Everyone past young adulthood has seen a shift in how film is experienced in public or private settings. The past decade (plus) has seen the abandonment of video rental chains in favor of, oft times illegal, downloads and streaming services on home and mobile devices. As a response, chain movie houses of many states and shores have raised ticket prices while aggressively advertising to captive audiences for upwards of half an hour. Unless seeing a sci-fi epic or your date is a bore in conversation, it’s plainly irrational to invest the time and money into going to a cinema and, therefore, may only be done out of passion for the art or long-term habit. But don’t despair, since there is a potential means (besides Alamo Drafthouse) for rejuvenating the public film viewing experience, it’s #VR.
The evolution of storytelling has, over the millennia, progressed from song to literature to motion picture but, apart from Wes Anderson films divided by chapters or the extensive film synopses in Infinite Jest, attempts at marrying any of the two media have been relatively rare. As of this posting, we’ve seen multiple attempts at using the technology in question with the cinematic traditions. The most obvious artistic route is to create and release 360-films. Examples so far have included the psychological horrors of Abe VR, the heart rending tale from Penrose Studios Allumette, and the aspirational Pearl, which I haven’t seen but it was nominated for an Oscar and it was commissioned by Google so it must be pretty good.
While we see productions of increasingly high quality roll out, there is still some debate over the relationship between film and VR. Veteran filmmaker Steven Spielberg has previously described VR as a dangerous medium despite working on a project for The Virtual Reality Company himself. And in the GIST ’17 conference, content manager for Samsung Burak Emiralp admitted that mobile VR is more suited to video content since other HMDs and their increased number of DOFs offer greater interactive potential. But in the end, only time will be the judge. And the Academy, the Cannes Jury, Sundance…
Beyond the content creators’ incorporation of VR into their art form, those wanting to host viewings of VR films are dabbling in public events aimed at bringing together groups of people who might share the experience. Or at least share similar experiences adjacently. A notable forerunner is IMAX who now has a VR center in Los Angeles with another supposedly coming to Manchester soon. Individuals will be consigned to a private pod where they will be immersed in a roughly 15-minute, VR experience. Presently, some of the experiences are based on preexisting franchises like Star Wars or John Wick. Meanwhile, Samhoud Media’s VR Cinema in Amsterdam seems a little nearer the principles of cinema, meaning the audience, though blinded to externalities and watching totally different short films, is seated in the same room with one another. And for those waiting to see full-length films in VR, you’re going to be waiting a while — why not watch a VR promo for Assassin’s Creed.
Instead of using physical venues, some app developers are working to stream 2D film in your choice of 360 environments. One is Cineveo, who puts you in traditional locales, such as drive-in theaters or on the ocean. It’s fun, but viewers are essentially alone within the experience — though you can have coordinated viewings, I suppose.
AltspaceVR cut out the middleman (i.e. space (i.e. distance/location/etc.)) by hosting the Cyberia Film Festival in one of their environments. Running on February 10/11/12 2017, this (as they claim) was the first-ever Independent Film Festival in VR. I attended Day One of the festival, entering a few minutes early to hear, “Hello, hello, hello, hello…” as the Altspace team was doing a series of audio checks, thus adding an unexpected taste of authenticity to the event. The host for the event was a Pakistani doctor and film director named Doc Zee, who chatted with the attendees before and between the scheduled short films. The community manager Lisa was also on-hand in a custom-made top, reminding us to reserve our chatter for the breaks and not talk over the films. The film screenings were held in Fea’s Apartment, a penthouse suite with a crackling fireplace to one side, wide balconys on two sides, and a large projection TV — I’d already been there for the SpaceX Launch, but they’d since removed the astronaut photos and the operable rocket.
There was a program list to one side of the screen, each of the listed films scheduled for about 15 minutes. The festival kicked off with a French horror film named Pearlie (English title) about a maniacal, tooth-collecting rat; it had nice imagery and special effects, and certainly weird enough for my tastes. This was followed by a heist film out of India called Cycle, a film about a Christian murdering snail, and another short on the death of a worm liberator. For those unfamiliar with the genre, you could quickly gather that, unlike feature-length films, short films are typically constructed on bizarre ideas that is initially fun, but tend to lose their flavor over an extended period of time (see Swiss Army Man). The surprise of the evening for me was the Star War’s fan film, The Secret of Tatooine. It was a mini-tale about Ben Kenobi’s time on the desert planet as a covert guardian of Luke Skywalker. And it was an all French cast. And somehow they got permission to use the original John Williams intro and outro themes. Even Rogue One didn’t use the original theme! OMG, there are more SW fan films on YouTube. I didn’t even know that was a thing…
In my view, all of these approaches to VR film screenings have merit but, since I believe in the potential of social VR, I have to admit that the AltspaceVR approach will have the most staying power. For the growing number that have VR access, it has the benefit of convenience and the viewing experience is synched to those around you, offering the opportunity to connect through the presented artistry, despite being physically separate. The good news is that the Cyberia VR Film Festival will come back in May with Doc Zee’s own feature length film. So, let’s look forward to that and just watch all the Star Wars fan films in the interim.