The fifth dimension: Virtual reality takes the movie business by storm

For years, the idea of using virtual reality to step into another world, explore it and experience it up close seemed nothing more than a dream. But now it is about to become reality. What does this mean for the future of film?

Benedikt Sarreiter
Wayne Mills

The movie begins. The viewer is standing on a lake: yes, in The Evolution of Verse you can walk on water. A quick look around. There are mountains straight ahead. The sun is just rising, and clouds hang in the sky. To the left and right the forest meanders to the water’s edge.

Suddenly, a black cloud emerges from between the spruce trees, and there’s a rumbling in the distance. An old-school steam engine pulling railway carriages traces a wide curve before thundering deafeningly headlong over the water – straight at the viewer, or more accurately, the participant in the film, i.e. you. You can’t move out of the way, there’s no escape. You hold your breath. Three , two, one… At the point of impact, the train explodes into a flock of thousands of starlings, weaving patterns across the sky – above you, in front of you, behind you. Wow, that was a close call! But what on earth was that?

A film – and at the same time a vision of the future. The short movie was made by production company Vrse (now renamed Within). One of its leading lights is music video director Chris Milk, who has worked with giants such as U2, Johnny Cash and Kanye West, but has now shifted his focus to virtual reality. The company devotes all its time to producing films for virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, which are designed to allow the viewers of the future to immerse themselves in the action. Instead of unfolding on a screen in the traditional way, Within’s films put the viewer at the heart of the experience with a 360-degree view of what is going on. If a person or animal is approaching from behind in the story, you hear them before you see them. Then you turn round and find yourself face to face with friend or foe. “Virtual reality will lead to the democratisation of human experience, the same way the internet led to the democratisation of data,” said Milk in a TED Talk. Everyone can experience everything – from diving in the Great Barrier Reef, to flying through Paris as an eagle or even standing in the middle of a crisis-torn region. “Virtual reality is the ultimate empathy machine,” adds Milk. “These experiences are more than documentaries. They’re opportunities to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

Even today people go to the cinema to get into the action. In the future the question will be just how physical the cinema experience can become. And how will viewers react when they become part of the story?

Instead of unfolding on a screen in the traditional way, Within’s films put the viewer at the heart of the experience with a 360-degree view of what is going on. If a person or animal in the story is approaching from behind, you hear them before you see them. Then you turn round and find yourself face to face with friend or foe.

The image of the train steaming towards the viewer is not something Milk happened upon by chance. It conjures up a moment in movie history considered today to be the birth of cinema. On 28 December 1895 the Lumière brothers showed their minute-long L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (Train Pulling into a Station) at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. This was the first time that an audience had seen moving pictures on a screen. These rudimentary beginnings of cinema changed people's perception of the world for all time.

Just as two-dimensional cinema was in its infancy in the latter years of the 19th century, so too is virtual reality filmmaking still finding its feet today. There are to date not many films available for data glasses and of these even fewer have a running time of more than ten minutes. In many cases, they feature slowly-changing scenes filmed from a fixed position; the camera does not move – yet.

Many of the technical problems facing VR filming have been only partly solved. How do the actors move around the set? What do the cameras arranged in a circle on a rod actually film? How can the cameraman move forward? Rails for tracking shots are not an option, as they would be visible. But the biggest question is how directors should actually tell their stories. Ordinarily, they would use close-ups, tracking and aerial shots as well as various angles, then cut and arrange them in sequence to generate dramatic effect. VR, however, works differently.

“I think we’re moving into a dangerous medium with virtual reality,” said Steven Spielberg in Cannes last year. “The only reason I say it is dangerous is because it gives the viewer a lot of latitude not to take direction from the storytellers [...]. I just hope it doesn’t forget the story.” You have to say he has a point. In a VR film, the director is there to design a world through which the viewer moves – as in a computer game. The storyteller is more like an architect, providing the plans for viewers to discover the story for themselves.

