— Virtual reality may not quite be a shipping product, but it
very real companies championing its merits and promoting the technology in the
marketplace. Last year, social media behemoth Facebook purchased VR startup
Oculus VR for $2 billion, while other players continue to push the bounds of
what it means as a developing medium.
VR is now clearly more than vaporware, as noted by 21st Century Fox’s use of
the technology at CES to demonstrate how this immersion technology could change
the storytelling process. For the Fox Searchlight film “Wild,” based on Cheryl Strayed’s book about her solitary hike on the
Pacific Crest Trail, the film studio created a three-minute companion VR piece
that practically took viewers out to the wilderness.
Attendees at CES (and later at the Sundance Film Festival) were able to “view” “Wild—The Experience,” on Gear VR headsets,
which were developed by Oculus VR and Samsung. Instead of watching the movie in
the traditional manner, with eyes facing a large screen, viewers have a
360-degree virtual reality encounter with the film’s Cheryl Strayed, played by
Reese Witherspoon, and her giant backpack.
“There is no fourth wall in VR,” said Ted Schilowitz, VR consultant for 21st
Century Fox. “You look everywhere and you see everything in the forest and
experience a sense of place.”
“The whole idea isn’t just to demonstrate the technology but
rather what it can do,” he said. “It is to make it interesting to the audience, and I
think this is what we accomplished with the ‘Wild’
project. This showed what a movie studio can do when it approaches a new
medium. It creates a new experience.”
While VR is getting real, it won’t likely make the current movie experience go
away. Nor is anyone predicting that it will even become a big part of the
mainstream moviemaking process—at least not the in the way that 3D was hyped to
do back in 2009 and 2010. VR may be the next big thing, but it will have its
own place as a new medium.
“It isn’t going to replace film, and it isn’t going to replace TV, but it is a
huge opportunity for entertainment,” said Scott Broock, vice president of content
at VR development studio Jaunt. “This product is radically different from what
you see on a 16:9 box.”
“VR is supplemental, not a replacement, and not necessarily even just a
complementary medium,” adds Dale Carman, executive creative director and founder
of Reel FX. “HD on an iPad didn’t threaten the big screen in the house, and in
that way VR is supplemental. You can watch a movie, but with VR, you can also
be in the story and experience it in that way. VR allows me to be in the
Millennium Falcon in a way that I can’t be by just watching
Because VR immerses the viewer in an experience in a way that is fundamentally
different from watching a movie or TV show on a flat screen, it presents new
challenges both in the production of content and even in the way a story is
All objects on the set—everything from the lights and cameras to the crew,
which normally can be positioned just outside the view of the camera lens—need
to be handled differently given that the viewer can pan in any direction. For
this reason, there is no such place as “off camera” and no traditional “fourth
wall” to break down.
“There are endless technical hurdles and creative hurdles that we need to
overcome when filming a VR experience,” Carman said. “It can begin with needing
to have multiple cameras to capture 360 degrees of action.”
Carman adds that VR production is still in its infancy. The rules are still
being written, and then updated with each new VR production.
“There are a number of techniques we’ve used that range from wide angle lenses
to using several GoPro cameras,” he notes. “We’ve tried them all and will
likely continue to try to new things.”
“The shooting logistics and process are different, and that is true for the
talent, for the technical crew, for the director of photography, for the sound
men, for everyone involved,” said Felix Lajeunesse, co-founder of Felix &
Paul Studios, the Montreal-based developer of proprietary 360-degree
stereoscopic camera recording technology. “It’s a challenge of adaptation, but
I wouldn’t say it’s ultimately a more difficult process than a traditional film
“A 3D, 360-degree VR shoot simplifies certain aspects of the process,” he said.
“For instance, we definitely do not shoot as many camera angles, but it makes
certain other aspects trickier. Lighting for VR can be quite a puzzle.”
Much of the work of creating a virtual reality experience takes place in
postproduction, where the perspectives shot by different cameras are unwrapped
and stitched back together so that viewers can ultimately look wherever they
like and see a seamless world.
Carman shares a recent discovery, that too much motion—where the camera and the
viewer’s perspective move independent of each other—can create a type of “cyber
sickness.” This is just one hurdle that VR production is overcoming.
“This is vastly more complicated than traditional filmmaking,” Carman said.
There are specific guidelines that need to be observed in the production stage
as well, such as hiding the crew and equipment. For
, all the members of the large crew had to duck
down below the line of sight during filming.
“You need to hide everything or remove it in postproduction,” Schilowitz said.
“But either way, this is where the movie magic comes in to create the illusion
of the world, because there are things that you simply can’t hide when you’re
making a film.”
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“You have to think a lot beforehand in the production of VR,” adds Broock.
“Where is the lighting coming from? You can’t have umbrella stands and traditional
cans, as these would be seen.”
CGI can offer an alternative to hiding the crew and equipment, and visual
effects work can provide full control over the environment, but the downside,
according to Carman, is that it’s expensive.
There are two trains of thought about how to handle computer-generated content
during the presentation of a VR experience, Carman adds. “If it is generated in
real time, it gives total control as the viewer moves, but this requires a more
powerful system to do the rendering.
“The other method is to pre-render,” he continues. “This has almost no limits
on the complexity of the world, but the downside is that you don’t have total
freedom, so you need to predetermine the world when it is possible,” before the
As well as presenting a new set of challenges for the film crew, the means of
telling a story via a VR interface is radically different as well. “The biggest
challenge for a filmmaker is to reconfigure your brain for the medium of
virtual reality, to fundamentally embrace it as a distinct art form, and to
overcome the evident formal and conceptual challenges of storytelling in VR by
boldly facing the unknown and taking creative leaps and risks, instead of
trying to retrofit the traditional cinematic language with a hope that
eventually audiences will get used to it,” Lajeunesse said. “VR is not cinema.”
From the director’s standpoint, the new medium may require coaxing the viewer
to look somewhere to advance the story; at the same time, VR brings the ability
for viewers can see things in a way that they hadn’t before. “This is where
being very creative really comes into play,” Schilowitz said. “You need to make
it feel natural, but provide different cues that are moving from scene to scene
or into the depth of field.”
“It has to become navigational,” Broock said. “But at the same time, you have
complete control to look around as the viewer. That’s why this is such an
exciting technology. I feel this is really that once-in-a-lifetime chance to be
at the start of a totally new medium.”