What It Takes To Make Virtual Reality Films, Part 1

Guest author Emily Atwater works in content strategy at digital agency Huge. She wrote this piece with her colleague Gina Pensiero, who works in content strategy at SoundCloud. 

Digital creatives working in UX (user experience), tech and strategy are constantly putting themselves in the shoes of users to understand their motivations and struggles within a digital experience. That experience is usually confined to the limits of a desktop, mobile, or tablet, but as augmented and virtual reality hardware continues to improve, boundaries are shifting and expanding. The way we weave a story and build a relationship with our users will only get more immersive, opening up new territory.

Virtual reality (VR) has been around a while, but it’s just finding its foothold in the film industry. Using equipment adapted to enable a 360-degree experience, two collaborating filmmakers, Felix & Paul, set up their own VR studio, establishing themselves as pioneers at the forefront of virtual reality filmmaking. We wanted to know more about what goes into creating a VR experience, and what considerations separate it from traditional cinema, both as a viewer and a producer.

Emily Atwater: Tell us the origin story, how did you two get started in VR filmmaking and what drew you to it?

Felix & Paul: We started working together about a decade ago, before founding a VR studio. Both of us come from traditional filmmaking backgrounds, making commercials, music videos and films. As we collaborated, we explored more immersive ways of engaging viewers. We did video installations and large-scale projection mapping environments, as well as holography and fully immersive 3D stereoscopy physical environments. We used tools that were available, but they didn’t fully serve our needs. So we experimented with technology.

The technology and the creativity go hand-in-hand for us, and that became part of our process—inventing the tools to enable us to tell the stories we wanted to tell. That led us to try to push the boundary of immersive storytelling, and ultimately to virtual reality.

With VR we were interested in further exploring the notion of presence. We realized through our early experimentation that this was the first medium in history that could provide the viewer with a sense that they were part of the experience, and develop empathy and an emotional connection. That fascinates and inspires us—the abolishing of distance and the illusion of a direct emotional connection.

EA: In your earlier experimentation, did you have an “a-ha” moment with VR?

F&P: Yes. The first time we aligned the technology properly and were ready to try filming, we went to a church and brought a non-professional actor, an older Chinese woman with a gentle personality. We positioned our camera on a church pew at the height of a seated person. We asked the woman to walk in and sit down next to the camera, about three feet away, and then, after a few seconds, to turn and to look directly into the lens of the camera as if it was a person. We had an intuition that it would be powerful, which is why we didn’t want someone with an aggressive presence.

We assembled that into a VR experience. The first time we watched it, we were blown away, as if she was staring right into our eyes and right into the soul. It was extremely powerful.

We shared that 20-second demo with people, and every time she would turn and look at the viewers, they were blown away. People would call us and say, “I can’t stop thinking about that woman.” And we realized that this medium is unique, and that we could not go back to traditional cinema after experiencing that.

EA: Did you look to any other creators for inspiration?

F&P: There are a few filmmakers that we admire, and whose films have an experiential quality. Aside from the intimacy of the medium, something that is so essential is the connection between time and space.

One thing that cinema generally doesn’t do well is give an experience of time that is powerful. Cinema controls and manipulates time, and you lose the sense of how we experience time in the real world. Some filmmakers play with time in a more careful way. A shot in a Yasujiro Ozu movie is an experience in and of itself. For example, for a family meal, the camera might be placed at the same height as the characters for a long shot, and after awhile you start to feel like you’re sitting with those people around the table—even in a flat black and white film, you feel like you belong in the moment, instead of being a spectator. Other films, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, have a strong influence on us. 

EA: Do you see young filmmakers focusing on this genre over traditional filmmaking? Is the film school curriculum shifting to accommodate it?

F&P: It’s still very focused on traditional. Sometimes we’re invited to speak to students about what we do, and the language we use is very surprising to the younger people learning about film. There may be a shift in how we teach cinema in the next couple years, as the notion of moving image embraces a larger scope than just filmmaking. With the advance of virtual reality and its growing implementation in culture and art, it will change. But right now, VR is still a “curiosity,” and not yet an industry.

It’s early days, so there’s little out there to even teach. We think of what we do as our schooling. We started doing virtual reality about two years ago and every project is an education for us.

EA: Does VR have a place in mainstream cinema? Is a feature film possible as a VR experience?

F&P: We don’t know. We used to be more assertive about that, but the more we work with the media, we don’t know what will happen in the next few years. We started by making very short experiences, but now we’re working with longer experiences, maybe 20 minutes. It feels so long in VR, and demands a lot from the viewer to take them to a different world where they are completely immersed and cut off. Plus, the necessary hardware is pretty heavy, so it’s a lot to ask. 

We’re working with more serial content right now. So instead of a 40 minute experience, a series of 15 minutes each that the viewer can experience at their own pace. As the gear gets lighter and filmmakers learn and master the tools, we don’t see why longer experiences couldn’t exist.

EA: If the movie theater experience is not a match for VR, what does VR film consumption look like to you?

F&P: Public VR is mainly available at museums and events right now. So you have to deal with lines, and headset hygiene, but this is destined to be mainly an at-home experience, especially as availability increases and price goes down. It’s conceivable that in the next two or three years a lot of people have the gear at home and the question is more about bandwidth and the quality of content. We have to make good enough content for people to want to buy these things and experience them at home.

Distribution may be a lot like app stores, a mix of free content like YouTube along with subscription services and pay-per-download. Plus there will be a range of experience types, from linear live action to interactive. In terms of more public, communal experiences, augmented reality (AR) content may have more of a place than VR, as something that can be viewed by a multiple people at once.

EA: Let’s talk about “quality” content, whether conceptual or technical. What makes a good VR film?

F&P: It’s primarily about the strength of the concept. Technical quality is important, but we appreciate VR the most when the content and understanding of the medium is powerful. It’s easier to forgive tech that is not perfect, if the experience is moving and compelling. It’s the same for film. A very intelligent, smart film, even if there are technical flaws, is forgivable if the story is powerful enough, and the characters are engaging.

However, presence is a very fragile thing. Technical quality goes a long way in convincing you that you’re actually somewhere else and not looking at a piece of technology. In terms of overall quality, a lot of it has to do with rethinking what it means to tell a story in VR. It’s easy to fall into the habits of traditional filmmaking, but you have to let go of certain things like pacing, the way the camera can move and the way you can cut and assemble parts of the story together quickly. VR is slower.

EA: The language of film criticism seems different for VR. Is the consideration set for judging the quality of a VR film different from a traditional film?

F&P: We put a lot of emphasis in the nature of the experience for the viewer. Trying to figure out who the viewer is inside of the experience. What place will we allocate for them? What is the meaning of the viewer’s presence is inside the piece? So whether it’s fiction or documentary, purely experiential or more abstract, for us this is the vital Shakespearian “to be or not to be” question. If we don’t find the answers and determine the overall dynamic of the experience before we start a project in VR, we don’t do it. Viewers won’t connect emotionally and there will be a resistance. It might be interesting and fun, but we’re trying to make an effortless viewing experience where you surrender to the moment and connect. That’s the holy grail for us. When it doesn’t work, it’s very frustrating, and the balance of what succeeds and what fails can be very subtle.

This interview continues in Part 2, coming soon.

Photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

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