Filmmakers Will Have to Adopt New Ways of Storytelling to Make Virtual-Reality Movies

Photo: Courtesy of Jaunt

With the Sound and Visions series, Vulture explores the future of movies and the movie industry. We hope you’ll plug us directly into your cerebral cortex.

In 1947, MGM tried a new narrative trick. The studio wanted a way to mimic the first-person narration of Raymond Chander's Philip Marlowe novels, so it hit upon the idea of shooting an entire film from the detective's perspective. The result was Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake, and it's an odd watch. We're seeing the mystery from Marlowe's eyes, but we're not really Marlowe; our eyes don't see in black-and-white, for one, and they don't see in the Academy ratio. Watching it, you get the sense that there's always something you're missing, lurking just outside the frame.

In the decades since, other films have borrowed the first-person conceit, but none have been able to perfect it. Take Hardcore (currently crowd-funding on Indiegogo), which bills itself as "the world's first ever action POV feature film." The concept is cool — what if Crank had been filmed on a GoPro? — and the wide-angle lens cuts down on aspect-ratio FOMO, but its relentless forward momentum has the same odd, distancing effect. In the words of Film School Rejects, it feels less like real life and more like watching somebody else play a video game.

But as long as humans have visual cortices, we're going to want to make art that reflects the way we see the world. Now the technology is finally catching up. The much-hyped Oculus Rift headset has brought virtual reality to exhibition halls across the country; a consumer version is rumored to be coming next year. (Officially, there's no release date.) Other manufacturers, including Google, have come up with VR headsets that use your smartphones as a screen. In a few years, seeing someone strapped into a headset in public may be like seeing someone taking a picture with an iPad — weird and slightly unsettling the first few times, and then slowly more and more normal.

You don't have to be Steve Jobs to see the potential opportunity that presents for filmmakers. At the recent Virtual Reality Film Fest in Los Angeles, Rift headsets were filled with the work of studios looking to get in on the ground floor of the new medium. The Rift was originally designed for gaming, and most of the films on display seemed inspired by sandbox games, plopping you down in CGI landscapes and letting you take in the scene. There were exotic safaris, charming cafés, and underwater voyages that got you up close and personal with an animated blue whale. (They are much larger than you expect.)

Like the early silent filmmakers, the VR industry is currently trying to figure out how to go from simply immersing viewers in a new world to telling a story within it. While their predecessors a century earlier had to discover editing, what VR filmmakers have to adjust to is a lack of it. Cuts may work in Lady in the Lake, where the viewer is literally less plugged-in, but everyone agrees that the most basic film transition is verboten in VR lest it make viewers sick or, even worse, insane.

"In film, a lot of scenes are constructed from the outside in," says Michael Murdock, co-founder of VR studio Otherworld Interactive. "You start with an establishing shot, then you move in closer until you get to the point where you've got the actors talking. With virtual reality, you have to work the opposite way; you start in the personal space around you, and then you ask, Where am I?" Or even, Who am I? One of Otherworld's films is Café Âme, which puts viewers in the midst of a soothing French café in the 1950s — only when you see your reflection in a window do you discover you're actually a robot.

Experiencing the world as a beatnik robot is fun, but for more complicated stories, VR filmmakers are looking for ways to get the audience to pay attention to what they're supposed to. One trick, they say, is sound. Scott Broock of Jaunt VR imagines a virtual-reality film of the near future: "Say you're on top of a cliff, with a beautiful tree to your right and a golden sunset ahead of you. And there's a bird on the branch of the tree, and it's chirping. You think, Oh my God, this is the most serene, relaxing place on the planet. And then behind you, you hear this rumbling sound. It's slowly getting louder, so finally you turn around and realize you have a zombie horde coming right at you. You've managed to get people to look in a particular direction, so they didn't manage to catch something that was right there."

The lack of cuts also means that most VR films need to take place in something close to real time. But, Broock says, you can wiggle around that with a little ingenuity. Jaunt's horror film Black Mass begins with the viewer waking up in a bloody storage room. After a couple tiny jump-scares, two strangers come in and put a hood over your head; when they take it off, you're in a different room. "That was a transition," says Broock, "but it's organic to the scene."

Jaunt is one of a handful of companies that has developed live-action virtual-reality cameras; the hope is that live-action VR can feel more natural on the eye than CGI. But shooting a VR film introduces a panorama of hazards. Because VR cameras shoot 360 degrees, there's literally nowhere a crew member can stand without being in the shot. (So far they've gotten around this by ducking into shadows or hiding behind crates.) The lighting, too, needs to be natural, or at least disguised. And at this point, the technological hurdles are vast. To create the 3-D effect, Jaunt's camera needs to edit footage from 16 lenses together into one image; every second of footage takes 15 seconds to stitch. Even by the glacial standards of a film set, that's a lot of downtime.

Talk to anyone in the VR industry, and they'll tell you it's a very experimental time for the medium. It's unclear whether anyone will want to have a headset strapped to their face for two hours, or even what kind of stories they'll want to experience. So far, horror shorts and concert documentaries seem like natural fits, but Jaunt has tried its hand at a war film and a monster movie. Fox Searchlight just made a Wild short with Reese Witherspoon for the Rift, and even the porn industry has dipped a finger into the pie. A company called Total 360 Cinema is reportedly making the first VR feature film; it's a romantic comedy. Just like in regular Hollywood, nobody knows anything yet. 

But one bigger question looms over all these debates: How interactive should VR films be? The technology will be there soon, but filmmakers are wary the immersive experience will be lost if viewers have too much power. "For the type of storytelling I'm interested in, I think interactivity is a problem," Pixar director Sasha Unseld told a panel at a recent Oculus developer conference. "The audience is a horrible storyteller."

Additional reporting by Kara Warner.