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Will virtual-reality cinema take off?

The ultimate empathy machine

An increasing number of film-makers are experimenting with virtual reality. But will a medium that makes its audience feel car-sick ever take off? 

An increasing number of film-makers are experimenting with virtual reality. But will a medium that makes its audience feel car-sick ever take off? 

Tom Shone | April 8th 2016

“We’ve had all sorts of reactions,” says Patrick Milling-Smith, in the Manhattan offices of Vrse.works, the independent virtual-reality production company he founded with the film-maker Chris Milk in 2014. “I’ve seen people laugh, cry. Then when it’s all over, and they pull off the headset, they can be a little disorientated: ‘oh I’m here’.”

It is late afternoon. Outside his window is a stunning view of the Empire State Building, soon to be forgotten as Milling-Smith adjusts the straps of the virtual-reality headset I’m wearing, plunging me into darkness. “I’ll leave you alone,” he says, and exits the office so that I can better experience “Evolution of Verse”, a VR twist on the famous Lumière brothers’ short from 1895, “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat”. A vast lake fills my field of vision in every direction. Hearing the sound of a train I turn my head, and see it chugging round a bend. Then, suddenly, the train plunges toward me, across the surface of the lake, and as the train’s iron fenders bear down on me, I imagine I feel something very close to what those first movie audiences must have experienced. Distantly, I know that what I am seeing is not real, but my lizard brain would not bet on it. Instinctively, I flinch.

“What it’s essentially doing is hacking your audio and visual system of your brain,” the short’s director, Chris Milk, tells me afterwards. A red-bearded Californian who can justly claim to be VR’s first auteur, Milk talks non-stop about the possibilities of a medium that he calls “the ultimate empathy machine”, pointing to an early interactive video he made for the band Arcade Fire, which used Google Earth to send viewers on a journey that wound up in the street they had grown up in as a child. “I would see people dance and cry and roll around on the floor. I never saw that when I was making things for a flat rectangle. Television and digital video have always told stories about people over there. Virtual reality tells a story about us here.”

It depends on your definition of “story.” It is only natural to remain sceptical about VR’s potential as a narrative medium. After all, the technology has been around for a while – computer games have been using a version of it since the early 1990s – but no full-length narrative feature has emerged. Partly this is because the new medium cedes to the viewer so many of the tools that film-makers use to direct the audience’s attention: framing and composition but most importantly editing. Milk and Milling-Smith have found that people don’t like too many cuts: they want to stay in place and explore. 

As immersive as the new medium is, its pace is languid, its mood utopian. Not for nothing does Milk’s Lumière tribute end with a smiling baby: there is something childlike about the way you explore the VR environment. Hitchcock would have been horrified: no close ups! No cuts! No montage! One of Milk’s collaborators has directed a horror short that straps the viewer into a wheelchair as it trundles through a lunatic asylum. It’s more trippy than scary, the freedoms afforded by interactivity drawing the sting from more traditional effects of shock and suspense – although I did experience one gloriously creepy moment when I glanced to one side and saw a face grinning at my left elbow.

In the main, the medium has gravitated away from narrative and towards documentary or reality-based formats – concert films, disaster-zone reports and documentary shorts, like the film Milk did with the United Nations called “Clouds Over Sidra”, which follows a 12-year-old Syrian girl’s life at a refugee camp in Jordan, or “Waves of Grace”, which tells the story of an ebola survivor in Liberia. These are films with a firm sense of place, that invite exploration. You can’t explore for very long, however: after about 30 minutes in the headset, you begin to feel car sick. 

Milk has found that it’s the filmmakers who already think outside the box – Spike Jonze and Werner Herzog – who have responded most enthusiastically to the new technology. “It’s sci-fi. It’s ‘The Matrix’,” says documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker.  “At Sundance two years ago there were just a few projects. In 2014, everything was VR.” Her first VR film – a documentary about Cuban dance made with Milk’s collaboration – was shown at this year’s festival. When we spoke, she had just got back from Haiti, where she was shooting a voodoo ceremony in downtown Port Au Prince (“a lot of animals, a lot of blood, a lot of knives, all night long”) for a second film. She’s excited by how VR is constantly evolving: “It’s like we're back in film school because you’re, like, hacking it together and figuring it out.” 

The reason behind the growth spurt is simple: smartphones, with their faster processing speeds, have finally dropped VR into the hands of the consumer. Companies like Oculus Rift, Sony and Google have affordable headsets coming to the mass market, while companies like Vrse, Digital Domain, Oculus Story Studio and RYOT have started producing content.

The challenge now, says Milk, is to figure out how to to make the equivalent of a feature film. “What could it mean to be able to change the story, or to be a character in the story?”

A VR feature could, you imagine, take the form of a self-conscious narrative – rather like the one dreamt up by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story “The Garden of the Forked Paths”. Borges describes a novel in which the characters plot their own course through a labyrinth of infinite possibilities, where events have multiple outcomes, all occurring simultaneously. 

If that sounds a little post-modern for a medium hoping to supplant cinema, to Milk it’s perfectly mundane. “Life is a branching narrative,” he says. “It doesn’t feel manufactured or weird, you just live it.” And therein lies the rub: perhaps VR’s real competition isn’t traditional film-making at all, but life itself.

The Vrse.works VR experiences are available to watch on the Vrse app (Apple iTunes, Google Play store and Oculus Gear VR store)

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