Virtual Reality Cinema: A New Medium Emerges

Virtual Reality (VR), the next great frontier for film and entertainment, is no longer in a phase of incubation, but rather in its last throes of anonymity. For those unfamiliar with this technology, VR involves wearing a headset that covers your entire field of vision with a screen to envelop the user with dynamic imagery and sound.

You may recall a deal Facebook made last year to purchase the start-up Oculus VR for $2 billion, a tidy sum that quickly validated virtual reality as a legitimate new technology. Oculus was launched several years ago via Kickstarter, generating excitement in gaming circles long before its Facebook acquisition, a move signifying VR was becoming a commercially viable platform. It would seem that VR, and Augmented Reality (AR), allowing reality and virtual reality to coexist on the same screen, are poised to become major disruptive technologies. Analysts predict VR/AR will become a $30 billion industry by the year 2020.

More impetus for the VR movement came in January this year, when Oculus created Story Studio, an in-house laboratory designed to create narrative VR content while simultaneously researching the best practices required to create compelling VR storytelling. Story Studio recently released the trailer for their sophomore entry Henry, a short, interactive VR animation featuring a hedgehog celebrating on its birthday. The work is an exciting entry from the studio, and just one of the many emerging projects in the VR space.

VR made a clear impression on the gaming community as much as 20 years ago, but it has only recently caught the attention of Hollywood. The big studios recognize VR’s promise, but also realize the technology is presently in its infancy. Most of the studios are waiting for consumer adoption, as well as improvements in gear, before it’s embraced. Meanwhile, as the studios ponder and pause for adoption, dozens of indie filmmakers have jumped into VR, successfully defining and redefining its language through bold and challenging new films.

While the technology is continually evolving with attractive advancements and improvements in sight (such as rigs that will soon involve just a single lens), filmmaking in VR still comes with a lot of technical trial and error. When you start out, the first priority is the camera. Most camera rigs available today are prototypes that have varying, complex workflows requiring high levels of patience and understanding to get it right. One problem revolves around camera placement. Most VR projects have kept the camera stationary, or used the camera as a first-person POV experience to avoid jolting the user. This has led to projects using long shots that require a lot of tightly planned action.

Actors Micah Hauptman and Eva Hamilton share an intense moment in a scene from Intimate Strangers.

Intimate Strangers is a new VR film from director Adam Cosco, which challenges many conventions relating to camera movement and editing. Subversive and charming, the film tells the story of a young couple who decides to test the stability of their relationship by inviting a stranger into their lives. Cosco notes that the film was a challenge to create. It combines cuts on camera movement and complex character blocking, using elements and approaches that are rare—or just not done—in narrative VR content today.

“People are overthinking the technology too much, and with that comes a lot of gimmicks,” Cosco explains. “There are so many films relying purely on the ‘newness’ of the medium for effect.”

Cosco planned all his shots during production, using the geometry and layout of each actor’s specific location to allow them freedom to move around in a 360º field of view. Due to the current limitations in VR, this also forced Cosco to work around problems that simply don’t exist in traditional cinema—problems such as actors crossing various stitch lines (the area in which the multiple images from the different VR lenses merge).

“We were told by several people not to do that,” Cosco explains. “It became a nightmare to solve in post so, to a certain extent, they were right—but I’m so happy that we crossed those lines because it allowed us to achieve something better. It allowed vast movements in the story, such as when the protagonist moves from one side of the room to the other.”

In many ways, actors appearing in VR content will employ traditional theater patterns, required to understand the basic elements of blocking (the positioning and movement of the characters to tell the story in visual terms) within a large 360º space. By extension, filmmakers will need to account for the actors’ movements as their stories unfold, challenged to create intriguing materiel for the viewer no matter where they’re positioned.

For Intimate Strangers, director Adam Cosco and his actors rehearse scenes exhaustively to plan for every cut.

“This is back-to-film-school for everybody,” offers Matisse Tolin, a VR filmmaker, and producer of the film, on VR’s dramatically different cinematic art form. “It’s a big jump to go from two dimensions to having your entertainment all around you. It forces the audience to experience the film as much as to view it. As a result, it redefines the requirements of production designers to immerse viewers in the surroundings just as much as it redefines camera movement and acting styles.”

If you watch Intimate Strangers, you’ll experience a shot where the camera hovers over a woman lying on a bed talking about a dream. If you’re curious enough, you’ll find the dream projected overhead on the bedroom ceiling. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is at the foot of the bed, inching closer as he listens to her dream. It’s a subtle, yet highly choreographed moment that makes me giddy about the potential complexity we can come to expect in future cinema.

Intimate Strangers debuts on YouTube360 and other VR platforms this fall. Meanwhile, VR offers exciting potential outside of Hollywood for many uses; for example, its detail and depth are capable of preparing soldiers as much as surgeons for various life-and-death situations.

As for Hollywood and the future of VR? It seems destined to arrive one day—but when it does, those studio VR tent poles will need to find that elusive sweet spot where narrative and technology collide in a beautiful and powerful way to fulfill and, hopefully, exceed audience expectations.

The New VR Toys

Matterport’s Pro 3D Camera creates immersive, cloud-based 3D models of real-world spaces, and is already finding its way into practical film applications like location scouting.

With VR/AR development only in its infancy, revolutionary new technology is being introduced at a rapid rate, as more companies seek to tackle issues in the VR space. Here are just a few exciting VR technologies we’ll see coming down the technological pipeline.

Matterport Camera. 3D scanning isn’t anything new, but being able to re-create an environment or object in a completely photorealistic model is unprecedented. Matterport’s Pro 3D Camera does just this, creating immersive, cloud-based 3D models of real-world spaces that are bound to disrupt the real estate and hospitality industries, and beyond. The camera has already found its way into practical film applications like location scouting, with companies such as LocationsHub creating 3D archives of their stored locations. Hulu has also created a 3D model of the Seinfeld apartment, allowing fans to navigate Jerry’s Manhattan apartment and inspect every last detail of his TV home. The camera makes it easy to export scans of environments into VR so they can be fully experienced. It can also assist in shot planning and previsualization of VFX. Matterport’s Pro 3D Camera is available now through their website, matterport.com.

Google Jump.
Google’s answer to simplifying both the need for an easy VR camera rig and an optimized workflow lies within their new Jump program. It consists of a 16-camera GoPro rig optimized for their proprietary Jump assembler, transforming ordinary video into stereoscopic 3D VR content that promises to be super-high resolution. If Google delivers on these promises, it will simplify VR filmmaking to the point where it becomes as accessible and as easy to use as a DSLR. Google Jump may very well become the standard bearer for low/micro-budget-style productions, if this is the case, as well as a reliable tool for all VR filmmakers. Google Jump is set for release in 2016. google.com/get/cardboard/jump

Jaunt NEO VR Camera. Jaunt is a pioneer cinematic company that has created some of the most immersive and dynamic content available on all platforms. It has also been busy developing a professional-grade camera system specifically designed for capturing 360º cinematic VR. Some of NEO’s features include utilizing 3D light-field capture, a tool allowing filmmakers to choose their plane of focus in postproduction rather than at the time of capture. NEO will also allow for HDR imaging, as well as high-frame-rate capture for impressive slow-motion effects. It’s a seriously cool camera that allows filmmakers an unprecedented level of environmental control in the VR cinema space. NEO will be available to filmmakers in 2016. jauntvr.com

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