Sermonising the death of cinema as we know it seems to have become an almost enjoyable past time for many within the entertainment industry. Whenever the world of film experiences any kind of sizeable transition, disruption or new technology at play, it inevitably gives rise to a number of ‘cinema-is-dead’ think pieces, off the back of developments such as the rise of Netflix, or the golden age of television Hollywood is currently experiencing.
A relatively new entrant onto this list which is also bringing about many such prophetic pieces is that of Virtual Reality (VR) filmmaking, which has been garnering increasing attention year on year, with many calling it the future of cinema. For the uninitiated, VR films are those seen through a headset which plays a 360-degree video which allows you to physically look around within it, similar to YouTube and Facebook’s 360 initiatives.
Initially conceptualised for the gaming industry, VR technology is increasingly making game-changing strides in industries ranging from healthcare to pornography to travel and tourism. Equally, it has a number of potentially staggering implications on visual storytelling going forward, offering an entirely new and unique experience of immersive film viewing. Whilst many have poised it to be the biggest shift in the history of filmmaking, sceptics maintain that the same was said about innovations such as 3D which died down after an initial period of hype and hasn’t exactly taken over mainstream film viewing as many claimed.
However for VR to become this all encompassing new dimension to filmmaking, it requires a supportive ecosystem, not to mention the fact that the technology isn’t yet up to scratch to provide an entirely immersive experience. What we are seeing at present, however, are some sizeable and exciting developments on the VR filmmaking front with big production houses and renowned filmmakers increasingly jumping on the VR bandwagon in some way or other. The most notable instances include the likes of Steven Speilberg who is currently working on an adaptation of sci-fi novel Ready Player One, a story set in a dystopian world which is actually about the implications of virtual reality, which is said to include some VR elements in its making.
Other prominent filmmakers to have thrown their hats into the VR mix include Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow who recently premiered her VR short film The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes, about the plight of African elephants headed for extinction, at the Tribeca film festival. Add to that Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena which included a 6 minute VR piece and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
Closer to home the visionary VFX team behind the gargantuan Baahubali headed by Raja Koduri, have rolled out multiple VR experiences in and around the second part of the epic. What’s more, the maestro himself A R Rahman made his directorial debut with a film entitled Le Musk due to release towards the end of this year. Ship Of Theseus director Anand Gandhi is perhaps one of the most influential names in VR filmmaking in India, having set up one of the world’s first VR studios in Mumbai, Memesys Culture Lab. Most recently, Arnab Goswami’s Republic announced their foray into VR from a media perspective. I think it’s safe to say that’s an immersive experience we can perhaps do without.
At present, VR is far from a mainstream medium and little more than a staple exhibit and/or panel discussion at most film festivals. But with big names such as the ones listed above attaching their names to VR films, and more jumping in every week it’s likely that the industry will come into the popular spotlight relatively soon.
This writer sat down with VR pioneers Eddie Avil and Ashley Rodrigues, two sound engineers turned filmmakers who are the minds behind India’s first VR horror short film entitled Crackle. The duo discussed the current landscape of VR filmmaking, whether it really is the game-changer it’s touted to be and what the biggest challenges are in making a VR film at present.
‘At this point in time VR is in a very nascent stage but what it can do is insane.’
Having shot a VR film for one of their clients, the duo decided to use their new-found skills for a personal passion project. “We knew the basics of VR and realised no one was doing it at that point of time in the world. There is one other company out here (in India) doing it, (Anand Gandhi‘s) Memesys Culture Lab but they’re doing documentaries. So we said let’s do something cinematic which no one has attempted yet, and the first genre that came to both of our heads was horror.” said Avil. “So we started working on the script and screenplay and realised how many tech issues there were. Our cameras can’t shoot well in low light, and in 360 you can’t use artificial lights because they can be seen because with VR you can see everything, and horror is basically all night shots, so we had to work around that. It took us three months to get there.” added Rodrigues
As to whether there are any big differences in scripting a VR film as against a 2D feature Rodrigues said “each and every frame is important, so you have to have the setting in mind. The story can be anything, but you have to keep in mind how you would see it, you can’t just write whatever.”
