Virtual Reality Filmmaking

| December 10, 2015 | Comments (0)


In the wake of the Irish VFX + Animation Summit, Jonathan Victory asks, are we witnessing the birth of an entirely new medium?

The Irish VFX +Animation Summit was held this November at Google’s Dublin Headquarters. The talks over the weekend covered a range of topics highlighting the change of pace for technology in animation and visual effects. There was one area that was explored through several talks, practical demonstrations and the weekend’s closing panel discussion that shows just how advanced this technology has become. The generation of virtual reality (VR) content is now viable for a range of applications. Are we witnessing the birth of an entirely new medium?

When the Lumière Brothers began showing their first films to the public in the 1890s, it must have been a challenge to promote the experience of seeing a film. There existed optical illusions comparable to moving images but how well could you explain to people of this time that a rectangle of light projected on a wall could show anything happening? What fundamentally happens when people buy in to a new form of media?

Aidan Gibbons, a Dubliner now living abroad, works for The Mill, a company pioneering VR. He gave a talk at the VFX Summit that demonstrated his knowledge of film studies and visual cultures in general. As he put it, there is a concept in theatre known as ‘the fourth wall’. A theatre set will typically have three sides to it but the fourth side at the front of the stage is where we the audience look in on the action. This hypothetical fourth side is not acknowledged by those on stage unless the play has a reason to draw attention to it. Gibbons compared the fourth wall to Alberti’s Window, coined by the Renaissance scientist Leon Battista Alberti. This concept is also important to the history of visual storytelling because it deals with the perspective within a painting as well as the frame of the painting. The frame is where viewers consider the boundary between the painting as a self-contained entity and the rest of the world lies. Suspension of disbelief depends on consumers of art being able to temporarily ignore the frame and concentrate on the artwork within it.


Alberti’s Window

From the Renaissance till now, theorists explore such concepts as key to understanding different forms of media even if they sound obvious or second-nature in practice. The practice humans have of spending time wilfully watching something they know is make-believe is curious in the grand scheme of things. More curious still is the development of VR technology where a 360 degrees panoramic view of an artificial environment can be seen through a headset. Such a device, the Oculus Rift being an example, is placed on your head to completely cover your eyes so that Alberti’s Window, as such, surrounds your field of vision entirely for an immersive experience. How did such technology become possible?

Investment into research and development for such technology has come from tech giants like Facebook, Google and the usual suspects but also from the video games industry with Sony in particular planning to incorporate VR into the Playstation. Other companies bankrolling VR experiments will do so as a means of promotional event; the recent film Jurassic World had a tie-in VR experience to promote the film and companies from the alcohol industry like Red Bull and Dos Equis have also used VR for promotional events. The medical industries also have a stake in developing VR as the closing panel discussion of the VFX Summit explored. Gibbons was part of this panel and they explored the varied projects that have incorporated VR thus far.

Psychologists are researching whether a VR environment could guide a person with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or a similar condition through a guided meditation so that they can learn to feel safe again. This therapeutic application has already been applied to an app that trains users in public speaking by projecting crowds of larger and larger size in front of them as they practice speaking. There could be a bright future for educational, medical and psychiatric applications of VR, assuming motion sickness or any other psychological effects are manageable, research into which by the medical community is ongoing.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are apps that intend to excite you as a means of recreation. The Void in California is a live-action roleplay game similar to Quasar in that you and your friends shoot at each other with toy guns but with headsets that allow you to see a fully-rendered spaceship environment.


The Void in California

I asked Gibbons what it would take for VR experiences like The Void to become as commonplace as IMAX cinemas and he cautioned that the technology may not necessarily develop that way, saying, “Personally I don’t feel there’s a space for people to get together and put on a VR headset unless it’s for an event of some sort. I think people will get together in the virtual world. You could be at home, you could put on your headset and in there you could be with other people, a group of your mates for example.” Or family members who have emigrated or a business meeting that’s too far away and so on. So there is potential to be explored for VR as a means of communication, a kind of turbo-Skype where Alberti’s Window can show you an entire room in every direction, not just the view of a webcam.

