Imagine a cinematic world that goes beyond 2D or even 3D—one that’s so immersive that you’d swear you could reach out and touch the characters and surroundings. Not only that, but you decide how the movie ends by exploring different paths within the storylines. While previously just a fantasy for filmmakers eager to draw audience members in, this has quickly become feasible, thanks to advancements in virtual reality technology.
Suddenly, we’re on the brink of an entirely new movie medium. Looking down the road a bit, could future Oscars nominees actually be virtual reality movies?
How the VR medium proved itself worthy
Naturally, Oculus is at the forefront of this trend. In late January, the Facebook-owned company announced a new experimental virtual reality cinema project: the Oculus Story Studio. The project’s team consists of a number of game developers and filmmakers, who are focused on exploring real-time VR experiences that allow the viewer to become part of the action. And at the recent Sundance Film Festival, Oculus’ Story Studio debuted its first short, “Lost,” which guides the viewer on an adventure to a moonlit forest inhabited by an unusual creature. The project, which uses a mix of animation methods and custom gaze controls, was directed by Pixar vet Saschka Unseld, whose film credits include work on “Toy Story 3.” What’s unique about the piece is that although it’s barely five minutes long, the actual length depends on the audience member’s storytelling choices while wearing the headset.
And the viewer experience proved to be compelling.
After viewing “Lost,” The Verge’s Bryan Bishop asserted that it’s not only the most complete VR narrative created so far, but also the first film to prove the potential for VR in filmmaking. According to Bishop, the project totally eliminated previous concerns about whether or not virtual reality films would be emotionally powerful and an effective storytelling medium in their own right.
Here’s an excerpt of what he recounted:
I heard a sound to my right, and when I looked over I realized there was a giant… thing… jerking to life. It was a severed robot hand, lost out here in the middle of the woods.
The hand slowly pulled itself into my main field of view — the movie does still suffer a bit from the staginess of some VR in that there’s clearly a cleared space ahead of you to direct your field of view — but I was so charmed by what was happening that I hardly noticed. The hand flexed its digits, poking around, clearly in search of someone. Its owner. A red sensor wagged like a dog’s tail, a Pixar-like touch that gave it a sense of adorable personality.
That’s when the image got slightly blurry. The Oculus unit had shifted slightly on my face. I was smiling too big.
After describing his experience hiding behind a fern as an enormous robot cowered above, looking right at him, he added: “I’ve never been so frustrated that I had to leave a VR experience.”
A short but powerful piece like “Lost,” Bishop says, shows that we don’t need a Michael Bay epic to demonstrate that narrative VR is effective.
Now, the Oculus Story Studio is working on a number of animated shorts in the VR format, including “Bullfighter,” “Dear Angelica,” “Kabloom” and “Henry.”
“Those of us storytellers venturing into VR sometimes feel like explorers cutting our way through a dense, overgrown, uncharted forest, and the deeper we get into the forest, the more profound of an experience we give our audience,” wrote supervising technical director Max Planck on the Story Studio blog.
Other cinematic adaptations of the technology
Ten other VR projects debuted at Sundance as well, including Fox Searchlight’s “Wild: The Experience,” starring Reese Witherspoon from the Oscar-nominated film of the same name. The short, which used the Samsung Gear VR, follows Witherspoon on an adventure into the wilderness.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood visual effects firm Digital Domain and production company VRSE teamed up for “Evolution of Verse,” a 3.5-minute experimental VR demo featuring a computer-generated landscape setting and other cutting-edge visual effects cutting-edge. Danfung Dennis’ “Zero Point,” which also debuted at the festival, is a 20-minute documentary shot entirely in 360 degrees that follows the history of VR.
Also on site at Sundance was the virtual reality flight simulator “Birdly,” which leveraged the Oculus Rift headset to show attendees what it’s like to fly as a bird from a first-person perspective. The project even included a fan to mimic the feel of wind effect for a fully immersive experience. According to PCWorld, the two-minute ride had an average wait time of more than two hours.
Shari Frilot, curator of the New Frontier program, told PCWorld that filmmakers have become increasingly drawn to this medium “like moths to light” because of the powerful quality of immersion that that virtual reality offers.
We may be one step closer to ushering VR technology into mainstream Hollywood—or even our home entertainment rooms—as more filmmakers are inspired to create their own experiences.
And what’s perhaps most exciting: We may be one step closer to ushering VR technology into mainstream Hollywood—or even our home entertainment rooms—as more filmmakers are inspired to create their own experiences.
Of course, the Rift has yet to be mass-produced. But considering how well these VR shorts were received at Sundance, there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing a lot more of these cinematic experiences for the Rift’s consumer version when it finally hits shelves—which experts say will likely happen as early as later this year or 2016.
Image of Sony Morpheus headset via Shutterstock.