Face/Off: How stars like Nic Cage and John Travolta are learning to make VR cinema

Rethinking the process
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John Travolta was cautious about filming the VR version of upcoming movie Speed Kills. It was a completely foreign format to him, and while the process was familiar, the nuts and bolts of actually doing it were not.

But as he worked he started taking to it, Travis Cloyd, VR producer, director and CEO of Observe Media, tells me at the 2018 Cinequest Film Festival. In fact, Travolta felt like he could be himself and better express his creative abilities when an entire harem of gawking crew wasn't there staring at his every move.

It was a similar story for Nicolas Cage while he was shooting the VR version of The Humanity Bureau, Cloyd explains. Both situations have required veteran Hollywood actors to dive into an entirely new medium and rethink the way a scene is built.

Essential reading: What's next for 360 filmmaking

Cloyd, who won the VR Visionary award at the festival, works with his team at Observe Media work to help film production companies bring their movies into VR. We spoke to him about what it's like using 360 video, how VR is the ultimate VR canvas, and why you should be excited about the future of VR content.

360 vision

The Humanity Bureau - Official VR Trailer [HD] from One Touch VR Distribution on Vimeo.

When adapting a film, Cloyd and his team try to figure out the essence of the story, and whether there were additional scenes cut from the movie that could be better used in VR. The fruit of that effort is a VR script for a 20-minute experience that shoots on the same sets and with the same actors as the actual movie. In fact, Cloyd says, actors can shoot the traditional movie and VR movie in the same day.

Actors will have to not only act in the way they normally do for film, but learn to act for VR at the same time. In a traditional film, the actors are told where to stand, when to stand and how much freedom they have to move around. This is called blocking, and in a film it's all done in the eye of the camera. VR and 360-degree filmmaking, on the other hand, have eyes everywhere. This means that filmmakers have to learn to use, and teach their actors how to use, the entire space around the camera.

"You have to block with the cast so that they feel comfortable for the whole spherical environment," Cloyd says. "It just takes them understanding they don't have to step inside the frame."

VR needs to give you the time to move your head back and forth between the characters having a conversation

While it's much more difficult to learn to use 360-degrees of space rather than pointing a camera in a single direction and filming something more specific, it also ends up helping the actors. That's because the crew is out of the picture, and that allows actors to better lose themselves in the performance because, as Travolta explained, they aren't being stared at.

That's not all of how 360 filmmaking changes things for actors though. Cloyd says that when he's trying to place a 360 camera for a scene, he's looking for the optimal balance between practicality and storytelling sense.

"We want you to feel like you're right there in the middle of the action, but we also want you a fair distance from the camera so you're not in the stitch points," he says. "But you also feel like you have one side of the cast and conversation taking place to your right and you have the other element of the conversation taking place to the left."

That helps make you feel like you're a part of the conversation. In traditional movies, those conversations have a faster cadence to them. One person talks, then it cuts to the other person, who responds or reacts instantly. Then you cut back again to the first person. The filmmakers can slow down the conversation if they like, but for the most part this technique keeps dialogue coming smooth and fast.

That's not possible in VR, because it needs to give you the time to move your head back and forth between the characters having a conversation. Cloyd says this means that actors have to learn a new cadence to their dialogue delivery, one that allows for audiences to fully understand what's being said while also taking in the scene.

And you need that time for the audience to take in what's happening, which means VR filmmakers need to cut between scenes far less often than traditional movies. The more cuts, the less an audience gets a sense of place, and the more they're confused.

A larger canvas

Face/Off: How stars like Nic Cage and John Travolta are learning to make VR cinema

Virtual reality has the unique power to drop you into any location. Within a second you're thrown in the middle of something, whether that be a static environment or a video or a 3D landscape you can explore. But what if it didn't have to be like that?

"I think the neat thing about VR and 360 is you're given a bigger canvas to tell the story, and I think a lot of people immediately jump to creating content in 360 because that's as big as it's going to be," Cloyd says. "But I also look at it, like, if you're in a 360-degree environment and you watch a 2D movie you're roughly watching about 45 degrees of your 360 degrees, so that leaves a much larger canvas to story tell."

For The Humanity Bureau, Cloyd and his team worked with developer OneTouch VR to create an app that not only houses the 360 version of the movie, but a new three-screen version of the film.

The three-screen version of the film uses the scope of VR to place three separate 2D screens next to each other. I tried out a sample of the three-screen version of The Humanity Bureau and it's kind of like having three 40-inch monitors for your computer.

Everything has advanced, the process is the same

Not only does it allow the movie to utilise the highest possible resolution, which makes everything clearer to view, but filmmakers can use it to tell their stories in interesting new ways. For instance, you can sync all three screens to show wide shots, like establishing shots of cities or fields. Or, Cloyd says, you can use them for something called "subliminal shots".

"It forces them to be more aware of what's taking place in the centre. For example, if there's a scene where there's dialogue taking place. On the left screen you can show the plate of food that they're eating to know that they're in the middle of a meal."

You can then concentrate the centre screen on the dialogue. Your peripheral vision picks up that there's a plate of food in the scene, your brain processes the information quickly and you're back to the conversation and the character's reactions. The effect is a little like focusing on your laptop for work, and then seeing in your periphery that a calendar event reminder went off on your phone. Your work takes on a new urgency because you're reminded you need to go somewhere.

The more creators learn to limit their scope in VR, the more they can experiment and figure out what works for the story they want to tell, Cloyd argues. Instead of a one-size-fits all strategy, VR has the unique ability to change the size of the canvas on demand. Cloyd says it's like turning the audience into the home decorator.

Face/Off: How stars like Nic Cage and John Travolta are learning to make VR cinema

While big movie studios have started to see the potential of VR filmmaking, they've only seen it through the lens of a brand awareness tool for their traditional movies, as those are still the most valuable assets, Cloyd says. Producers and Hollywood at large are still used to the distribution channels and process of traditional movies, not VR.

Cloyd pushes back on that a bit, saying that "everything has advanced, the process is the same." VR filmmakers still need a script and funding, then go off and shoot their movie, then take them to film festivals and get distribution through VR storefronts like the Oculus Store, Google Play, Steam, iOS and more.

The way it's viewed by the big players in the world of filmmaking isn't the only thing that needs to progress in the future though. "We need hardware and software to catch up with the concepts that content creators have," he says. Until then, Cloyd says VR is "a secondary format with hopes that things progress in the future."


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Husain Sumra


Husain joined Wareable in 2017 as a member of our San Fransisco based team. Husain is a movies expert, and runs his own blog, and contributes to MacRumors.

He has spent hours in the world of virtual reality, getting eyes on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR. 

At Wareable, Husain's role is to investigate, report and write features and news about the wearable industry – from smartwatches and fitness trackers to health devices, virtual reality, augmented reality and more.

He writes buyers guides, how-to content, hardware reviews and more.

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