Honey, there’s a moviegoer in our bed!
Two young filmmakers are building what
they hope will become the first major
production studio for virtual reality.
I was visiting the snug Soho workspace of Total Cinema 360, the ranking live-action virtual reality movie studio. The company makes omnidirectional movies—films you can look every which way in, essentially—for the Oculus Rift, a headmounted display being developed by Oculus VR.
Without a weekend babysitter, I had brought my kids. The company’s affable but intense founders, Craig Gilbert and Adrian Vasquez de Velasco, had dutifully gotten them up to speed on Super Smash Bros. for the Wii. There were whoops of joy from the gaming sofa, but it was time to let them try virtual reality; I had promised.
Ben, 9, opted to go virtually skydiving. Then he tried out a montage of Total Cinema 360's VR experiences, in which he strolled through a city and encountered giant cats. In my first five or six forays with VR I had been prohibitively nauseated, but I had no idea how Ben would fare. And a 9-year-old going “skydiving”? In non-virtual space the kid rarely crosses the street by himself. Was this even legal?
Ben’s joy was immediate — and palpable. Unlike adults, including me, who typically stare straight on when watching a TC360 Oculus production and need to be urged to turn their heads, Ben went wild. He looked everywhere. He greeted everyone he saw. He high-fived people. He patted the gargantuan felines. He shouted out with glee. When he took his headset off, he was exhilarated. “That was amazing!” he said, asking to try it again.
At last I knew how he felt. I’d stumbled through debilitating queasiness for years as VR improved its technology — and more importantly, as I unwittingly gained familiarity with VR, through IMax 3D, Google Street View, 3D video games, Minecraft and even just gyroscope-driven mobile displays. Ben had known those technologies all his life, so for him the Oculus seemed like the complete neurological event that his cultural experiences had been preparing him for.
It brought his yearning for digital immersion to a kind of mental climax.
My daughter, Susannah, 5, tried Total Cinema 360's Oculus movies, too. Was she too young? Absolutely not. If anything, she was more kinetic and self-assured in the headset, having seen her brother try it. She threw punches at a welterweight champ in a boxing ring; she dashed through a crosswalk and drew a light saber to practice Jedi fighting. When she emerged, she said, “That made me happy!” Her punches, she felt, had landed! She had wielded a light saber with finesse! I thought about the possibilities for filmmakers to give viewers confidence in alien spaces and with alien experiences.
Total Cinema 360 is not a gaming company. They don’t make military simulators. They aren’t technologists. They are auteurs, with a traditional — even high academic — background in moviemaking and film theory. And yet they are programming for the Oculus, which is widely seen to represent the future of VR. Without companies like TC360 the Rift might show up at Amazon and Best Buy, but early adopters would have nothing to watch on it. Of course, the TC360 founders don’t see themselves as ushering in the “next mobile” (as some see a coming VR revolution). They see themselves as making real movies in virtual reality, which just might — as these charmingly grandiose young turks see it — save cinema.
Four years ago, when the prodigy virtual-reality filmmaker Craig Gilbert was a mere naïf of 19, he was invited to the Cannes Film Festival.
And he wasn’t just invited. A film Gilbert had made as an NYU freshman was to premiere in the Court Métrange division — “short-film corner” — at Cannes’ annual film orgy. An art-film fanatic since childhood, Gilbert considered Cannes his personal Valhalla; he half-expected to witness a teenaged François Truffaut storming a press conference, or a bronzed Catherine Deneuve shoving jolly Federico Fellini into a swimming pool.
Instead, what Gilbert found on the French Riviera was demoralization. The movies were bad — throwback would-be blockbusters. The parties were silly. By the end of the festival his disillusionment with global film was as Wagnerian as his earlier hopes for it.
In emails to friends Gilbert expressed the jadedness only a man in his late adolescence can pull off: He despaired over the state of world cinema.
Digital distribution and the financial crisis had destroyed the art form, he mused. The filmmakers he loved were now ancient; his favorite film that year — he told a friend — was by the venerable Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who was then 102. (Oliveira, for the record, turned 106 last month.)
In the meantime, Gilbert observed, his fellow millennials seemed to believe that cinema happened when they were “staring at a Netflix app,” as he told me recently. The filmmaker’s historic talent for conjuring mind-bending and risky new worlds had, as he saw it, contracted into this banal little red app, which is hard-rigged never, ever to blow you away.