Undivided attention: the cinema of the future will require more than just a watchful eye,
as the action comes at you from all sides.

Undivided attention: the cinema of the future will require more than just a watchful eye, as the action comes at you from all sides.

Not that this need be a problem – especially when the characters and story are already well known and no longer have to be introduced to the viewer. Take a 90-minute VR feature film released in time for Christmas 2016 telling the story of Jesus Christ’s life. “The viewers truly feel they are there with Jesus and his disciples,” enthuses director David Hansen. Obviously, the New Testament does not have any dramatic surprises up its sleeve. Instead, it is being there that matters. Documentary filmmakers also see a major opportunity in VR. They point to the compelling nature of the new medium, which transports viewers into places they would otherwise never have had access to. Some companies, such as Milk’s Within or Condition One, founded by photographer and documentary maker Dennis Danfung, are already producing VR documentaries. Among the pieces put together by Danfung is a film in which viewers find themselves in the middle of a herd of wild bison. “It’s technically very difficult to create these experiences and they require a huge amount of computing power,” he says. “But when you’ve achieved that sense of presence, it takes your breath away.”

VR technology opens the door to many other things besides exotic expeditions. In the future, we might be able to experience a car dealership from the comfort of our sofas, for example. Just put on your data glasses and gloves and wait to be welcomed inside. Then peruse the various models on display, experiment with virtual changes of paint colour, climb inside, check out the various systems and instruments, perhaps see what the steering wheel feels like.

For cinema operators, VR does not have to represent a threat. The IMAX chain, for instance, is busy co-developing a VR camera with Google. And IMAX has also given Google access to its full stock of movies made with the company’s bespoke technology, enabling the media colossus to conjure up 360-degree films from that enviable raw material. Blockbuster director Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Transformers) has been brought on board to test out the new IMAX toolkit and put together ideas for the future. “We’re going to develop some cool VR stuff. I’m really excited about working with the new technologies,” says Bay on his involvement in the project. The finished products will be available at cinemas whose design will also be completely different from what we’re currently familiar with. For starters, there will be no screen. Swivel chairs with special IMAX headsets will replace the normal cinema seats and there may also be bars where you can get a drink from time to time and chat with others about what you’ve just experienced. Disturbing your fellow filmgoers won’t be an issue either, as they’ll all be wearing headphones.

What we’re looking at now with VR is probably the second step in the future of cinema. Before then there will be further improvements in the sharpness and resolution of standard feature films. Early 2017 will see the arrival of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in cinemas. Ang Lee, director of Brokeback Mountain, shot the film at 120 frames per second – instead of the usual 24 – in 3D and ultrahigh-definition 4K. In May he treated a test audience to an 11-minute taster of Billy Lynn – and met with unequivocal critical acclaim. This was more real than any 3D film so far, they reckoned, a totally new experience, the salvation of cinema – in effect, it was no less than virtual reality. “You should not watch [a movie] on your iPhone. I think that’s what a theatre ought to be, and it’s not like that any more,” explained Lee following the premiere. “I think it’s about time we do some changes, so going to a theatre is a very exciting thing again.”

Cinema at its current stage of technology already allows us to immerse ourselves deeply in a different reality. This begs the question of whether it will be possible to perfect VR to a similar level, a seamless reality devoid of shakes and juddering. This could be the next step that revolutionises filmmaking all over again; it seems the Lumières’ train has already left the station on a journey to the next age in cinema.

Virtual reality from BMW:
BMW is the first automotive brand in the world to harness the technology of Google Spotlight Stories and create an interactive 360° virtual reality brand experience on YouTube. At the centre of this unique and completely revolutionary production is the BMW VISION NEXT 100 concept car created to mark the company’s centenary celebrations. The full interactive experience of the short film *Visionary can be enjoyed on the Android YouTube app or the Google Spotlight Stories app for Android and iOS. Follow this link to see the film:*