Is Virtual Reality Hollywood's Next Big Headache?

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Is Virtual Reality Hollywood's Next Big Headache?
September 17, 2016

 

Without wanting to ruin the sacred mystery, here’s how it works. Jesus VR was shot in and around the southern Italian city of Matera, which you might recognise from The Passion of the Christ, or Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, or the new Ben-Hur movie, or almost any Biblical film with a location budget. 
 
On set, a cluster of cameras pointing in all directions, a little like an insect’s compound eye, soak up what’s going on. Then back in the editing suite, the footage is stitched together on computers. This creates a virtual bubble of moving images you can "stand inside" by strapping on a VR headset, which is basically a pair of jeweller’s loupes pointing at a high-resolution smartphone screen.
 
When you turn or tilt your head, motion sensors in the smartphone calculate the direction and angle of your gaze – over your shoulder, between your legs, it doesn’t matter – and with silky seamlessness, the screen shows you whatever was there, as if you were too.
 

 
If this is the future of cinema, make the most of big screens and communal experiences while you can. Even watched in Venice’s dedicated virtual reality suite – 30 headsets and swishy white rotating chairs – VR films are a solitary experience. Nevertheless, it’s a potential gravy train Hollywood is determined not to miss. Every major studio is currently pondering two key questions: exactly what this new technology is capable of, and how they might be able to make some money from it. 
 
The answers may come from the VR Society, a newly formed arm of a cross-studio initiative called the Advanced Imaging Society, which was originally set up to do the same thing for stereoscopic 3D, last decade’s saviour of cinema.
 
Next month, Paramount Pictures will host a two-day VR Society conference called VR On The Lot, where studios, video game companies, technology start-ups and researchers will share early experiments and butt heads to work out what comes next.
 
It’s essentially guesswork rooted in panic over declining cinema audiences – but so was Warner Bros’ $3 million investment in Vitaphone in 1925, when the movies were losing out to radio. Two years later, The Jazz Singer formally ushered in the time of the talkies and business boomed again. No one wants to miss out on VR’s Al Jolson moment.
 

 
 

What exactly that might consist of remains unclear, though it seems unlikely Jesus VR will be it. For one thing, the technology isn’t quite there yet. Despite the image’s 4K resolution – in theory, as sharp as the best new HD televisions – the magnified pixels on the smartphone screen are clearly visible, which renders colours grubby and actors’ faces soggily indistinct. 
 
Then there are what might be called the aesthetic pitfalls. Just as a rowing team is only as fast as its slowest member, a virtual reality film is only as plausible as its most saucer-eyed, cud-chewing extra, and Jesus VR boasts a menagerie of them.
 
In the Last Supper scene, I struggled to pay attention to Jesus’s words because I was so distracted by the disciples, who all seemed to be switching randomly between two facial expressions: beard-twirling solemnity and sea bass-mouthed astonishment. And during the crucifixion, I missed the nails going in because I spotted a jeering bystander who looked oddly like Jeremy Corbyn.
 
The fact the viewer’s eyes and mind can wander isn’t a flaw of virtual reality: it’s the point. But given the Life of Christ is a story in which the main character should be something of an attention magnet, you’d have to concede it’s less than ideal source material.
 
Except is it? Halfway through the Venice screening of Jesus VR, the film was paused so that its producer Alex Barder, the co-managing partner of production company VRWerx, could talk the festival audience through his game plan.
 

Telegraph VR newbies try out HTC VivePlay!03:23
 

 
For Barder – a bald Los Angeleno with black-rimmed glasses and a salesman’s fastened grin – VR is cinema’s next success story in waiting. He spoke excitedly about the 2.08 billion smartphone users worldwide as Jesus VR’s potential audience, even though it’s only the (for now) significantly smaller number of VR headset owners who can actually watch it.
 
Statistics are sketchy, but HTC’s new Vive headset (a mid-market home-use model) is thought to have sold around 100,000 units since its launch in March – and overwhelmingly to video-gamers, who seem unlikely to use their expensive new toy to relive the parable of the Good Samaritan. But the market is expected to balloon over the next two years, thanks in part flat-pack models such as Google Cardboard, which are available for less than £10 and could persuade sceptics to dip in a toe.
 
