jessica Brillhart believes the skeptics are speaking too soon. As the principal VR filmmaker at Google, Brillhart has become the evangelical voice of the medium’s potential. Working in Google’s Creative Lab, she was recruited onto their Cardboard team to field-test their 360-degree Jump camera rig. Her first VR film, “World Tour,” was a visual essay that transported viewers to Puerto Rico, Iceland and Japan.

We have over a century of traditional filmmaking history, she reasons, a visual language that has become a universal mother tongue. With VR, however, even the alphabet by which this new language will emerge is still in development. In the meantime, creators are reduced to ill-fitting terminology and ideas.

“We are using the paradigms and frameworks of filmmaking to see what works and what doesn’t in the VR space,” she says. That said, thinking in terms of “VR versus film—trying to contain it in this box, to be too binary about it—will suffocate it.”

Visual artist Chris Milk agrees, “People are saying, ‘When is the first feature film going to be in VR?’ That’s like saying, ‘When is the first play going to be in cinema? When is the first book going to be on the radio?’ The first thing everyone tries to do is translate the previous medium into the new one.”

Rock band U2 onstage in "Song for Someone," a collaboration with Chris Milk. Courtesy of Within

Rock band U2 onstage in “Song for Someone,” a collaboration with Chris Milk. Courtesy of Within

Milk started his career as a top commercial and music video director. Over time his work has become more oriented toward audience interaction. He has collaborated with the band Arcade Fire on several occasions, including their lauded 2010 “The Wilderness Downtown” installation. Milk founded Within (formerly Vrse) with the goal of exploring what VR can offer documentary, narratives and experiential filmmaking. His recent film “Waves of Grace,” for example, puts viewers in the midst of Liberia’s Ebola outbreak.

Milk likens VR today to the Web in 1993. “Right now, anything that anybody tries is a worthy experiment, because it informs how we do what we do next.” He challenges his peers to make something, “so unique to the medium that it can’t be translated into [terms from] the previous medium.” But, he adds, “You can only get by on spectacle for so long. You have to actually start making stories.”

Grappling with a New Form

Cameras, post-production, digital formats—VR technological changes and improvements have come at a rapid pace in the last three to four years. But the creation of content is a complicated, time-intensive and costly endeavor. It requires powerful scanning, software and editing tools.

Under the current VR umbrella, efforts are being made in 360-degree viewing and both 180-degree and 360-degree physical movement. Content can be generated through computer animation software or live-action cameras. The platforms are in a state of flux. In March 2015, Google gave YouTube support for 360-degree videos, allowing VR makers a place to post their work. Then, in May 2015, Google announced the creation of Google Jump, an open-source VR rig that uses an array of 16 GoPro cameras to capture 360-degree, 3-D pictures and video.

It can be hard to explain VR to someone who has never experienced it. For Milk, on some basic level, it’s about geometry. He describes traditional filmmaking as exploiting “the secrets of rectangles”—i.e. a fixed frame. VR, he says, is founded in “the secret of spheres,” a space where you can look in every direction and get up, walk around and interact in a created environment.

“As a filmmaker, I own your consciousness,” he says, “what you see, how you see it, when you see it.” Instead, there’s a longstanding VR challenge of how to direct a viewer’s attention to certain things, when every direction he or she turns holds new vistas. “VR is more about building choreography for your attention. It is an artful dance, difficult to master.”

Technical obstacles abound. “Even if you’ve shot good footage, you’re going to spend a lot of time stitching the images together,” says Brillhart. “We have an assembler which stitches stuff together very quickly. In 24 to 30 hours, I get seamless-looking stereoscopic 360 clips.” Yet the traditional techniques of nonlinear film editing are an awkward fit for VR filmmaking, she explains, requiring a back-and-forth between 2-D and 3-D technologies.

“Cuts can be abrupt,” says documentary filmmaker Danfung Dennis. “The dissolve is awkward; it’s a temporary fix. I think the experience will move toward singular, unbroken shots as you move through space.”

Dennis films inside a Mexican pig slaughterhouse with a prototype virtual reality camera in December 2015, for his film “Factory Farm”

Danfung Dennis films inside a Mexican pig slaughterhouse with a prototype virtual reality camera in December 2015, for his film “Factory Farm.” Photograph by Jose Valle

Oscar-nominated in 2012 for his documentary Hell and Back Again, Dennis is a former war photographer who became frustrated by the limits of photojournalism. After venturing into moviemaking, he founded his company, Condition One, as a way to bring high-quality videos to the growing mobile device audience (Condition One’s app is available for Samsung Gear VR). In 2014, Dennis created “Zero Point,” the first 3-D 360-degree movie created specifically for the Oculus Rift on PC. It follows the pioneer developers and engineers of immersive VR video.

Don’t Just Sit There; Do Something

If VR demands that the director evolves into something closer to an experiential designer, then what does the medium mean for participants, thrust suddenly from passivity to action?

“Stories in other mediums are always about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes,” says Brillhart. “VR is about how we exist in space. What is drama when you can see everything as it unfolds?”

And how do you write for VR? Milk thinks that the math for established filmmaking still applies.

“A story is about characters who have goals, and they encounter obstacles to those goals. That’s drama,” he says. “The traditional narrative will work for VR too. It requires a different craftsmanship than traditional cinema, but I have no doubt that we will figure it out.”

Brillhart’s view, however, is a bit more expansive. She uses the popular ’90s PC game Myst to describe some of her thinking about VR storytelling. Myst thrusts its player onto an island he or she must explore, with little initial backstory and a non-linear progression.

“There’s a world, there’s a story—somewhere, maybe. And you’re compelled to go and search and discover. But it’s not required of you,” she says.

