VR filmmaking is still a maturing medium, and it seems like every couple of months we find out more about what's possible. Filmmakers are still experimenting, and they're pushing what kind of narratives can be done.
There's no better example of that than the 2018 Cinequest Film Festival, which sported seven VR programs containing a total of 15 movies.
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Film festivals tend to be heavy on certain genres. Coming of age stories are particularly popular. Sometimes you get an issue-driven story, or a documentary about some niche-yet-unbelievable subject. These films are geared toward the gatekeepers of film festivals so that they have a better chance of getting in and being shown.
That sense sometimes even infects the increasingly popular VR sections of the festivals, like at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Not so here though. There was honest-to-goodness variety that is a good indicator of the health of the future of VR filmmaking
The animated experience
Some of the earliest, and best, demos for modern VR have been animated experiences. These are short little stories that dare to dream big, wowing you with lush visuals and finding glee in making animated worlds feel more real than ever before.
At Cinequest, these took the form of films like La Camila and Doctor X: Pale Dawn, completely animated films that aim to take you on a crazy adventure. They couldn't be more dissimilar either. La Camila is about a girl and her father that shepherd rain clouds to put out fires, while Doctor X is about a guy who is trying to escape dinosaurs in a maze world.
One of them is a 20-minute slow burn that's essentially a coming-of-age story, while the other is a motion simulator away from being a theme park ride. Even in this tried-and-true staple of VR filmmaking, there's some good variety.
The 360 movie
This increasingly seems to be the default narrative VR experience, as it's the one that makes the most sense when coming from the traditional world of movies. Just take a 360 camera, plop it down and shoot your movie around it.
You'd think this would be a lazy way of making VR films, but it turns out that it's even more difficult, as you have to think about how you use every inch of space. Knives, Boxes and The Recall all find interesting ways of playing with this information.
Boxes is about a man who heads to his parents home to pack up their things after they've passed away. You follow him through the house as he travels down hallways of memories ‚Äď quite literally, come the end of the movie.
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It's a savvy trick, one that Knives, a horror movie, eschews. Instead, it realises that the intimacy that VR can create with actors can create uncomfortable moments, and it puts you right in the middle of a woman who suspects her husband is cheating on her, slowly bringing us into her madness until it spirals out of control.
Then there's The Recall, which is essentially the 360 version of Cloverfield. You and a bunch of friends are off in the woods being crazy, horny teenagers until aliens attack and you must escape.
360 filmmaking is the one that seems the most likely to die out, as it's the most difficult, but it seems like filmmakers are figuring out ways to push the concept beyond simple adventure and sports videos.
One of the exciting things about VR is that it feels like it can help foster empathy far more effectively than traditional movies or TV. That is used to heartbreaking effect in docs like Behind The Fence and After Solitary.
Behind The Fence, for example, takes you into a concentration camp in Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims are being held. You see, first hand, the atrocities people are suffering, and it makes it all more real than any news article could.
It's a similar deal in After Solitary, which lets a former inmate of Maine State Prison tell you about his harrowing time in solitary confinement. The film goes a step beyond that, recreating his tiny cell for you to experience it yourself, then juxtaposing it by putting you in his cramped bedroom, which he can't seem to leave after returning home.
It's hard not to feel like this is the most effective use of VR right now.
A storytelling medium can't just rely on a couple of genres to survive. You need niche genres and subgenres to have a healthy movie ecosystem. A good example of this is the "kaiju" movie. Hailing from Japan, kaiju movies are often about giant monsters dueling in cities.
Ultraman Zero VR brings the kaiju experience to VR in a way that makes a lot of sense. These movies often have two giant monsters fight against each other while regular sized humans run around, and it's a no-brainer to watch the spectacle from their shoes.
VR, thus far, has been a haven for rollercoaster-like action pieces, horror movies and documentaries. Why not explore the smaller genres? Let's see more kaiju movies, Bollywood musicals, claymations, and weird slow-burn movies that are boring even though they have 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The interactive narrative
Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books and RPGs have been playing with narrative choice for a while now, so it's no surprise to see VR jump in with some of the same ideas. These can be simple things, like Hutong In Live, which remembers the traditional courtyard residences in Beijing.
You're given looks at life in Hutongs, but then are given free reign to explore until big urban skyscrapers come along and take over these peaceful little neighborhoods. Its recreating the narrator's experience for you.
Then there's something like Revoked, which takes place in an America where the President of the United States revokes green cards for Iran and North Korean citizens and creates a gestapo-like immigration force to enforce the new rules.
You journey alongside a former Iranian-American and her friend as they head for the Canadian border. Along the way, you make their decisions for them, so your choices affect whether you actually get to the border and freedom or whether you're caught and deported.
As VR filmmaking continues to mature, it's hard not to see interactive narratives take an even larger share of the market. Your natural inclination in VR is to want to interact with the things you see, so it's a perfect match.
For a lot of companies, VR is just a marketing tool. They haven't yet branched out to create original narrative experiences, so they want to use it to promote the main event, which in this case is a traditional movie.
In this, a new kind of VR film is being created: the adaptation. Look at Speed Kills and The Humanity Bureau, two VR movies that are adapted from feature films starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, respectively.
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Like any other adaptation, what we see here is a VR film that aims to capture the spirit of the original piece but in a different package. It's an interesting new idea that could product some exciting content.
Outside of the film festival world, we also saw this recently with TheWay Of Kings: Escape The Shattered Plains, an adaptation of Brandon Sanderson's popular Stormlight Archives series.
One of the more exciting futures for narrative VR, which is being worked on by Microsoft with its Mixed Reality Capture Studios, is one where we blend human performances with digital backgrounds.
Meeting Rembrandt is a glimpse at that future. You are transported back in time and get to meet Rembrandt in his studio. The film takes digital recreations of his home and workspace and pairs that with volumetrically captured performances.
This helps sell the idea that you're in a 3D space. You're not just watching a movie that happens to be all around you; it feels like you're in a real space with real people. It's a small trick that works wonders.
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For instance, there's a moment in Meeting Rembrandt where a little girl hides under a table. There's a noise and Rembrandt coyly wonders out lout whether there's someone under the table. I legitimately forgot I was wearing a Gear VR in a chair and wanted to look below the table. I couldn't, but the effect had worked.
VR filmmaking is making important strides. It's expanding past animated demos and 360 videos into new realms of stories that we haven't seen before. In the end, that means that VR storytelling can take its place alongside movies and other forms of entertainment, while we get a diverse selection of VR experiences to pick from.