And let’s not forget that Christians can be enthusiastic early adopters. In the early days of cinema, Life of Christ films were virtually a genre to itself. In 1898, New York’s Eden Musée – the first venue anywhere in the United States to regularly show films – made their first self-produced movie, which was a 19-minute Passion Play.
 
It was billed as the legendary Oberammergau Passion in Germany, but was actually shot on the roof of the Grand Central Palace exhibition hall 20 blocks away. (The press found out when they realised the Oberammergau Passion had last been staged in 1890, when cinema hadn’t been invented yet.)
 

 
 

The Eden Musée’s Christ film was itself a response toa newsreel version of an actual Austrian Passion Play filmed by the New York-based Theatrical Syndicate the previous year. But the knock-off became the bigger boxoffice hit, and inspired a barrage of remakes in America and Europe.
 
Barder believes the same appetite exists today. “We spoke to a lot of people and said ‘If you could travel anywhere in the history of the world, where would you want to go, what would you want to do, who would you want to be with?’” (“Dinosaurs,” someone behind me muttered.)
 
“That’s right: the life of Jesus,” Barder went on, grinning. “It’s the biggest, most important story ever told, right? And now it’s the most important story ever told on the most innovative platform ever made. That’s the power of VR. It’s a way to tell a familiar story in a way no one’s seen before.”
 
For all of Jesus VR’s shortcomings as entertainment, Barder and his film crew are on the right side of history. Given the medium’s potential, it’s impossible to imagine VR cinema won’t catch on at some point in the very near future, and mass-market video-gaming even sooner. (In addition to Jesus VR, Barder and VRWerx have also developed Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul, a fully immersive survival horror title that’s currently touring gaming exhibitions.) 
 
But to do this, VR cinema has to persuade a mainstream audience that it offers something ordinary cinema can’t. And here is where the film industry itself – via bodies such as VR Society as much as maverick artists and innovators – will have to work out how much it actually has much in common with cinema as we know it.
 

 
 

After seeing a VR film, it becomes immediately clear that the two most basic building blocks of cinema – the shot and the cut – no longer work as they used to. Hard cuts are presently too disorienting, so until we acclimatise, scenes have to unfold in a single take. And the shots in Jesus VR are long, mostly static, and split up by gentle fades to black – which perhaps explains the lack of motion sickness I experienced that’s sometimes reported by gamers.
 
Because viewers can choose what to look at from the camera’s vantage point, the director’s control starts and ends with their initial camera placement – which means the close-up is out, along with pans, tilts, zooms and shallow focus. Tracking shots still make sense, providing whatever it is that’s moving the camera is either part of the shot or can be airbrushed out. (The same goes for lighting.)
 
And the audience’s freedom to miss what matters means stories will have to be discovered rather than told – although without the interactive dimension of a video-game, it’s hard to imagine at present how this might work.
 
This does mean that abstract and non-narrative films have an early advantage, and also documentaries with a subject that gains from an immersive treatment. The Oscar-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow may have found one: she’s currently preparing to co-direct The Protectors, a documentary short about the ivory trade that follows a day in the life of Garamba National Park rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
 

Fictional features have more of a struggle on their hands to turn VR’s apparent shortcomings into selling points. But that doesn’t mean studios aren’t trying. Fox and Sony recently made VR ‘experiences’ based on, respectively, The Martian and Ghostbusters. Industrial Light and Magic’s forthcoming Star Wars VR film – an as-yet-untitled spin-off centred on Darth Vader, and written by David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, Man of Steel) – will feature interactive, and perhaps even participatory elements, more like a piece of computer-generated promenade theatre than a conventional movie.

In short, the ground is shifting – although at Venice at least, some of the old certainties still apply. Late one night, I received a text message from a friend: “There’s a Virtual Jesus party at Club 73. I’m assured it will be easy to get into.” I was wearing shorts and a creased Hawaiian shirt in a state of mid-festival dishevelment, but went along anyway, and was nonchalantly waved in and handed a complimentary glass of red wine.
 
It was close to midnight, and the air was hot and damp. Parties were booming up and down the Lido, with coloured spotlights twisting in the sky. I went to the balcony overlooking the Venice Lagoon and spotted Alex Barder, who was surrounded by four very pretty young Italian women listening to him talk about the film with rapt admiration. Maybe they wanted to be in his next one. He was still smiling, but this time it looked a bit more natural.

 

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