Another radical idea: VR adapting to users, e.g. your experience changing if someone else enters the same VR world as you. “Maybe the VR only shows you a sunset when someone else is ‘there’ to see a sunset with you,” Brillhart suggests. “The creator gets to craft what those rules are, those expectations.”

For her VR project “World Tour,” Jessica Brillhart captured life in Japan, amongst other countries. Photograph by Nick Kadner

For her VR project “World Tour,” Jessica Brillhart captured life in Japan, amongst other countries. Photograph by Nick Kadner

Learning New Tricks: A Case Study

Moviemaker Randal Kleiser could be the poster child for “traditional” filmmaking. A graduate of USC’s film school, the director cut his teeth on 1970s television before graduating to the silver screen with Grease, then went on to helm such films as The Blue Lagoon, Big Top Pee-wee, White Fang and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.

But Kleiser’s curiosity for what’s next in cinema has never diminished. In 1995 he directed Honey, I Shrunk the Audience in 70mm 3-D for Disney theme parks, and he co-invented a digital Cinerama-like process called Vistarama HD with the Lab at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

It was two years ago, through his visual effects supervisor brother Jeff, that Kleiser first encountered the Oculus development kit, and was “blown away.” Kleiser immediately saw the potential for creating a film where the viewer was a character in the story—not just an observer, but part of the drama. He remembered a television script he had written and long ago consigned to a desk drawer, and realized it could be adapted for the medium. With VR content streaming services in mind, he created Defrost, a 12-episode serialized VR sci-fi drama whose cast includes Bruce Davidson, Carl Weathers, Tanna Frederick (who co-produced) and Harry Hamlin.

The premise of the series is that a woman, Joan Garrison, is woken from decades of cryo-suspension to a world where her family has dramatically aged, the world’s technology has advanced, and something feels suspiciously wrong. In Defrost, the audience is Garrison, confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. Characters confront and confide in the viewer as the story plays out around them in 360 degrees.

Since he could not direct the action in a traditional sense, Kleiser inserted himself into the scenes as a character—the orderly responsible for pushing the viewer’s (i.e. the camera’s) wheelchair. This allowed him to control some of what the audience would witness as the drama unfolded. He directed his actors as if they were performing in a stage play, albeit with the intimacy of a single audience member.

He admits the learning curve was steep. “I’m slowly adapting to the technology, and with each episode I try to find ways for the viewer to figure out where they’re supposed to be looking based on sound, light and movement.”

A still from Defrost, Randall Kleiser's VR project

A still from Defrost, Randall Kleiser’s 12-part VR project

Though Brillhart and Milk might argue that Kleiser’s is a second-generation approach to a third- or fourth-generation medium, it’s creators like Kleiser who are necessary to VR’s progression, experimenting to see which techniques will effectively carry over from film, and which won’t.

“It feels like it’s the Wild West,” says Kleiser. “Right now there’s no way to tell what the future will be, but ultimately the content must justify the tech. There are always going to be naysayers. At least we are taking the time to experiment with something new and strive to make good material with meaning behind it.”

Empathy 2.0

VR may be a mostly individual experience, but it’s far from isolating.

“After every person comes out of [my VR projects],” says Brillhart, “they immediately look at me, and there is this look in their eyes that I can only describe as ‘They saw what I saw. They’ve been where I’ve been.’ As a creator, it’s a very powerful connection.”

A key VR concept banded around is “presence.” The idea is that once VR reaches a certain level of quality, your brain will be unable to discern between what is real and what has been created. It is the very opposite of the “willing suspension of disbelief” that traditional filmmaking relies upon.

Dennis believes the power of the medium is in its command of presence—that, because of this interactivity, VR has the unique ability to elicit empathy. He sees VR as the next obvious step in his career as a documentarian concerned with bearing witness to the suffering of others. “I am very excited to see what happens when people start having experiences of faraway worlds with people and animals that are less fortunate, and whether we’re able to evoke a sense of empathy and compassion for people outside of their immediate circle [of familiarity].”

One of Dennis’ projects, “Factory Farm, is a 360-degree, 12-minute immersion into the living conditions and slaughter of pigs. The viewer accompanies Jose Valle, director of investigations at Animal Equality, on an uncompromising tour of a Mexican facilityand comes away with a graphic sense of what pork production involves.

Ebola survivor Decontee Davis on the shores of Liberia in VR project "Waves of Grace," a Vrse production by Chris Milk, Gabo Arora and the United Nations. Courtesy of Within

Ebola survivor Decontee Davis on the shores of Liberia in VR project “Waves of Grace,” a production by Chris Milk, Gabo Arora and the United Nations. Courtesy of Within

Milk’s “Waves of Grace” seeks to evoke a similar empathetic response from the viewer. A nine-minute documentary created with the help of Vice and the United Nations, it focuses on Decontee Davis, an Ebola survivor whose immunity may help the orphaned children of her village. A series of vignettes allows you to witness life on the street in Liberia, treatment of the disease, and even the burial of those lost to Ebola.

Both shorts are currently available on the web (at conditionone.com and with.in respectively).

While these artists may be VR’s earliest adopters, they probably won’t be the people to define what VR ultimately becomes. Brillhart imagines a generation of artists who have no fealty to the rules and expectations of traditional cinema, who are able to evolve VR beyond what she can imagine.

“I’ve been trained so well as a filmmaker that I’m incapable of seeing what VR needs to be, incapable of getting to what VR wants from me as a creator,” says Brillhart. “I’ve got to break down walls every day within myself. We have to break apart what we know to be true, because I think only then will we understand what VR is and what the medium wants.” MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2016 issue, currently on newsstands.

The print version of this article refers to Chris Milk’s company as Vrse.works. That edition went to print prior to the company’s change of name to Within, which is reflected in this version.

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