Oculus Wants to Make Virtual Reality a Movie Medium
Once upon a time VR was a platform only for gaming, but Oculus has ambitions to turn virtual reality into a space where original filmmaking can flourish. Daniel Davies spoke with Oculus VR’s executive producer of experiences Yelena Rachitsky about how Oculus is helping filmmakers immerse audiences in films like never before
I’m 2000ft in the air, hanging on to a rock face, and with every second that passes my grip gets weaker and weaker. I’m going to fall.
Luckily this scene didn’t unfold in the real world, but rather in a virtual one, and while I was certain that, having entered VR to play the Oculus Rift-enabled The Climb, my life was in no danger, the nervousness and trepidation swirling around the pit of my stomach was every bit as real as if I had been scaling that rock face for real.
This is the power of virtual reality: it immerses us in situations that we may never find ourselves facing in the real world. For the last few years we’ve seen game developers take advantage of that, but until now cinema hasn’t caught up with the technology, or the technology hasn’t yet caught up with cinema.
But what makes a good movie? Is it the stunts and the action? Is it being introduced to worlds much bigger than our own? Or is that we’re intimately engaging with characters and narrative? Whichever and whatever it is, I’d argue that virtual reality can fulfil our movie-going desires as well as, if not better, than the way we currently engage with movies: staring up at a massive rectangle in a darkened room, or slobbed out in front of a smaller rectangle on a Sunday afternoon.
That’s why Oculus is trying to help filmmakers tell stories in VR: giving advice, resources, technology and funding to make sure that virtual reality becomes a film medium.
Yelena Rachitsky is Oculus VR’s executive producer of experiences, and is tasked with educating and inspiring filmmakers to produce works in VR. I sat down with Rachitsky at Oculus’ Unwrapped event – an event designed to introduce VR to the uninitiated – to find out how filmmakers and technologists are adjusting to VR, why it’s a good thing that audiences are being introduced to VR films through tie-ins with popular movies and studios, like Blade Runner and Pixar, and when we’ll see feature films being made in the medium.
This interview has been edited for clarity
How would you describe the people that you predominantly work with? Are they technologists or creators, directors and auteurs?
In VR it's all kind of converged, so there's not much of a distinction between the technology and the creator; you have to work hand in hand, but every project is a little bit different. Sometimes we find a director that we think is really smart and is very excited about getting into VR, and they have an idea for something that they want, and we help bring their ideas to life.
We know what could work and what can't work. Then we find a technology partner/developer that we think is a good fit, and see if they get along and have them work together on a concept, and then oversee it as the project goes from concept to completion.
Sometimes there're developers that we worked with a few times like Magnopus, who made the Pixar projects and work closely with Pixar and with us and they also worked on the Blade Runner project. So we know that we want to bring Blade Runner to life or we know that we want to bring a Pixar project to life, and we work closely with both creators and try to think about who we think has that creative style and talent that can form it into the cool world that we think it should be.
The thing with VR is a lot of it is about having a vision, but also letting go because so much of the experience, depending if you're doing a live action piece or if you're doing a computer-generated interactive piece, is about the audience's experience
Would you ever reach out to a director if you thought their work would be transferable to VR, and does VR need an auteur associated with it, in the way that we associate a director like Christopher Nolan with shooting on film?
I don't think every filmmaker is a VR creator. The thing with VR is a lot of it is about having a vision, but also letting go because so much of the experience, depending if you're doing a live action piece or if you're doing a computer-generated interactive piece, is about the audience's experience, and so much about film is about the complete control of every shot, a complete control of every part.
A lot of directors have a hard time letting that go. Thinking about the audience, how do you motivate someone to take the journey that you're hoping they take, but understand that they might not go in the direction that you want, but understand that that direction would also be interesting to them?
I think it's more of an open minded film director, as well as an experienced creator. We talk a lot about the concept of immersive theatre where you blend interactivity with storytelling, and you gently guide them. Something that immersive theatre does so well is it makes the audience feel like they're free to make choices, but really you're gently guiding them into this direction because you know pretty well what their motivations might be. You use various tricks to do that: you use lighting to make someone look in a direction or use binaural sound to make someone look in a different direction or make something exciting to pick up or look at.
The founder of the Raindance Film Festival and the British Independent Film Awards, Elliot Grove, said: “Once technologists let go of VR and give it to creators it will take off”. I take it this isn’t a statement that you agree with?
That was kind of an interesting comment because the project that he talked about that he loves was Dear Angelica so that was a technology that we created and gave artists access to.
There's no benefit for us in keeping any sort of the creation tools. The only reason we make them is so creators and directors and storytellers and artists can be able to use them and make something amazing.
Big VR film projects are often tied to traditional movies. Do you think they eventually need to branch out on their own?
What helps is when they [the audience] see something they recognise that feels more familiar, so creating content along with a ready-known brand like Fantastic Beasts or Blade Runner or Pixar has an easier time of bridging the gap with people that are somewhat uncomfortable and for who the technology feels foreign.
