By Scott Secco, University of Victoria
Compared to arts like writing and music, film, at 121 years old, is still in its infancy. The first true motion picture was Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon created in 1895 by French filmmaker Louis Lumière. It was shot statically, on a tripod. Camera movement was pioneered in 1898 with a panning device which could rotate the camera. In 1917 Technicolour introduced mainstream audiences to colour (colour film was first tested in 1902 but it wasn’t popularized until Technicolour’s vivid film stock caught on with audiences and directors). Incredibly, the first 3D movie was Power of Love way back in 1922. Sound was added to films in 1927. Wearable virtual reality (primitive, but recognizable) as we know it was created in 1968. These innovations have all been landmark moments in cinema history to varying degrees: the highest grossing picture of all-time is a 3D film, Avatar (2009), and yet 3D film production has been in a precipitous decline ever since (from a record 59 films in 2011 to a mere 16 in 2014). What I mean to show with this preamble is that every innovation is not equal. Talkies ended the Silent Era, will VR kill the ‘flatty?’
Who could forget the iconic Steadicam shot from Goodfellas which follows mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he walks through Copacabana? Or what about the bravura ‘one shot’ to open Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil? Hitchock’s vertiginous Vertigo zoom? With the exception of animated movies, VR all but eliminates the potential for complex shots like these. Current technology basically requires the VR rig to be static at all times and limits options like lens choice, lighting, and camera movement because of its omniscient nature. These things are more than just cheap tricks for directors to flex their formal chops, these are important storytelling cues. Is the camera movement shaky to mimic the frenetic action of James Bond chasing down a bad guy, will a closeup add pathos to a sad scene? The VR rig can ‘see’ everything so the crew can’t really be on set with copious lighting rigs. Yes, you can build practical lighting into the set, but certain situations call for soft boxes and diffusion on hand. You also cannot switch lenses because this will alter the overlap between the cameras in a VR rig. Editing is different too if you cannot cut between alternate angles or insert shots.
I watched several VR films on Youtube in the horror genre: the best examples I found were Interactive Paranormal Activity Seance and Scarehouse Warehouse although for very different reasons. Interactive Seance was a short film from the Paranormal Activity franchise and is both a standalone short film and a marketing tool for their new movie. It was produced with a Hollywood aesthetic (and budget/sound design/VFX team) and it looks and sounds fantastic. The frame blending between cameras is seamless and it’s all held together with strong acting performances. The whole short is done in one take which helps to hold the tension and viewer’s attention spans as you feel obligated to scan the room in hopes of uncovering which direction the next scare will come from. This is an engaging short with one problem – the camera is completely static. Paranormal Activity is a ‘found footage’ franchise where characters film themselves having spooky experiences (thus they can explain away the fact that they have a VR camera in the room) but I’m reminded of how much better this could have been if the film had been made with the camera actually being one of the characters POV’s. You could move the camera to look around as if you were turning your head in real life (which I think would add to the horror).
Scarehouse Warehouse, in comparison is absolute dreck. It is amateur to the point of corniness and the stitching in the footage is horrendous – it regularly cuts characters into weird shapes, completely breaking any illusion of realism. The writing and acting are equally abysmal. The one redeeming factor I found in it is that large portions of the film make the viewer a participant in the action. The camera is rigged up at eye level, and is carried around by the character, so it feels like you’re in a haunted house getting chased around by murderous clowns. With more money, knowhow, and equipment I imagine this could be a very successful way to shoot a VR film, but I could also see it going out of fashion once it’s been seen ad nauseum and become gimmicky. This style also makes editing difficult as the film cuts between moving POV shots and static shots with seemingly random fade-to-blacks inserted occasionally between clips.
I consider 3D to be a fairly good case study for the potential of VR. Both formats strive for a more immersive viewing experience but they are also more intrusive than a standard movie. 3D requires somewhat conventional glasses while you need X-Men-esque headgear for a VR film. Personally, I feel that the technology is not up to snuff for VR to catch on with mainstream moviegoers. I find 3D glasses to be both distracting to wear and detrimental to the movie experience as they cause my eyes discomfort and dim the brightness of the picture on screen. VR is even worse. Why would I want a cell phone or any screen inches from my eyeballs? Call me a traditionalist, but VR needs fine tuning before I’ll embrace it. As a creative though, I hope people never stop pushing the potentials of technology to enable new modes of storytelling.