By Natasha D’Amours for WRIT 420
Cinematic VR. VR storytelling. 360° films. Whatever you call it, this new form of storytelling – this new medium – is innovative and exciting. Still in its early stages, most 360° film content is non-fiction. Which makes sense – it’s easier to forgive technology slip ups, like noticeable seams, awkward cuts and visible equipment and crew, when it comes to non-fiction. The viewer knows they’re in the real world. They don’t need to be convinced of the virtual reality. There’s no suspension of disbelief to maintain.
That’s not to say that there’s only non-fiction when it comes to 360° content. More and more, people are using this new technology to tell narrative stories. They’re learning how to use the 360° technology to create seamless spherical tales: invisible seams, invisible equipment, and cuts woven into the story so skillfully that they don’t feel disorienting at all – or better yet, the disorientation is part of the story.
Real Memories is a beautiful narrative 360° film created by, surprisingly, a car company, MINI. This short film does feature a MINI car, so it serves as a sort of sneaky ad. But if you didn’t know Real Memories was made by a car company, you wouldn’t guess it. It’s a short film first and a commercial second. It uses the 360° medium quite effectively, too.
Firstly, the story in Real Memories is about creating fake memories – or, one could say, about altering reality. This subject, while not directly about VR, plays with themes that work well with the medium. Because the viewer isn’t addressed but is just an observer (which is somewhat rare in 360° films – often, the viewer is also a participant in the story), it feels as if the viewer is in someone’s head, in their memories. They’re experiencing the alteration of Max’s memories alongside him – it’s interesting, and it’s effective, and it makes the medium feel earned. The medium gets played with even beyond the use of 360°, too, with the projection above the fireplace. This is a piece filled with experimentation, but the story is genuinely interesting and compelling – it would be captivating to watch no matter the medium. It’s difficult to watch a 360° film for very long – it gets annoying, and can even make the viewer sick, so most 360° films are well under ten minutes. This one is short, but it packs of a lot of story and emotion into five minutes.
Real Memories uses jumpcuts, which can feel sudden in 360°. The cuts never make the story hard to follow, though. In fact, when they become especially quick and disorienting while jumping between the present and Max’s memories, these cuts contribute to the story – Max is confused and disoriented, and so are the viewers. This short film isn’t quite a horror story (and horror stories are common in 360° – it’s easy to be scared when you’re inside the story), but there are definitely elements of fear and suspense. The cuts contribute to that. The cuts are also often accompanied by a sound – a slam, a piano playing – that serve to integrate the cuts more effectively into the story.
The camera positioning also serves the story well. In every scene, the camera is positioned so that the viewer can look behind them, but they always know which way is forward. The viewer is in the back of the car looking at the front, or in the corner of the living room, or by a wall looking out into the street. The characters move dynamically through the space, and the viewer does need to look around to follow their movement, but there’s no need to be constantly looking backwards and forwards, a motion which is both annoying and uncomfortable. The camera is also very effectively positioned so that the viewer can see most of the apartment without ever having to move the camera around. There are also interesting things to look at when looking down, like the book on the seat of the car. It’s good when a 360° film remembers that the piece is happening in a full sphere, not just a cylinder.
One slight flaw in this film is how many visual details are difficult to make out because of the limitations of 360°: the cameras are not very high resolution, the films are viewed on very small screens, and because of the wide-angle lenses, almost everything appears very far away. For these reasons, many of the visuals in Real Memories are difficult to make out – the writing on the book in the car, all the objects in the apartment… These objects don’t contribute as much to the story as they could in a traditional “flattie” film because we can’t see them clearly. Unlike flatties, 360° films have to rely much more heavily on dialogue rather than visuals. Although Real Memories handles these limitations well for the most part, it’s definitely something to keep in mind when creating 360° films: it’s hard to see anything clearly.
Overall, Real Memories is a very interesting and visually lovely 360° film. Although it might not be incredibly visually unique for a flattie film, it’s very well-made for a 360° film – there are no visible seams, the cuts are well-done, the camera angles are carefully picked… The suspension of disbelief is maintained in this film because the 360° is so seamless and effective. This is just one example of a 360° film, but it’s an example of a 360° film done well.