By Charline Jao
Hollywood is embracing virtual reality, with big-named directors incorporating the medium into their body of work, and and festivals showcasing these films. Movie franchises are also using VR in campaigns and tie-ins as well, as expensive headsets like Oculus Rift and inexpensive options such as Google Cardboard as growing in popularity.
One of the better known VR movies includes Patrick Osborne's Pearl, the first VR film to earn an Academy Award nomination. In Pearl, the viewer's perspective is fixed in the passenger seat of a car as they follow the musical journey of a girl and her dad. Capturing an entire story from one fixed setting worked well for Pearl, and abrupt transitions to show time passing made what wasn't showed just as intriguing as what was.
It's not a story that "had" to be in VR, but picturing it as a typical animated short with different angles and cuts reveals how restricting the view of the audience allows for another layer of interaction. Are you more curious about who's in the driver seat or in the back? Do you want to just gaze outside the window for a while and enjoy the music? Giving the viewer this freedom replicated that car ride experience, where each viewer takes their own personalized journey.
VR is certainly an exciting and new technology. But just because something is different and futuristic, doesn't mean it'll necessarily revolutionize the way we watch and make films. Are there amazing films that work amazingly in 3D and make great use of that medium? Yes (shout-out to Gravity and Up). Still, any trip to the movie theatre will no doubt include background complaints about how 3D (and VR) will make viewers dizzy—and feel like a rip-off for the undoubtable increase in ticket prices. The same goes for VR now: it can be an exciting revolution without pushing "regular" film aside.
Hollywood's marketing arm is also clearly enthusiastic for virtual reality, pushing full-steam into the technology. Take Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak, which developed a VR experience where curious fans could visit Allerdale Hall, the gothic mansion from the movie. A fantastic campaign, the VR short successfully captured the atmosphere and fostered curiosity about the film in only one and a half minutes. It also allowed viewer to whet their appetites, so to speak, for the full feature without giving anything away.
For the launch of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, Harry Potter fans were able to enter a magical realm while introducing them to the new film's creatures, the dream of any Potterhead. Adult Swim's popular show Rick and Morty not only launched with VR campaigns, they've even developed a game for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. With franchises utilizing VR, more fans are likely to pick up a headset, if only out of curiosity.
Still, as much as virtual reality can transform a movie-going experience into something magical, viewers may not be so eager to toss aside what they're used to—especially when you consider the cost of VR headsets, the accessibility of VR filmmaking, or even the general persistent nausea. And use of VR doesn't mean a film or campaign will be a success. Just like with 3D, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
Infinite points of view
Novelty and visuals can only make up for narrative so much, and better immersion doesn't necessarily equal better storytelling. That's a challenge VR has to confront—and certainly filmmakers, animators and others are developing pieces that try to see where VR can take them in storytelling.
There's a term in narratology known as the "focalizer." The focalizer is the person who has the main point of view, through whom the story is told. With VR, the viewer can fully occupy the body of their focalizer (not necessarily the narrator)—which changes the entire way a story is told. Here, you can be a particle of dust, or even Drake.
For the horror genre this is a boon, enhancing an already scary situation for more thrills. Jaunt VR had a series of horror shorts prepared for Halloween last year. They make use of multiple perspectives, giving viewers a sense of dread that's much easier to create when you're the one walking through a creaky and dark hallway. It's therefore no surprise that the first project for Ridley Scott's RSA Films new virtual reality division is a VR companion to Alien: Covenant, as reported by the Hollywood Reporter.
VR films are also having a lot of fun playing with first-person—not only as an innovative new form for scares, but also in the field of social change. Academy Award winners Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki made headlines for their VR installation "CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible)," the first VR project to be chosen for Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival.
The filmmaker described the medium, and praised its ability "to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants' feet, under their skin, and into their hearts," as they told Similarly, Planned Parenthood put viewers "in the shoes of a patient entering a health center" with Across the Line, citing the critical moment we're in now regarding reproductive rights. With efforts to make change, it feels appropriate that innovative and new technology plays alongside that protest.
Whether you're looking for animated feel-good stories, a good scare, or an emotional journey in the steps of another, now's a great time to grab a headset and catch the VR wave.
-Charline Jao, GearBrain's VR intern, last reviewed the Spirit Board VR app. She's passionate about VR and how the technology is challenging the idea of narrative and filmmaking.