The current lack of infrastructure in place for making VR films, both in terms of funding and access to technology makes shooting a VR film an extremely arduous process. “We did a whole lot of test shots and rehearsed a great deal with the actors because here the takes had to go on for 5-6 minutes, so it had to be very well rehearsed. Unlike 2D filmmaking, VR is extremely tedious but once you get into it, it’s extremely profound.” said Avil. On the technological challenges, he adds “We invested in the world’s first drone which actually gives you full 360. We also invested in the world first 360 robotic dolly. The idea behind a 360 camera is that it sees everything so you can’t be around at all because you’d be seen in the frame.”
Arguably the biggest obstacles at present is actually putting the film together which is far more complex given the scale and nature of the footage. Rodrigues said “Stitching for VR is a bitch right now, you have to send it abroad. A 1-minute video stitched in VR can cost anywhere between 6-7 lakhs depending on your camera setup. Just to stitch. But we built our own machine to handle it.” He adds “In terms of the time it takes, for a 30-second clip, depending on how much motion is in it can take anywhere between 4-6 hours. So you stitch it up and only then can you tell whether the shot worked or not, so it’s a really tedious process.”
Concerning whether the extensive logistics behind VR filmmaking imposes any limitations to the kind of stories that can be told on the medium Rodrigues responds “There are no limitations per se of the kinds of stories you can tell. A documentary is very easy. Cinematically some things can be very tricky like if you’re doing stunts. With a stunt action film you have a lot of people standing around so hiding them would be difficult.” Avil adds “More than that the story has to have the need for VR – something that requires everything to be visible and not just one frame. You have to make each and every frame interesting.”
Distribution And Adoption
Undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges in the current landscape of VR filmmaking is the lack of an established distribution network. Without any prominent systems in place, there are no set methods which allow filmmakers to get financing, monetize their work and thus help encourage further VR content creation. That said, multiplex chain PVR has recently unveiled its first ever VR lounge in Noida with plans to roll out about ten VR lounges in their multiplexes across India.
“It’s very difficult to monetize currently because the medium itself has not been adopted by the mainstream, though Netflix and Hulu are getting into it. We are meeting a lot of OTT platforms, producers and distributors all of whom are interested because they all think it’s cool but nobody quite knows what to do with it.” says Avil. As to what an ideal distribution network might look like Rodrigues offered “I think an app or something like a Netflix which can house VR content would be the answer. We are hoping to put in an infrastructure ourselves. If we get some investors what we plan to do is start an ecosystem for VR films. We will also have the ready infrastructure and technology for new filmmakers who want to come in and make a film.”
But how do you establish an audience base for a new entertainment form? “You need studios to come in and back the content. Content will always drive a medium, and it’s the studios and the OTT platforms that drive the audience.” Rodrigues said.
Talking about the future of the medium, as well as the darker implications of such immersive technology Avil said “Eventually it is going to go bonkers. It is going to mimic your eye, so these bulky headsets are going to go, and it’ll come down to glasses or maybe lenses, maybe a microchip in your brain which Microsoft in already working on. It will assimilate all your five senses such that you won’t know what real and what’s fake.” Rodrigues adds “But even now they’re getting into haptics, which are these body suits you wear with sensors all over so you can feel what you’re watching. So if a guy punches you in the film, you’ll feel it”.
There are some admittedly worrying implications of this. For all the talk of VR allowing you to experience activities like skydiving from your sofa, it does beg the question of whether we will get to a stage where people would opt to sit on their sofa rather than experience the real thing. On this Rodrigues admits “VR is certainly a technology which can have fatal consequences, and that’s going to happen and can’t be avoided. Social media is anyway headed in that direction, everything’s becoming virtual and people are becoming more antisocial.”
In the end, while it’s clear that VR is far from ready for prime time in its current form, there are encouraging signs that the technology and creativity are improving at a high rate. Although it is unlikely it’ll replace mainstream cine-going anytime soon, it certainly looks to add an interesting dimension to it. At present, VR seems akin to an exciting start-up within the world of film – offering undeniably exciting prospects but with a railroad of challenges yet to overcome.