We want them to get to a point where they become incredibly excited about it, so just like Jason [Solomons, film critic and broadcaster, who was also at Oculus Unwrapped] was talking about he went to Fantastic Beasts and it brought him in it and excited him. There's a reality to something that's already widely known versus trying to create a tension for something that's not yet known.
There's no benefit for us in keeping any sort of the creation tools. The only reason we make them is so creators and directors and storytellers and artists can be able to use them and make something amazing
Is there a noticeable difference in cost when shooting for VR?
You can create things at a huge variation in price depending on the quality you want to get. If you want to get something that's really high quality live action, it's going to be pretty expensive just like a really high-quality film is going to be really expensive. The difference is that with film you have to really, really pre-plan and that's where the cost comes from.
The shoot, the actual set is very expensive, catering, camera rental, set rental that's really expensive, as is post production, all the stitching and making sure that it looks good, but you can't really iterate like you can within a computer generated type of project. In a computer generated project the money is more spread out throughout time, so you are continuing working and iterating and have the prototype, and then you’re trying to figure out if it's really fun or not. If it's working great, but you can always go back and shift and change.
To make something high quality is going to be expensive, but you can also be a one person team making something for $40,000, and there's actually a lot of projects that are launched on the store that are just made by one person who taught themselves, so it's definitely possible.
One of the criticisms of VR has been that it’s difficult to stay immersed for long periods of time. Will we ever see feature films in VR, or is it too much to ask audiences to stay in VR for that long?
It's not actually. We released a project called May You Be recently, it's a passive live-action, 360 piece that's about 40 minutes long, and it played at Sundance and a lot of people wrote about it and said they didn't even realise that time went by, so if the storytelling is compelling enough you stick with it. We are starting to work on a lot of projects that are much longer, in fact we're starting to work on one that's a few hours long and it's pretty interactive, but it's very much narrative led.
The benefit of VR right now is that it's not restricted by the limitations that film has as far as running time, so with film you have to be within a certain time, with TV you have to be within a certain time, with VR it's really as long as the story needs to be.
Will less bulky wearables make a difference to people’s willingness to stay in VR worlds?
Of course, as years go by the technology is going to get faster, cheaper, better. The content is going to get better, and higher quality, which requires less processing, so all of those advancements that come together are going to make it easier for everyone to watch VR and enjoy watching VR.
Interactive storytelling is something that I think of as more emotionally led. I'm compelled to go here, and I'm led by my curiosity
The way we talk about VR films sounds a lot like the way we talk about interactive gaming, so where does gaming end and VR films begin? Is there a distinction between the two?
It's a question that I think about and our team talks about all the time. I think people are confused about terminology for VR right now because they come with the terminology they get from the industry they were used to.
In a gaming space you use certain words for certain things, in a film space you use certain words for certain things, in the theatre space you use certain words for certain things, but different words might actually mean the same things. There're so many narrative based games that I would call interactive storytelling.
The way I like to think of it is something is strictly a game when it’s more strategically led. It is something that I either level up with or I can somewhat win at. Interactive storytelling is something that I think of as more emotionally led. I'm compelled to go here, and I'm led by my curiosity, but it's less about the strategy that you find and more about the experience that you're having.
But so much of that is blending right now because there are so many incredible independent games that are more about world exploration, like for instance with the Coco piece it's fully interactive, there's storytelling and there's a beginning and an end and there's a whole space in the middle, but so much of it is your experience. It's what you make out of it. It's the journey that you take for yourself. It could be game-like right? I just don't think in terms of what the difference is really means much right now.
Interacting with a VR film for the first time is certainly an experience, but do you worry that the hype will disappear like it has done to a large extent with 3D technology?
A lot of people talked about 3D when VR came out, but 3D didn't change what the content was. You're still watching it on a rectangle; it just pops out a little bit more.
People didn't create content that was specifically meant for 3D, it was more of an add-on. The creation of content for VR is just a completely different form of content. You can't necessarily compare it to a rectangular screen. You're body reacts differently to it, you pick something up, you're climbing. Could you have that climbing experience with a 3D TV? No, it's a rectangle right? So you're body believed that it was there somehow, so the comparison between the two is just so different from the reality of what the two are.
The creation of content for VR is just a completely different form of content. You can't necessarily compare it to a rectangular screen
Where will VR films be in 3 to 5 years?
What we're seeing pop up so much right now is location-based spaces that people are coming to; they’re huge in Asia and also happening a lot in Europe right now. I've been to a bunch of places that have shared synced experiences with Gear VRs and 50 people are watching them at the same time.
I think that's going to continue to grow and continue to build as a destination, but the technology is now becoming so much more accessible and it's going to start getting lower and lower in price that it's going to be so easy for people to have in their houses, so people can share experiences with friends.