By Brad Seabrook, University of Victoria
I first came into contact with 360o Virtual Reality film with no expectations. After arriving, my Google Cardboard sat on the self for over two weeks until the first time I picked it up. When I did finally pick it up, it wasn’t because I wanted to, but because I had to. This lack of excitement doesn’t speak well for the brand of 360o VR. I wasn’t hearing a lot about it, and what I was hearing was negative criticism of 360o being a broken gimmick. But I am not here to talk about what others say, am I? No, but when I did first “experience” 360o, I understood the criticism. Low resolution, double vision and an unconvincing immersion was what I found… until I began to really play with it. I’m going to liken 360o VR to a talking animal movie for a second here: in both you need to suspend your disbelief and trust that this is real, or you will not enjoy it in the slightest.
Let’s take The Exorcist VR Experience as an example. When it begins, what is supposed to be scary is quickly revealed and I had the feeling that I was in fact watching something, not experiencing it. However, I came to the realization that this was now upon me to do some work alongside the film, er experience. I covered the sides of the Cardboard and let my whole world go black, then accepted that this was where I physically was. I took steps in each direction and spun around, disorienting myself. Seemingly as if the film knew I was now into it, the screen went black, and the surround sound kicked in. Screams and chuckles came from all directions as I frantically tried to find the little girl that was terrorizing me, not a character. That was the exact strength of this piece. It did not make it easy or the viewer. It did not show me the little, possessed girl, but instead, I had to look for her. This can be a strength of 360o VR in my mind; for too long viewers have been fed information. It is time to make them look for it.
Now let’s look at a narrative film, which are seemingly scarce. The Mr. Robot VR Experience is the short film in question, and I have to say, as somebody who has never watched a scene from the show Mr. Robot, this film grabbed me surprisingly quickly. Even coming into it with a high expectation, knowing it was produced at a high level, I was impressed with the creativeness it held, even if it was a little on the nose. Raising the camera when Elliot gets high is predictable, but because I was being moved, not a perceived camera, it worked. This kind of cinematography would be a huge faux pas in today’s standard, but in 360o it worked for me. Reflecting back on this film I have to think hard about why it worked. I think the simple answer is the performances put on by the actors. In contrast to a 360o VR film such as Catatonic, which held perhaps the most over-acting I have ever seen, Mr. Robot’s performances were on point: perfectly subtle, yet captivating to watch play out. However, this simply is not something that can be expected in every VR film. There must be other strengths, and Mr. Robot luckily does have more.
The most prominent of which was the placement of the camera. During the final scene, in which Elliot and his date are lying on the bed, I found myself shaking my head left and right, as the camera was placed over top of them. The angle was so strange, I couldn’t quite orient myself, and that was adding directly to my sympathy for Elliot’s fractured memory: his want to not forget. Again, in an earlier scene on the Ferris wheel, I couldn’t help but notice that after a cut to and from the scene, it appeared as if the couple were sitting in different seats. Was this simply a continuity mistake, or was this meant to portray Elliot’s loss of memory? This is the kind of cinematography that I did not think was possible in 360o VR, and opens up the possibility for film analysis (insert excitement here).
Perhaps my most pleasant experience in 360o VR was in viewing the film LOVR. This is an animated film based upon throwing data at you, visually. The subject matter is certainly not the most interesting, and is based solely upon reading the information being thrown at the viewer. However, what I did enjoy, was the movement of the film. Not only was information literally flowing past, but it was dynamically moving me, almost like a virtual dance. The position of the camera forced me into its movement, and forced me to turn and find where I needed to look. It was generally disorienting, and that only helped to immerse me into the reality, even if it was entirely built of words and black.
So yes, I can see the strengths of 360o VR, even if all the films do not employ all the best techniques for success. I think we need to take a step back and remember where Film itself used to be when the Lumiere brothers were making films. Film language took years to build itself up into a mainstream medium that was considered “art.” 360o VR needs time to mature in an age where patience is a non-factor.