Everyone is sure that VR will have a huge impact on the games industry, but how will it impact on cinema and narrative storytelling.
Steven Spielberg certainly didn’t seem to think it was a good thing, when he talked to The Guardian newspaper last year:
“I think we’re moving into a dangerous medium with virtual reality. The only reason I say it is dangerous is because it gives the viewer a lot of latitude not to take direction from the storytellers but make their own choices of where to look.” he said. “I just hope it doesn’t forget the story when it starts enveloping us in a world that we can see all around us and make our own choices on what to look at.”
But although he may be wary of it, he is aware its immersive power. This is probably why he’s now working on a “family-oriented” project for The Virtual Reality Company, which has raised $23 million in funding for its VR studio.
The word that is usually used in relation to VR experience is ‘presence’ and the most obvious way this manifests itself is with the 360-degree view.
While the novelty of turning your head in every direction soon wears off, the fact that you can’t see the edge of the screen really does have the effect of making you feel like you’re there. Now I haven’t got the best head for heights, so when I viewed New York from the top of the New World Trade Centre, I felt genuine vertigo.
But for me what is most powerful about VR is not the feeling of presence, but that of control.
I usually hate it when the camera keeps cutting to members of the audience laughing in a televised performance of a comedian. I understand it’s used as an editing device, but I feel like I’m being told “all these people find this joke really funny, you should be laughing as well.”
So when I watched Saturday Night Live’s 40 year celebration hosted by Jerry Seinfeld and with a star studded celebrity audience in VR, I had an epiphany. The VR footage came from a 360 degree feed from on top of the show’s camera number one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HS9h4xFRww
Watching it in VR I could decide whether I looked at Jerry or the audience’s reaction. I decided which stars in the audience I would watch in the crowd and for how long. I could just watch Jerry, I could watch who he was talking to in the audience or I could just stay on one person and see how he or she reacted to what Jerry was saying.
You may say, that’s all very well for a studio based TV special, but to Spielberg’s concern, what about when you trying to tell a story. Well, isn’t that just what theatre is?
As the audience member, you are in control of which character you look at on stage. Narrative VR will join the control of theatre to the realism of film. It’s the best of both worlds.
And don’t worry Steven; it’s not going to put film directors out of business. The actors will still need directing, it’s just that the director will no longer be in control of where the viewer looks. Narrative VR works best, when a scene is played out with no cuts. When the scene is finished, fade out to the next scene. Good news for directors, great news for actors, but not such great news for editors.
Take the famous scene in Heat where cop, Al Pacino chats in a diner with his nemesis, Robert De Niro. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZtgQ6QBEyc
Michael Mann, the director is deciding who we look at in that scene. In VR, the scene would be different for everybody watching; as you decide which actor you watch. It still holds exactly the same drama and story; it’s just that it feels more engrossing and real as you’re in control of what you look at and when. Just because you don’t have cuts, doesn’t make the story any less powerful.
I think Spielberg’s concern that with VR you can’t control the narrative will be an issue. True you can turn your head 360 degrees and watch the chef flipping burgers, but if you chose to watch that instead of this powerful interaction between two of the world’s greatest actors, then it’s your loss.
Of course, another argument is you might miss out on some of the important action in a film because you’re not looking in the right direction. I think this is where the filmmaker can use various techniques to encourage you to look in a certain direction.
When you hear a sound or a voice and you can’t see where it is coming from, you will naturally look to find its source. Even just a character turning his or her head to look at something off screen will make the viewer look in that same direction.
Of course some people will see things quicker than others, but that’s what makes it so engaging and so like real life.
There’s a VR film called New Wave, where a couple is on the beach in the early evening. She is in the water and he is sitting on a boat on the beach. Each of them shares their very different thoughts on the relationship in an internal monologue. http://superprimefilms.com/407/samir-mallals-new-wave-virtual-reality-film/
But what makes it so great in VR is that when you turn you head to look at one of them the other’s thoughts fade out. In a traditional film you would cut between the two of them and the director would decide what you heard, but it wouldn’t feel real.
Again it’s that control and the fact that you could be missing something that makes it so exciting and engaging.
Imagine an Agatha Christie whodunit, with a room full of people at a dinner party in an English stately home. You have to decide who the murderer is by listening to all the different conversations. You may miss things, you may have to watch the whole scene again, but that control really makes you feel like you’re there at the dinner party.
Another example where it could have a big effect is in documentaries. The Guardian made a short film about what it’s like to be in solitary confinement and instead of prisoners just talking about what it’s like, you are actually experiencing what it is like to be in a 6x9 ft cell.
You still get the thoughts of the prisoners, but you get them as voice over instead. Rather than telling you about the experience, they are guiding you through it, as you experience it for yourself. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2016/apr/27/6x9-a-virtual-experience-of-solitary-confinement
A normal film tells you a story and when you’re told something it’s second hand. With VR you experience a story first hand; you live it. And you can’t get much more powerful than that.