How Virtual Reality Films Are Altering Visual Storytelling

Virtual reality gives audiences unprecedented control over the stories they watch, collapsing the distance between viewer and subject, but it also heralds the end of the communal viewing experience.

A still from Clouds over Sidra. Credit: Youtube screenshot

A still from Clouds over Sidra. Credit: Youtube screenshot

I find myself in a room, where two mattresses on a floor are separated by a carpet. I raise my head to see a few clothes hanging on the wall. I turn my gaze to the left and find comforters lumped in a corner. I turn around to see a TV sitting on a small table. This room is small and cramp ed and suffocating. I find its contents familiar, but not the circumstances it’s braving. It’s a world different from mine, one I’ve seen, heard and read about but not experienced before: a refugee camp in Jordan, Zaatari, which has been hosting Syrians since the summer of 2012. It is strange, because even though the room is right in front of my eyes, and, by that account, feels real, I’m not physically present in it. I’m instead thousands of miles away, in Goa, wearing a headset, hooked to a cellphone, watching an eight minute virtual reality (VR) documentary, Clouds Over Sidra, centred on a 12-year-old Syrian girl, trying to find hope and home in a refugee camp.

VR in films is a pretty nascent phenomenon, but it’s already begun fascinating directors, writers and audiences. Earlier this year in May, the Cannes International Film Festival screened VR short films and featured presentations on the technology for the first time. In fact, throughout this year, VR movies – and panels and presentations on them – have been a part of several renowned international film festivals. VR films were also part of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, which concluded last month, where several VR films (including the Making of Baahubali) were screened. The tenth edition of Film Bazaar, South Asia’s biggest film market, had a section dedicated to VR, too, allowing attendees to experience and understand the medium: they could watch more than a dozen films at a special VR lounge at the venue and also attend several discussions and presentations about the films.

We live in a time and age fixated on and inundated with technology, so much so that anything remotely new is referred to as ‘path breaking’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘the next big thing’. These descriptors have been applied to VR as well. But given that this technology is so new and constantly changing – feature length VR films (whether fictional or documentary) haven’t quite become commonplace yet – it’ll be immature to say anything definitive about it right now. However, the new technology has the potential to change the way we consume moving pictures, because it seems to be asking us some very fundamental, at times even radical, questions about the medium of cinema itself.

Cinema has been around for long enough for us to realise how directors helm films, supervising and collaborating with actors, writers and sundry film technicians. Directors are powerful; they birth films, shape their outcomes, direct audiences. But VR is different, for it takes away some of that control from them, reduces their power to hold an audience’s attention. Unlike a conventional movie, a VR film doesn’t have the concept of a frame or a point of view. Here, the directors cannot entirely control what the audience will see or engage with. Imagine standing in the middle of a big playground and turning your head to slowly scan the field – a bunch of kids could be playing cricket in one corner, football in another, volleyball in yet another. Watching a VR film is a little like that – witnessing a constant collision and collusion between stories. Every scene, shot by multiple cameras and stitched together to offer a 360-degree view, opens up in multiple directions, to multiple stories, multiple interpretations.

A still from Right to Pray. Courtesy: The Memesys Cultural Labs

A still from Right to Pray. Courtesy: The Memesys Cultural Labs

The cinematic possibilities of virtual reality

VR films are not just immersive; they are the closest approximation of real life – where the story is always evolving, there’s always something to find and somewhere to look. But the most important questions are these: Where are you willing to look? What stories are you – the audience – willing to make? Cinema hasn’t been unfamiliar to changes: from silent films to talkies to 3-D, technological changes have always been crucial to how we engage with the medium. For instance, at one point in Clouds Over Sidra, we see a bakery in the refugee camp. A few men are chatting while they work, but it’s only when you turn your head to the right, that you see a little boy in the bakery, standing silently, kneading dough. Had I not bothered to turn, I’d have missed watching that part of reality tucked away in a corner.

If, till now, films were man with a movie camera, then VR films are man being a movie camera, placing the audiences at the centre of action. “We’ve to give up thinking in terms of frames. With VR, we’re not thinking in terms of flat rectangles but spheres, all around us,” said Michel Reilhac (the curator of VR films at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival), who gave a presentation at Film Bazaar on ‘Immersive Technology and its Role in Future Cinema Narratives’. “It doesn’t mean that the story changes its nature. The purpose of the story remains the same, but the scale of what we’re given to experience becomes much wider.”

Which also means that it’ll be considerably challenging to write an engaging and coherent feature-length fictional VR film. Will most filmmakers use the medium to the fullest, in all its expanse – both visually and aurally? How tough would that be? Will it result in a meaningful or an exhausting film experience? Right now, the number of questions about VR easily outnumbers the answers. But, more importantly, with a bulky headset and headphone, VR films don’t make for a very comfortable viewing experience. While watching Clouds Over Sidra, unbeknown to me, I was sweating profusely, so much so that when I removed my headset, a guy at the VR lounge asked whether I was feeling okay. A friend of mine remembered feeling nauseous while watching a VR film on police brutality in New York. “In future, we’d just be wearing glasses, like sunglasses, and we’d have them in our pocket. And as the devices become smaller, more compact, and less obtrusive, we’d start using them more and more,” said Reilhac. “The forecast is that it’s going to take six to seven more years, to reach a point where VR glasses would become ubiquitous, and become the new interface.”