Crushed, Gilbert flew home. Not only had Cannes let him down. NYU, he realized, had, too. The voc-tech approach of Tisch now disgusted him; it no longer seemed to create art-film auteurs. It existed only to train crew for corporate video. “It’s not a real film school in any meaningful way,” Gilbert now says.
He dropped out. He could have really fallen into despondency, thwarted in his cinema dreams before he even got out of the gate. Except that inspiration dawned. Together with his friend Adrian Vasquez de Velasco, another dissatisfied NYU student, Gilbert formed Total Cinema 360 — an entirely new kind of movie studio dedicated to making immersive, omnidirectional movies using brand-new cameras and, soon enough, the Oculus Rift.
Vasquez de Velasco, in the meantime, had been having his own awakening. The son of two architecture professors at Ball State, in Muncie, Indiana, Vasquez de Velasco brought to NYU a surreal aesthetic, an adventurous approach to filmmaking tech and a gift for inventive camerawork. At NYU he made a half-dozen eccentric, evocative movies, including “Red Meat,” in which “a young couple in Prague is understandably startled when a 5-pound slab of raw meat crashes through their roof and lands in the middle of their dinner. Stranger still are the implications of this bizarre occurrence on their sex life.”
But Vasquez de Velasco had started to worry that Tisch was a bad idea for him, too. He felt a quotient of grief, he says now; maybe he was mourning his lost filmmaking ambitions. In any case it was hard to imagine a future in film, as an assistant to the assistant director, say, on “Robin Hood II.”
As he told me in email, “I guess for me the real disillusionment was the resistance/indifference I sensed toward these new technologies in many of my peers and in the industry in general… And it baffled me why only the big, computer-generated tentpoles were the only ones made in 3D — and not the more intimate narratives that could really take advantage of that added realism (Godard just dove in this year with “Goodbye to Language”). I was anxious for progress.”
But it was a trip home to see his parents at Christmas, in 2012, that really enlightened him. Antonieta Angulo, an architecture professor and Adrian’s mother, had started using Vizzard 3D technology to envision unbuilt or inaccessible spaces — and teach design and architecture. Interested in her son’s reaction to the technology, Angulo capped Adrian with a clunky headset and let him explore a virtual Tuscan piazza. Strolling around this full-dress VR piazza in a Vader-like black headset — amid golden balustrades, heart-stopping loggia and elegantly pedimented windows and doors — Vasquez de Velasco’s eyes were opened.
“There was no grief involved anymore,” he told me. “I realized I didn’t want to make art movies on celluloid. I want to make art movies on VR.”
Gilbert and Vasquez de Velasco, who now live and work together in that cozy, vintage-y apartment on Thompson Street, in Soho, like to talk. And they like film theory. Their first joint venture was called Ticklish Subjects, after a collection by the impish Slovenian everything theorist Slavoj Zizek. The name for Total Cinema 360 derives from an essay by André Bazin called “The Myth of Total Cinema.”
While I spoke to Gilbert and Vasquez de Velasco in their apartment — winter sun spilling into their living room — Vasquez de Velasco shot me an email with a link to the Bazin essay. Later, I called it up, and started reading. I was going to quote at length here — “the relations between an economic and technical evolution and the imagination of those carrying on the search” — but my editor insisted we cut the quote. In her words: “it’s, frankly, impenetrable.”
So I decided to take the boys’ (Gilbert is 23; Vasquez de Velasco is 25) word for it. Total Cinema 360 now somehow realized something that film theorists had once considered a myth. That was good enough for me. Virtual reality itself had once seemed like a myth. And now it appears to be coming true everywhere.
No sooner had Gilbert and Vasquez de Velasco set up shop to make omnidirectional video — movies that can be viewed on anything with a gyroscope, such as a tablet or phone, that lets you rotate and revolve the image — than they got word of the Oculus Rift, the VR device that is said to be imminently available to consumers. The invention of their contemporary, Palmer Luckey, Oculus Rift started out as a gaming gadget but quickly captured the attention of Nonny de la Peña, the creator of immersive journalism, who makes documentary projects in virtual reality. De la Peña is one of the few VR filmmakers that Gilbert and Vasquez de Velasco speak of with reverence. Her work, which I first saw at Sundance in 2012, uses location sound and images to force the unconscious mechanisms of the user’s nervous system into intimate collision with real-world events: hunger in Los Angeles, say, or the plight of child refugees in Syria. Anyone who saw her “Hunger in Los Angeles” in 2012 can testify: Oculus is not just for video games.
