The Future of Virtual Reality Films

Originally published in The New U.

It’s official. Among the many Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short Film sits “Pearl,” the first virtual reality (VR) film to do so. Running just under six minutes, the film plants the viewer in the passenger seat of a car capturing a single father and his daughter’s life events. The film can be viewed on YouTube as a VR video enabling viewers to click and drag to pivot around the environment. It’s an immersive experience and certainly begs the question — what is the future of VR in media?

Currently, the answer is unclear. There are many possible uses for VR ranging from a narrative device to a tool for immersive journalism. Director Spike Jonze brought a VR camera to the Millions March in NYC on December 13, 2014 to “commemorate” the Black Lives Matter movement. The resulting footage is gripping and visceral, conveying the tension and passion in the air. Since it is still an emerging mode of storytelling there is not much content to gauge its potential. The animated short “Pearl” works well as a VR film since it connects the narrative through sound — a repeating song that takes various iterations and matches the scene displayed. When the daughter finds the old recording of the song on a tape recorder, the song is more distorted. Conversely, when her father sings the song in a flashback the quality is rich and clear.

In terms of a full feature, “Career Opportunities in Organized Crime” (2016) is considered the first true VR film. The 90-minute film, Alex Oshmyansky’s directorial debut, is shot as a mockumentary (a satirized version of a documentary). There aren’t actually any full-length VR films in the conventional sense. This is due to the fact that the actual logistics of VR are unsolved and the constraints are plentiful. VR isn’t easy to screen in a typical theater because of its interactive format. It is also not accessible to audiences without a headset and has not reached a saturation in the market. VR is still too pricey for the average consumer; while “Pearl” can be watched on YouTube for free without a headset, it’s not possible to have a hands-free VR experience without one. Additionally, we do not know the potential long-term effects of VR technology. It could have adverse effects on health, but since the means of viewing via VR is so recent, it’s harder to pinpoint if headaches, blurred vision or any other problems directly arise from its continual use.

Virtual reality is quite inconvenient unless the viewer owns a virtual reality headset. Without it, he or she has to resort to the tedious task of clicking and dragging to view action not in the field of view. Also, the fact remains that people largely dismiss the minutiae when going about their daily lives, as they might in viewing VR films. This neglect for detail poses problems for VR as a storytelling device since the viewer is aware of the entire environment, yet can’t possibly focus on everything at once. The director loses the ability to focus the viewer’s gaze on the subject or specific, important details. In traditional films, we can only see what the director decides to show us, and in contrast, the large environment given by VR may be overwhelming.

Currently, the only VR films out on the web are short. No major Hollywood productions have undertaken the burden of releasing a pure VR film to audiences. This is the point at which auteurs and amateur filmmakers can experiment with the element. They may toy with it and start at simple stories like “Pearl” but the films will graduate into more involved and complex ones. Just as “Avatar” (2009) and “The Jungle Book” (2016) utilized 3D & computer generated imaging to draw the eyes of audiences around the world, so will future VR films. VR is a fresh technology, whose history is not yet distinct from the present.

The appeal of watching a virtual reality film is that it is a highly individualized viewing experience. Its prominence parallels the current public interest in personalized media, like music and video streaming services that allow us to choose exactly what we want to listen to and watch. Depending on your head turns or your movements, you see a slightly different perspective of the film. This level of personalization is similar to how one can decide what to watch or listen to. Similar to picking a song or show, VR lets you consider the story world as you want to. You could look at the ground the whole time if you want, the choice is yours. Similarly, VR breaks the viewer free from the confines of the static theater screen to immerse them more wholly into the storyteller’s world.

At present, VR still has a ways to go before becoming fully integrated into our cultural fabric. Cheaper options such as Google Cardboard have brought VR closer to the mainstream market, as it did for “Pearl,” but it’ll take smaller breakthroughs in VR filmmaking before it becomes more prominent in the media marketplace.

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