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Cinematic VR is a Genre and not a Storytelling Tool or Format

Written by - Clyde D'souza

CINEMATIC VR IS A GENRE (and not a storytelling tool or format)

Sir Anthony Hopkins says it best in his inimitable style. And, while he’s talking to the Westworld story architect, he might as well be talking to a new breed of “Storytellers” — Those in Cinematic VR filmmaking.

This is what he says (emphasis; mine):

“No, I don’t think so. What is the point of it? You get a couple of cheap thrills, some surprises, but it’s not enough.

It’s not about giving the guests what you think they want.

That’s simple: titillation, elation, horror, their politics.

The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things.

They come back because of the subtleties, the details.

They come back because…

they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before.

They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are.

They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

Indeed, it’s as if Anthony Hopkins is speaking directly to VR storytellers in an attempt to reign in the chaos that’s ensuing with VR pieces coming out that would be better suited to more traditional forms and formats of motion picture storytelling.

(VR panel at DIFF 2016 — From left to right: Adam Brenner (OTOY), Lauren Selig (Shake & Bake Productions), Sam Englebardt (The Void). Moderated by: Elizabeth M. Daley, (Dean,USC School of Cinematic Arts)

(O)toying with the idea of a VR Westworld in The Void:

A couple of days ago, two things happened. I attended a few panel discussions at the Dubai Film Festival and after one particularly interesting panel discussion I was able to interact after the session, with some of the brightest minds pushing the envelope forward in the Cinematic Virtual Reality eco-system.

(above: Octane from OTOY running in the Unity Game Engine: talk starts at about 1:38 sec into the video)

We got to taking about Westworld, and I joked about how Otoy’s recent Octane integration with the Unity Game engine would be the future for rendering photorealistic VR ‘Westworlds’. It was a no-brainer then, to speculate how spaces such as Sam Englebardt’s, The VOID are in fact, already first generation VR Westworlds.

In response to a question I posed to him, during the panel session, on the prospect of Indie filmmakers getting authoring access to create narrative experiences for The VOID, he answered that they’d make available a VOID SDK to developers.

On the drive back home, is when the speech at the end of episode two came to mind.

Then, it dawned on me… at one of the earlier panels, there were VR directors and filmmakers going through the usual advice loop as seen in many VR conferences and mic-and-chair affairs; “It’s all very new”, “We’re all discovering the medium”, “Don’t be afraid to experiment with the camera”… Good advice overall, but the refreshing informal conversation with Adam Brenner, Sam Englebardth and Elizabeth Daley (who are the real movers driving VR storytelling — even if they don’t realize it — combined with replaying Anthony Hopkins’ speech in my mind, made me realize: Cinematic VR is it’s own Genre — not a tool, or a platform for visual storytelling.

Let’s break that speech down and see it’s relevance:

…What is the point of it? You get a couple of cheap thrills, some surprises, but it’s not enough.”

That is exactly what I’ve been seeing in VR films these days. I certainly dread the time someone in Hollywood decides it’s time to reboot Spiderman the movie, in VR.

“…They come back because of the subtleties, the details.”

This is the single most reason that leads me to believe Cinematic VR is a Genre. Good Cinematic VR films will encompass a unique blend of drama, and suspense (gratuitous, unmotivated jump scares; exempted) Not surprisingly, subtleties and details fare well in this kind of story pacing rather than Fast and Furious VR.

Only two recent VR pieces I’ve seen, seem to have nailed this important part of VR storytelling. I strongly recommend watching Pierre Zandrowicz’s iPhilip (here’s the teaser) and FT’s Hiddencities: Dublin.

While Hiddencities:Dublin is more documentary, it’s the subtleties and details captured in the scene that make you “come back” to experience it again. The narrative stitches the experience together, seamlessly (yes, that was intentional)

“…they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before.”

This is what will bring people back to a good VR storyteller’s ‘Westworld.’ Maybe it’s that one virtual person, the audience can spend time with in a long mise-en-scene shot where there’s time to register the emotions writ on the character’s face… where there’s time to take in the environment and the world. Where you,the guest, can discover something no one else has noticed before… You can’t hope to experience this in a Gone in 60 Seconds type VR film.

“…They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

So yes, while we’ll enjoy watching the NBA playoffs in VR (!?) Cinematic VR will come into it’s own, with narrative threads that allow the audience, the ‘guest,’ to directly or subconsciously connect with the people in the story unfolding around them.

For that to happen, storytelling in VR will have to allow guests to get to know the VR world and it’s people. The stories that will succeed in Cinematic VR, will be the ones that allow a guest to “head hop” and move from first person to third person seamlessly, thus giving them the ability to have a glimpse of who they could be.

When more of such movies are made, and less of the turn-your-head-around-because-we-choreographed-the-action-in-360…it will lead to the genesis of a genre: Cinematic VR.

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