What de la Peña had done with nonfiction in VR, Gilbert and Vasquez de Velasco now longed to do with fiction. Vasquez de Velasco had become so skilled with 360 Video — a new-media tech that uses cameras with multiple lenses to capture and integrate different sides of a space — that the small studio began to get commercial commissions to show stunt-like, 3D-worthy live-action scenes such as skydiving, helicopter rides and court-side basketball. These pieces could play on computers, mobile devices and tablets. In them, the beholder starts at a fixed point in a visual sphere and navigates from there. On computers, he moves by clicking and dragging; on phones and tablets, he uses the touchscreen or moves the device.
But with Oculus Rift, as in life, you navigate with your eyes, with your own turning head, and (increasingly) with your body.
For filmmakers keen on inducing in their viewers profound sensory-emotional involvement, the Oculus Rift changes everything. Oculus may have first entered public consciousness last March, when Facebook bought it for $2 billion, but the young men of Total Cinema 360 believe that movie lovers have been aching for it. They imagine a time when a VR filmmaker can make a fully fledged world — something like the majestically elven Rivendell, say, from Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth — that will excite new fantasies and enliven the beholder’s relationship with physical space, other beings, and the object world. In this way, and in the right hands, VR might make good on the big 20th-century promises of cinema that, in digital times, seem to have been on hold for far too long.
Because no one knows what to expect from the technology, or even when Oculus will be available to consumers, Gilbert and Vasquez de Velasco have no end of top-secret commissions and seem to devote a chunk of their workdays to signing NDAs — maddening for a critic trying to get a look at their complete opus. Apart from their strictly commercial projects, for organizations such as a Dubai energy firm or a sports arena, they also shot a pilot of an unscripted show for a channel they won’t name.* That’s right: a quasi-reality show.
The fragments I was allowed to see of a similar project sat me on a bed among some (seemingly) postcoital pals. They were making awkward day-after plans, made still more awkward — to me — by my virtual presence in their virtual bed. It was “intimate,” I guess; it was also discomfiting. The HBO series “Girls” has done a beautiful job of taking the shellack off young televised bodies and letting them sweat and heave; this show will put you, the viewer, under the sheets and under the shellack with that sweating, heaving skin. Are we ready?
I also experienced a VR blues performance, which Total Cinema 360 produced, in which each instrument was played simultaneously by one person, reproduced in triplicate. It seemed like three different people to me. I sat very still in the center of this band practice, feeling as if perched on a stool, some afterthought seating in a recording studio. I found myself trying to suppress my breath, and not to look around — trying to suppress my very being, like a good girlfriend to a band member, lucky to be there, but also afraid, terrified of knocking an amp or otherwise distorting the sound.
This was uncanny: I felt immersed deeply in the music and the scene, but my body was also not visible to me. I was present; I was absent.
Then of course I found the advantage in this, the one my kids had intuited. I could air-drum, kick-box the amps or even burst embarrassingly into song, and this scene — recorded and spliced together long ago — would not be disrupted. That helped me see a very real virtue of virtual reality: You get to be and act in places you’d otherwise not be allowed.
When I ran this idea by Gilbert, he liked it. He also liked the idea of using VR filmmaking to cultivate compassion and sympathy for other minds — something he and Vasquez de Velasco had wanted to do, as filmmakers, all along.
In March, as Facebook acquired Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg introduced the Oculus Rift headset this way:
The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people. People who try it say it’s different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives.
Zuckerberg is right. It is different. “Is that difference a good thing or a bad thing?” my son Ben asked, when I read him Zuckerberg’s quote. I’m still not sure. Virtual reality still lands a significant percentage of viewers in “the uncanny valley” — the queasy state where something in AI or VR is sensorily or perceptually just not right. It’s hard for people who love Bergman and live sports, say, to imagine that VR might bring the same kind of rapture; it’s too easily dismissed as a gaming gimmick — or a military simulator technology for chilling black-ops drone missions.
Gilbert had earlier identified my son Ben as a member of The Minecraft Generation, and had proposed that he and other Minecraft kids, trained to experience built fantasy worlds on iPads, would be the ideal audience for VR cinema. I thought about turning Ben’s question on Ben himself, then, asking whether VR is intrinsically good or bad. But he dodged it, asking instead about haptics for the Oculus — something that would let you feel the virtual landscape. And then he tired of the topic, picked up my iPad, and resumed playing Minecraft.
*Due to a misunderstanding the original text inaccurately identified one of the demos seen by the author.