The State of Virtual Reality and Film

Miniflix
7 min readSep 12, 2018

Where We Are Now And Where We Are Headed

Still from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena/ CREDIT: Emmanuel Lubezki

Technology and artistic achievement have been inseparable since the early days of cinema. The introduction of sound to films brought years of challenges and poor production value…though once filmmakers figured out how to use it to their advantage, Hollywood and the rest of the world never looked back.

Then came the advent of color. Then computer-generated effects. Then the digital camera revolution. Each new innovation brought with it some growing pains but plenty of triumphs as well.

The latest groundbreaking technology comes to us in the form of headsets and 360 degree universes. Virtual Reality (and to a lesser extent, Augmented Reality) have been mainstays in science-fiction and in other cultural predictions of the future, but now that it’s here, what is the film world doing to incorporate it in the same way it did past technologies?

There are many feature length examples of films about VR (Ready Player One, The Matrix, Avatar) but no notable examples of features actually using the technology itself to tell a different story. Instead, VR storytelling is having its moment in the world of short film.

How is VR short filmmaking progressing the medium forward? What can we expect VR technology to usher in? Will future films shot in this format even be any good? Let’s discuss!

Virtual Reality Cinema Has Been Around Longer Than You Think

Though we associate VR films right now with headgear and computer technology, past generations of filmmakers attempted to take the idea of VR as far as they could with what they had.

Still of 1927’s Napoleon / Credit: BFI.org

In 1927, director Abel Gance directed one of the most ambitious silent film projects in history: Napoléon. This 5 + hour historical epic involved a short-lived screening format dubbed Polyvision. By putting three simultaneous projection reels against each other, a sort of panoramic effect was created. Three separate screens were needed to screen the film, which is probably why it didn’t catch on anywhere else.

Napoleon was re-released in select theaters in 2016. / Credit: BFI.org

However, this format did inspire Cinerama, the now-vintage widescreen format so popular in mid-20th century American moviegoing. Now, more than 90 years after Napoléon, Screen X technology is taking the 3 screen idea and running with it.

Promotional still for early 3-D technology / Credit: AMC.com

The other obvious example of film’s try with immersion technology is with3-D glasses. There have existed several iterations of this off and on since the 1950s, with James Cameron’s 2009 epic Avatar being the last real example of innovation in that area.

And The Winner Of Best VR Film Is…

All VR promotional cut-scenes and movie tie-in material aside, VR in film is starting to come into its own. This is seen best in the large number of VR categories being added to major awards-season festivals. While Netflix may be the major theatrical disruptor gathering up all the headlines, it’s the Virtual Reality projects that seem to quietly be infiltrating the major festivals and competitions.

Credit: https://carneyarenadc.com/

The VR film that brought the technology out from film festival obscurity was the Alejandro González Iñárritu directed short Flesh and Sand (or Carne y Arena). Part installation, part short film, this VR experience first premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews. It puts viewers in the harrowing perspective of a Central American refugee for 6 and a half minutes. For those who have experienced the film for themselves, it is considered both a revelation and a major step forward for VR filmmaking. When Oscar-winning talent is behind the camera of a project shot in such a new medium, the industry has to become accustomed to the idea that this may be the future.

In the last 2–3 years almost every major film festival has adopted VR film screenings and competitions into their lineup. Just this week, the Venice Film Festival announced the winner of its 2nd Annual VR competition. Spheres, a three part space odyssey produced by Darren Aronofsky and directed by Eliza McNitt, took this year’s prize (after already inking an unprecedented 7-figure deal at Sundance).

Still from VR Short Film Spheres / Credit: Wired.com

There are plenty of other VR premieres to look forward to this year, with the AFI Fest, New Orleans Film Festival, Dubai Film Festival and more having their own VR schedules in place.

Is a consistent film festival presence alone enough to consider VR a force to be reckoned with in? We think so, for two reasons:

  1. Film Festivals Offer Resources and Accessibility — VR films are still fairly inaccessible to the average consumer. Not unlike a game console, you must have specific (and expensive) hardware to even have the possibility of seeing these films. There’s also not much of a developed market yet for VR film exhibition in the conventional home video sense. Therefore, having VR films at film festivals allow all of the industry’s biggest and best in every phase (production, distribution, exhibition) to see the films as they were meant to be seen first, and hopefully find ways to get the films out later. These festivals also offer a platform for VR filmmakers that they could never get otherwise.
  2. Films Festivals Can Validate A Medium — More than anything, film festivals represent prestige and promote the idea of films as important art rather than just purely commercial product. That’s why, if you’re looking to validate a new medium, there’s no better place to start! We think the major reason VR films are being taken so seriously in such a short amount of time has less to do with the resources coming from Silicon Valley and more to do with the solid promotion these films are getting through the various film festival networks.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I’ts obviously difficult (alright, nearly impossible) to predict the future of any given technology, but the idea of VR film excites us so much that we can’t help but take some guesses at what we expect to happen within the next 5 years.

Prediction #1 — VR Films Will Become Serious Awards Contenders

Credit: Matt Sayles / AP

We are still far away from feature-length VR films becoming a reality, but in the meantime we have to believe that with the major bump film festivals are giving VR technology, we can expect to see this seal of approval naturally make its way into critics’ top tens, guild awards and yes, even one day, the Oscars.

Seems impossible? Well, after the Popular Film category backlash, we know the Academy’s willing to try just about anything to shake things up.

Prediction #2 — VR University Will Begin Enrollment

Credit: Dov S-S Simens / Webfilmschool.com

Most major film schools in the country are doing what they can to stay abreast of all the latest technologies. In the case of the major programs, like USC, departments like “Digital Arts” and “Visual Effects” are growing the most rapidly. So we could see this going two ways. Either the major film schools adopt VR filmmaking into the fold, teaching everything from how to use a 360 degree camera to how to tell an engaging story without knowing where your audience is looking, or grassroots programs, streaming sites and online courses will act as the industry disruptors and teach the next generation how to use this ever-evolving technology to tell a great story.

Prediction #3 — VR Meet Hollywood

Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios / Credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

We are really going out on a limb with this last one, but we naturally have to expect that if VR exhibition grows in popularity, the major studios will no longer be able to turn a blind eye. What would this look like? It’s hard to say, really. So far the VR experience is an individual one, meant to be played out in a specific environment or at home.

The Screen X development seems to be pointing towards where immersive movie-going is headed for now, but we also know that established brands like IMAX must have new developments up their sleeves.

Promotional Still for Screen X technology

Our best guess on who in Hollywood will strike first? Marvel Studios. President Kevin Feige is no stranger to taking chances (it’s hard to remember that Marvel staked their entire business model on the idea of the cinematic universe before anyone knew it would work). Plus, just about anything Marvel tries at this point would be accepted by mass audiences, so they would be the best candidate for turning VR from a niche category into a major player.

One thing still remains to be seen with VR and filmmaking. Can full, well-crafted stories still be told? VR is so exciting right now, partly because so much of the intrigue is built on potential. We don’t have a large enough sample size to say if this medium can translate into a story-telling medium.

But as more top talent from the industry get involved, and more blossoming filmmakers consider this their primary canvas to make movies, we have to believe the future for VR is brighter than ever.

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