Mankind has always been fascinated by the image – the image of the seen and unseen. From portraying a scene through a cave painting to painting realistic/abstract images and subsequently taking photographs to eventually making films, man has persevered to create an image of the experience he wants to witness and come close to, as close as possible. With each progression, a new development begun. Painting led to photography, photography to film; film went from silent to talkies, from black and white to colour, from 2D to 3D. The evolution has been one of wanting to break through restrictions and moving on to a more ‘real’ experience. Or one could say, a more immersive experience. The most recent immersive experience being Virtual Reality.
Come to think of it, the visual arts have always been virtual. You cannot actually enter or hold the subjects in a painting, a painting is an expression of what one sees or wants to see. Photography, although more physically constrained, is more or less the same. With film one achieved the illusion of movement and produced a reality which is more feasible and closer to how we witness the world; the addition of sound made the experience more intimate and memorial. Once the 3D technology entered, the watcher felt nearer to the happening. Technology, in a nutshell, has always been a struggle to come closer to the experience of living something in its purest form, to come closer to the environment without actually stepping into it, but feeling like. The feeling of being there but not being there is the crux of the virtual universe.
A CINEMATIC ISSUE
When a few years ago, a teenager named Palmer Luckey strapped to his eyes a couple of iPhones and started to imagine the technology of bringing the virtual experience closer to the mind, he envisioned this to be the present and future of visuals. A few years later, after multiple investors participated in his vision, his company – Occulus was formed. It was bought for $2 Billion by Facebook recently, making headlines and generating mass curiosity about the future of visuals. Occulus makes the state-of-the-art Virtual Reality headsets; imagine strap-on, com- fortable, high end goggles with in-built lenses which block external light and stay clear of a few inches from your eyes. Depending on the make and status of the model, it could either be a high-end PC powered product from the main players in market such as the Occulus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR or Google’s simpler cardboard headset that uses your smartphone screen as the canvas. With sales estimated to grow from $2.5 million in 2016 to close to $24 Million by the end of 2018 – VR has truly arrived and is here to stay.
After strapping on the VR machine, one is taken into the virtual word seamlessly, the real word shut out by the device’s ergonomics and the screen becoming your new reality. One is trans- ported into a plethora of interactive virtual avenues; games, movies, real places, training grounds – animated and live. The awesome first person experience is what is both gripping and highly sensory as now for the first time one can ‘enter’ the spaces that were created before to be witnessed from a distance. Imagine yourself returning from office, wearing the VR rig and being transported straight a beach in Hawaii. With a $99 device.
Now how do we relate this phenomenon to film and cinema? Film is the art, the expression. The product. Cinema is the perception. Historically, the perception has been social one, that of a crowd. A film is watched by many people, either in a theater or individually; the collective perception of these people is the synthesis of cinema. This is where Virtual Reality becomes rather intriguing, because VR is so personal yet so social. It’s almost like headphones, but for the eyes!
Since the inception of VR, its uses range from training military, providing medical therapy to even animated journalism in war zones. Of course, video games are probably the most popular venture of its use. But when it comes to film-making, VR is a major development, simply because it falls in line with the evolution of cinema itself – the process of becoming digitized and more immersive. It is the next big thing after 3D: film-makers, animators have already begun adopting it as an important tool in storytelling; often making the intrinsic nature of the VR experi- ence the protagonist itself. Come to think of Occulus’ in house-production called Henry the Hedgehog which released this year, a children’s animated VR film where one actually enters the colourful burrow of Henry, lives his life with him interactively and experiences his ups and downs. Obviously we’ve been exposed to animation since decades but this is a narrative expe- rience that has crossed the screen and broken the fourth wall quite seamlessly.
And we haven’t even scratched the crust yet. There are various production houses and festivals investing time and energy in using VR as a cinematic agent. Film festivals across the world in the past couple of years have showcased amazing, recently released VR rigs and even screened VR films as a part of their agenda. An exhibition called New Frontier opened in Sun- dance, 2015 where one could see glimpses of the beginning of a new era in film-making. Chris Milk, the founder of vrse.com, quite interestingly puts it as ‘a device that can break through the
rectangle frame or the window of the film world into a further world, almost tricking the brain’. Another film titled ‘Clouds of Sidra’ is a 360 degree interactive testament to the war-conflict zone of Syria, where the viewer actually lives the horrors of everyday citizens with them as a young girl called Sidra narrates the story. Nonny de la Pena, the creator of Project Syria uses VR as a tool of journalism; using VR animation to re-create streets of war-zones where the viewer can interact with troubled citizens, refugee camps and witness bomb-blasts, accidents first hand. The unlimited scope of this first-person, highly personal yet universal medium can be gauged by the above implications for both fiction and non-fiction.
But lets just come back to traditional film-making for a minute, the tried and tested beautiful process that already exists. Staging and then picking appropriate visuals, the craft of choosing camera and subject distances, the suspense of space of time; all of these seem to dismember when VR comes to the fore. How does one, then, tell complex stories using VR? How can the film-maker control a story when the audience is in it, making decisions? Felix Lajeunesse, found- er of Felix and Paul Studio states that this an evolving technology and within ten years there will a time when the audience can actually interact with the actors within the film. While that might sound absurd for now, the rate at which VR is advancing this might actually be plausible. In a counter-view, Steven Spielberg cited at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival that VR is a tool which can be dangerous and provides too much freedom to make their own choices about which parts of the story to engage with. However, in the course of the same festival, Madagascar co-director Eric Darnell presented a short VR film called Invasion! and Penrose Studios show- cased their animated short titled Allumette. Both parties were more than ready to embrace this new technology.
The progress made in production houses in India is refreshing, too. Meraki, a Mumbai-based production house specializes in 360 degree VR video experiences for advertisements, corporate films, cinematic weddings and adventure films. With a clientele raging from Star Sports, Percept to Channel V, a variety of affiliated production houses are looking to explore the possibilities of VR. The India v/s Bangladesh cricket match which they captured was the world’s first cricket match captured on VR. In other news, rumors say that film-maker SS Rajamouli might introduce VR in Baahubali 3. Anand Gandhi, writer-director of Ship of Thesus, claims that virtual reality is the future of cinema. ““By this time next year, there will be millions of videos. We are going to be watching adventure sports videos where we will feel as though we’re flying off things; VR and AR will be used in advertising and branding. It’s a $billion industry,” VR is promising, it is certainly path-breaking and a territory yet to be explored. Hollywood animation and film production houses have begun experimenting with it, individual smaller-scale film productions are playing with it. But currently VR is used to transport the audience in an environment. The greater challenge for film-makers would be to understand how to tell complex stories using the VR module, conveying the layers of the film narrative and still maintaining the essence of cinema, irrespective of techno- logical advancement.
– Ishan Sadwelkar,
31 May 2016, Mumbai