Will Virtual Reality Ever Take Over the Movie Industry?
As the leaves start falling and the weather gets colder, the demise of summer also means that it’s time for new TV shows to begin (and, in some cases, almost certainly end). This year, though, just in time for the UK release of the Oculus Rift the season of new seasons is embracing Virtual Reality for the first time; Syfy are touting a new future crime drama, entitled “Halcyon”, which is being aired as ten standard episodes and five bonus features exclusively for Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift.
However, it’s not just more niche cable networks like Syfy who are getting in on VR; streaming service Hulu have announced two new shows, shot in 360 video, due for release via Hulu’s own VR app. Even the hallowed Star Wars franchise is getting a new VR addition, focusing on Darth Vader. So will VR soon become a normalised part of the TV and cinema experience?
VR goes to the movies
The first full-length VR movie is due for release at the end of the year but, as with most eagerly-anticipated films, it has already had a limited run at festivals. Jesus VR retells the life of Christ in the form of an immersive 360 video, and the response in the press has been mixed. A four-star Guardian review disliked the film itself, but described it as “a startling, bizarre, often weirdly hilarious experience.” Likewise, The Telegraph found that the 360 experience distracted from the movie’s narrative: “During the crucifixion, I missed the nails going in because I spotted a jeering bystander who looked oddly like Jeremy Corbyn.”
However, the achievement of putting a ninety-minute Virtual Reality film together cannot be understated. Where the medium goes from here will be the crucial point; given that the range of VR experiences are still being experimented with, it is less a question of whether Hollywood is ready for Virtual Reality than “is Virtual Reality ready for Hollywood?”
Can Virtual Reality films tell a story?
The most exciting thing about Virtual Reality film is arguably that no two viewers are going to have the same experience; even re-watching a film in VR won’t guarantee that you’ll be looking at the same on-screen details both times. With that in mind, there is no certainty that anyone watching a film in VR will even notice the plot points of the narrative going on around them—at least, not when there’s a Jeremy Corbyn lookalike to distract them.
With VR gaming, for example, the experience lends itself to interaction with the digital world around them, and allows for multiplayer engagement. Engadget has noted that some VR film shorts such as “Wild: The Experience” have followed this technique, “mak[ing] use of user-driven, interactive discovery to propel the narrative.”
There is already a precedent for this sort of experiential entertainment in the world of theatre. Punchdrunk blur the line between art installation and theatre, taking over abandoned spaces to mount in productions in which audience members are “free to encounter the installed environment in an individual imaginative journey.” This allows for multiple viewings of the same “play” each of which will be significantly different from the last. The concept of audiences being “physically present,” active participants in a narrative piece of art is no different in Virtual Reality film, though the technological possibilities of VR arguably gives the viewer a more diverse range of worlds and situations to explore.
Content versus experience
It’s this hyper-experiential aspect of VR filmmaking which has led Disney to establish their own VR wing, while designers from Pixar and LucasFilm have founded CryWorks, their own VR studio, in conjunction with Facebook. Indeed, many studios are hoping VR experiences will bring younger people back to the cinema, not unlike how the introduction of 3D films at the start of the decade was hailed as a reprieve against movie piracy.
But VR shouldn’t exist primarily to deter pirates; as a new medium, which we at REWIND use to give people the opportunity to see things they could never normally experience, VR is continually pushing boundaries and exceeding expectation: you can take a spacewalk or witness a private performance by Björk. And while it is still seen as a novelty, and being excitedly pounced on as such by movie studios, it has still yet to penetrate the mainstream in the same way that Pokemon Go has for augmented reality.
Much like the Lumière brothers opened people’s eyes to the possibilities of the cinema in the late 19th century, what VR film really needs is its own train pulling into a station moment.
Genre: Creative technology , Digital , Storytelling , VR