The Brave New World Of Virtual-Reality Filmmaking

While gamers wait patiently for their virtual-reality headsets to go on sale, there’s another industry ripe for the VR picking: movies. That means, as VR technology matures, filmmakers have to work out a new approach to their craft. But if they get it right, audiences are in for a far more immersive and interactive ride. 

Companies like Samsung, Google and Oculus have been evangelizing VR cinema experiences, hoping to bring the sorts of videos that make their virtual-reality platforms a real destination for movie watchers. But to make their campaigns work, they need filmmakers and video producers who know what they’re doing. 

See also: Samsung Is Getting Serious About Producing Its Own Virtual-Reality Videos

That can be tricky. Within the umbrella of VR movies, there are different approaches around the level of physical movement given to an audience, the available viewing angle (perhaps just 180 degrees instead of 360) and whether to use computer animation software or live action cameras to create these experiences. 

One of the companies working at the forefront of VR content creation is Nurulize. The firm recently helped to produce a virtual-reality short called RISE with director David Karlak. The film shows off what moviemakers can do—including creating entire worlds rather than merely 2D pictures that move in front of your eyes. 

Making Movies, VR Style

VR cinema could be pivotal to virtual reality’s success in grabbing mainstream eyeballs. Gaming may be a multibillion-dollar industry, but even so, it’s still somewhat of a niche. When it comes to potential users (or audiences), far more people watch videos in today’s media-obsessed world—which makes VR’s potential reach quite vast.

But making polished VR movies requires an equal amount of artistic talent and technical skill. On one hand, filmmakers have a new medium to showcase stories with an unprecedented level of immersiveness. But if they aren’t careful, they can make their viewers sick to their stomachs. 

According to Nurulize CEO Philip Lunn, VR movie makers are still sussing out the finer points of the craft, with new tools and strategies still being worked out. But there’s a lot of exploring left to do. 

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.

Directors are hacking together their own answers: Toronto filmmaker Elli Raynai recently used reverse-engineered gaming software to create a short VR movie. Capturing footage is just the start—how do you edit 360-degree video clips on a two-dimensional monitor?

With RISE, Nurulize took existing assets that would already have been prepared for a standard film—CGI objects and background photographic plates—and processed them through bespoke software into a VR experience that could be explored from any direction.


Filmmakers still get to pin people in place inside these new worlds, if they want to: Essentially it’s up to the director to decide whether you’re forced to stay in the company of the central characters, or whether you can wander off to see what’s happening somewhere else. 

RISE incorporates both a story mode, driven by camera cuts and voice-overs, and a free roaming mode where you’re able to pilot yourself anywhere you want within the created scene. This new flexibility may take some getting used to by VR movie watchers. 

“David Karlak used one interesting shot where you’re positioned behind a pole in the scene,” said Lunn. “So you’re forced as a viewer to look around the pole, to see what’s going on around it … to really emphasize, ‘Hey, I can be free to move, and there’s a pole in my way. How do I see round the pole?’ Oh, just move your head, and now you’re looking around.” 

VR Tech Companies Try To Show Video Makers How It’s Done

With so many directing options—and such great potential for queasiness—VR tech makers have been stepping in, to show filmmakers the way. 

That’s why Samsung created The Recruit, a short but well-crafted VR video available on its Milk VR service, and recently signed David Alpert, executive producer of The Walking Dead, to make a new VR series.

Google recently announced a less expensive proposition for budding VR filmmakers: Google Jump, a new open-source VR platform that hinges on a 16-camera array of GoPros capable of capturing 360-degree, three-dimensional pictures and video. The company also gave YouTube support for 360-degree videos, to give movie makers a place to post their work. 

The two approaches are distinctly different. Samsung, whose Gear VR headset is powered by Oculus technology, wants compelling narratives and refined experiences—most importantly, sans nausea-inducing action—while Google seems to target the budding filmmaker.

For Oculus, whose work in this area has become something of a passion project, whose approach skews more toward its partner’s point of view. Recently spotted on the cinema circuit appealing to filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival, the company now has its own film studio, Oculus Story Studio, which has already produced its first batch of projects.

One of these, called Henry, is a Pixar-style animation short about a hedgehog. But instead of just watching events the audience gets to move through scenes and peer around.

In another Oculus short called Lost, the viewer is pinned in position, with the action only progressing once you gaze in a certain direction. It’s almost an entirely new artform, a hybrid mix of movie, game and graphic novel. The old rules about scenes, camera angles, pacing and editing all need to be reassessed and reworked. 

Tools Of The Trade

The Oculus Story Studio team at work.

As the tech companies try their best to appeal to video creators, many movie-making professionals are holding out, waiting for more more technological advances. 

Lunn says most of the major players in visual effects are “scurrying away in the background” while they wait for a significant level of hardware to appear on the market. But in the meantime, there’s still a lot of experimentation happening. His team uses existing VFX tools such as The Foundry suite alongside custom-made software to make existing CG assets ready for VR.

These workflows are by no means set in stone, though. 

“It’s going to take time for [this new technology] to filter through. But it’s kind of like the Wild West of computer graphics and filmmaking all over again, because people are trying to figure out a new thing,” Lunn said.

For the moment, creating VR content is a time-consuming, complex, expensive process: It requires some serious scanning and editing power, whether you’re filming the real world or creating an artificial one, with equipment costing a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars, at least for premium professional gear. 

Some creative types may even give Google’s Jump project a go. Although its 16-GoPro proposition isn’t all that cheap either, at a few thousand dollars, it still makes for a relatively low-cost way of making VR footage and it’s accessible to anyone. 

Eventually, the cost of more professional rigs will come down over time. It’s just a waiting game, for now. 

Lunn told us that for him discovering VR was like discovering the Web for the first time. “I felt the same level of impact, that this changes everything,” he said. “The rules are different. We’re going to experience and design things differently. We’re going to visualize things differently. We’re going to be transported … it’s such a fundamental shift.”

Before too long, movie fans will be experiencing the same epiphany, and their equipment needs may not be quite so complex. Viewers can already enjoy immersive videos, even without a VR headset, thanks to offerings like the Paul McCartney concert app for iOS (by Jaunt) or the 360-degree videos available through the YouTube app for Android. They simply move their smartphone around to view in different directions. 

It’s like taking a peek at a future that’s already well underway. 

Images courtesy of Nurulize, Jaunt, Samsung, and Oculus

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