Entertainment is the obvious application that comes to mind and abundant examples of this emerged in the panel discussion. Qantas Airlines provides first-class passengers with a VR headset for watching films that shows them the film on a virtual IMAX screen within the view of the headset, complete with proper perspective, scale and so on. The BBC allowed viewers of Strictly Come Dancing to watch an episode with an interactive panoramic view. Director Justin Lin of the Fast and Furious series directed a sci-fi action short called Help where each scene had a fully-viewable 360 environment. Gibbons was a technical consultant on that project and explained to me that in order to shoot a panorama in this fashion, a camera rig must consist of no fewer than 4 cameras shooting in each direction but all timed in synchronicity. He observes that, “Everyone seems to be making their own rigs, there are loads of GoPro rigs that are 3D-printed. We ended up designing a rig with four RED cameras.”


He predicts consumer cameras such as the GoPro will have to become higher-definition or high-end cameras such as the RED and Arri Alexa will have to become lighter in order for VR rigs to become more commonplace. The more cameras a rig has, the higher the quality of the panorama captured. Such a rig can capture a panorama in all directions, as in a completely spherical view of an environment in its entirety. Nozon is a company developing VR environments where viewers can look under and above things, up and down and so on for a more interactive experience. Lytro is another company developing a rig that instead of using multiple cameras merely has panels that capture light, creating an ever higher resolution panoramic image. All the while, organisations like continue to research applications of VR.

A VR panorama is fundamentally achievable by a low-budget filmmaker with 4 or 6 GoPros. Applying it to the medium of narrative film however comes with its own set of contradictions. Gibbons astutely observes that the fundamental grammar of cinema entails directing the audience’s attention to precisely framed and edited images within Alberti’s Window. If Alberti’s Window now encompasses an environment where you can look anywhere, all the visual tools from a century of cinematic storytelling can no longer be used. You might be able to direct attention through a sound or a dramatic piece of action but it just isn’t the same way of telling a story as cinema is. Nor should it be, Gibbons argues, feeling that cinema is here to stay and VR will find its own audience separately:

“As a director, you design for the frame. You can hide things behind it, you can change the angle, you can change lens, you can edit. We’ve gotten used to it and film is going nowhere. We will keep making films forever, I think. With VR, as soon as you realise as a director that all those tools don’t work, it comes as quite a shock. Now we’re trying to figure out how do you tell those stories? Or do you tell those stories? Do you tell that sort of linear narrative story or do you focus on experiences?”

VR may supplement cinema and will certainly develop alongside it but can it ever be a narrative form to rival cinema? Or is it better-suited to non-narrative experiences? Gibbons and the entire panel were open-minded about people trying different applications for VR; they just had different expectations for what would catch on. Narrative zombie-horror films that were shot for VR were brought up and the observation that this would make a horror film ‘too scary’ was considered to just further encourage horror filmmakers to try it.

There is a currently a low-budget feature film production in Ireland that is shooting through VR. It is a dark comedy called Joanna VR , directed by Jeda de Brí, a graduate of the National Film School at IADT Dun Laoghaire. De Brí is currently crowdfunding for the project with a minimum target of €12,500 making production viable. Any further donations will improve the production’s access to necessary technology. Having already shot 15 minutes of test footage, de Brí is confident this is practical on a low-budget but acknowledges some of the challenges:

“All sound equipment and lights had to be hidden as well so it was a very new way of working. The best thing is that there is a new language and rules emerging with VR. Because you don’t necessarily have cuts, art direction and blocking come into it a lot more.”


On the set of Joanna VR

De Brí explains that there will be some directed attention for viewers “by placing entrances or knocks on the door ‘behind’ the scene, so they would have to physically turn around to see who was there.” In this sense, any narrative form of VR is perhaps more comparable to a play than a film except this time the viewer is surrounded by all four of the theoretical walls. Fittingly enough, the story of Joanna is based on a play written by Neil Sharpson. De Brí contends the limited amount of actors and locations made for a smooth adaptation:

“The script is purposefully sparse, intense and claustrophobic and it’s these qualities that made it perfect for adaptation to Virtual Reality. For VR, the monologues that normally would be said directly to the audience, now instead can be said to a character in POV; giving them an even greater impact. POV in VR is particularly effective as – when viewing – you are actually in the shoes of the character. You can look down and see the characters body. Some of the scenes in Joanna VR are the perpetrator [of crime] actually being tortured.”

Joanna VR is a local project to watch in what will amount to the early history of VR. Projects like this, within and outside the traditional film industry, are pioneering a technology that could become a major form of culture in years to come. This is a new frontier to explore with people currently working who will be remembered the same way the film industry remembers the Lumière Brothers or Thomas Edison. They may not know where the technology is heading but new things are being tried and one approach, one brilliant use of VR, might be around at the end of the 21st century still developing and evolving as it is now in a nascent state of discovery.




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