VR also lends itself to something else: empathy. Moments before watching Clouds Over Sidra, I saw a woman in front of me who had just finished watching the same film. She looked overwhelmed. She was crying. “You feel like you’re there,” she said. And it indeed felt like that. People and their emotions, their joys and fear and despair, look more real, more urgent, when experienced in this way. In one of the closing scenes in Clouds Over Sidra, where the protagonist, Sidra, is having lunch with her family members, a little girl looks at the camera and smiles. The image of a kid in a refugee camp – the beginning of a life in the most abject situation – is singularly heartbreaking, but, for me, VR heightened that emotion, made that realisation more profound. And although a lot of VR content, right now, revolves around short documentaries, it offers immense scope for feature-length fictional films. Take, for instance, the possibility of a VR horror, where the audiences are as – or perhaps more – aware and scared than the characters in the film, for even the viewers don’t know what turn of head could startle and scare them, being part of an experience where the boundaries between an observer and the one being observed begin to blur.

A still from Clouds over Sidra. Courtesy: Beautiful Now

A still from Clouds over Sidra. Courtesy: Beautiful Now

Is VR here to stay?

It’s too early to say whether VR, especially in cinema, will make a substantial impact or fade away like several other fads. In a panel discussion at Film Bazaar, Avinash Changa, the CEO of WeMakeVR, a company that creates VR content, said, “Right now, India is at a stage where European and American markets were, 12 to 18 months ago.” Which doesn’t sound far fetched. Indian filmmakers haven’t produced a lot of VR films, though some efforts have already begun. In September 2016, Khushboo Ranka’s seven-minute VR documentary, Right to Pray, premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Right to Pray chronicled the efforts of a group of women to enter the inner premises of the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik, despite the patriarchal restrictions against women’s entry. The documentary was produced by the Memesys Culture Lab (co-founded in July 2015 by the filmmaker Anand Gandhi), which now plans to produce VR films. The Memesys Culture Lab also produced another VR documentary, Cost of Coal, centred on the coal mines of Korba in Chhatisgarh, which have polluted the environment of the region and jeopardised its inhabitants’ lives. Directed by Faiza Khan, the maker of the acclaimed documentary Supermen of Malegaon, Cost of Coal was acquired by UN’s virtual reality app, UNVR. There are other VR projects taking shape in India too, for instance, since September 2016, an eight-part series of short VR films, called The Unnamed Guide (revolving around eight tourist guides talking about the stories and mythologies based on eight Indian cities), by independent filmmaker Pranav Ashar, has been screened in different parts of Mumbai, including the Bombay Art Society in Bandra, the first VR centre in the country.

It’s also important to note the point in time at which VR has entered the realm of filmmaking. Around two decades ago, movie watching was a purely communal experience; there were no distracting devices like cell phones, so no one talked or texted during the film. And once these devices came into our lives, people began answering calls in theatres. With the advent of smart phones, people took to texting, disturbing the theatre’s ambience with bright cellphone lights. And over the last few years, thanks to the expansion of the internet and the rise of video streaming websites such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, we’ve begun consuming a lot of films in the comfort of our homes. In such a culture, VR is going to make us more alienated from each other. Because even if a VR film is screened in a theatre, its current setup – a bulky headset covering both the eyes—forbids us to share a film-watching experience in real time. There has been, of late, a lot of talk about how technology is subconsciously affecting our behaviour. Take, for example, how we react to a VR film: we’re constantly shifting our gaze from left to right, front to back, top to bottom. There’s a constant sense of urgency and restlessness while watching a VR film, a constant sense of the “fear of missing out”or, as the internet-drunk kids would like to put it, FOMO.

But, if the last few months are any indication, VR films are here to stay. Because we’re reaching a stage where VR is not just confined to a few filmmakers on the fringe, but has also begun getting accepted by mainstream players. Steven Spielberg, who snubbed VR at Cannes earlier this year, calling it a “dangerous medium”, is working on a “family-oriented” project with the Virtual Reality Company. In October 2016, a supernatural drama series, Invisible, directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Supremacy, Edge of Tomorrow), comprising six episodes of five minutes each, premiered on the Samsung VR service. Alejandro González Iñárritu has teamed together with his frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, to work on an experimental VR short. Back in India, Baahubali director S. S. Rajamouli, who was “very excited about this new storytelling medium”, partnered with AMD India, a semiconductor company, to launch two VR experiences at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival: one gave the audiences access to the set of Baahubali, and the other enabled them to interact with the film’s world. VR has also found another champion, in A.R. Rahman, who launched the VR version of his celebrated song ‘Vande Mataram’ at Film Bazaar. While speaking to the documentary filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir, Rahman said his VR experience was “life changing”. “I used to watch four films a day at the age of 13 on VCR. But VR did something to me emotionally that nothing else did,” he said. “It changed the way I felt about characters.” Towards the end of the conversation, Kabir told Rahman, “I was talking to Imtiaz Ali the other day, who said social media has made people more lonely. So would the VR experience –which is virtual, not real – do the same?” Rahman said, smiling, “I think it’ll be very good for lonely people.”

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