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How Virtual Reality could change movies

If you’ve had a go on a VR headset like the Oculus Rift DK2 or the Samsung Gear VR and were given the chance to whizz through a few demos, you might have tried out one of the various virtual cinema experiences, which give you an entire screen at a multiplex to yourself. Although the resolution isn’t quite there yet, it’s a pretty fun experience and could one day mean that none of us bother upgrading our TV – why would you when a VR one will always be bigger.

But as fun as watching a movie on a VR cinema screen is, it doesn’t really evolve the experience of movie watching in the same way that VR can change the way games are played. What I’m really excited for, is how movies designed for VR could change everything.

There was a lot of official talk about this sort of thing a few months ago when it was announced that Oculus VR had started its own internal movie studio, with the first effort known as The Lost, currently being shopped around some of the trade shows and events. However it’s going to be a while before the rest of us sat at home with a DK2 and eyes and ears hungry for VR, can view it. Fortunately then, Oculus is far from the only company working on pushing the visual medium of movie making into a third dimension.

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There’s more than one way to skin a VR movie

All of them though are having to work around the problem presented by VR and that’s namely that viewers can look wherever they want. Directors, cinematographers and cameramen spend hundreds of hours working out the perfect shot for a film to give you the most impact. As the old adage goes, it’s not what you show, it’s what you don’t, so a lot of the craft of filmmaking is figuring out what is most important for the viewer to see, perhaps only revealing other elements later or leaving them out if they aren’t required.

In VR though you can’t do that, because in VR, the viewer controls where they look. That means that the director has to – right off the bat – accept that some viewers will not see their film in the way they intended. There will be someone who watches the entire thing looking behind them, or fidgeting around and trying to look up or down the clothes of the different actors.

That’s likely to only be a fringe group, so it’s not one that should be catered for by drastically altering the style of the film, but they make for a great example of how VR filmmaking needs to factor in new things: in this case, that the audience may not necessarily be paying 100 per cent attention to the action all of the time.

So how do you address this? Well fortunately, there are a few filmmakers who have already begun to do so. Take “Butts”, a (very) short film from CGI artist, Tyler Hurd, which tells the tale of a humanoid creature with the ability to do unspeakably wonderful things, with his butt. This could sound pretty grotesque or explicit, but I promise you it isn’t. It may not necessarily be safe for work, but it’s a joy to behold.

For those with Rift headsets, I urge you to check it out in VR first as it’s much improved with the interaction. However, what Butts does is more than make you laugh and ‘aww’, it also shows you how to keep a viewer looking where you want them. When wearing a VR headset, you can turn your head and see the crouching humanoid before our blue protagonist discovers him. You can also look around at the environment, and lean in to get a closer view of what they manage to pull out of themselves.

To prevent that reveal from happening too early, Butts does a fantastic job of drawing your attention to the blue humanoid. It makes it so that unless you know what’s coming, there is very little reason for you to look elsewhere. This is perhaps indicative of ‘Butts’ roots as a 2D film, before it headed into the third dimension of virtual reality, as drawing the eye to one specific spot is a pretty traditional method of movie making, but by having the character jump around and perform strange stunts, it keeps you interested and stops you looking around.

However that approach isn’t necessarily the only one and it certainly doesn’t utilise the Rift’s ability to let the viewer choose what’s important to look at. Instead of giving viewers only one point to look at in VR, why not give them lots? You could make the story not particularly dependent on any one element being seen, but give them all some context to the scenario. With shorter experiences too, that could encourage repeat viewing.

That’s what Birdy King Land does. Made by Backlight  Studio, Birdy King Land is part rollercoaster, part short film, sending you careening around the landscape in the sidecar of a motorbike in first person. Throughout, you’re given plenty to look at, whether it’s the obstacles you are swerving out of the way from, or the little bird off to the side as it races along, or the giant one chasing you from behind. All of those things are valid to the story and you will never see them all in one viewing.

What’s even more exciting with Birdy King Land, is it combines a number of different art styles. It starts off as a cartoon, with our heroes chatting in animated 2D, before you are suddenly transported into the world they inhabit, in glorious 3D. And glorious it is, because the world looks beautiful and it looks alive too, with lots going on in the background. Since you’re whizzing along though, you’ll find it hard to look at all of it, hence the suggestion for repeated viewings and since the experience is only a few minutes long, that’s not something that’s going to bother many people.

Beyond its value as an entertainment product though, it shows a very interesting way for making a short film within VR: providing multiple points of reference for the viewers’ eyes, giving them lots to look at all over the place, whether it’s behind, in front or directly above. This is a very different kind of filmmaking than most directors are used to and it will likely take a good number of years before a real formula for it is found, but that’s what makes it so exciting.

Perhaps though, not many people will embrace full VR movies. Maybe we’ll still prefer to stick to 2D (or 3D with glasses the next time that fad rolls around) when it comes to our films and that’s fine, but there may still be a place for VR in the movie business: trailers. Instead of showing us everything about a film in the lead up to it like contemporary trailer makers seem wont to do, just give us a sequence from the film where we are the character. Like VR developer Kite and Lightning (makers of Senza Peso, The Voice 360 and The (Bat) Cave) did with the trailer for the new Insurgent movie.

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In it, you get to meet Kate Winslet face to face, get a taste for some of the vertigo and fear inducing elements of VR and see a glimpse of what the upcoming movie is all about. It’s a really fresh way to learn about a movie, without really seeing much about it or having any of the plot spoiled before you get a chance to see it. It’s the best of both worlds and I think it offers a really interesting way to preview a film.

VR is going to change a lot of things over the next 10 years. It will give those with disabilities that limit movement a chance to experience parts of the world they may never have visited before. It will let children step back in time or into the heart of a volcano to learn about how it all works and of course it’s going to make long distance relationships that much more exciting.

But movies are going to change too and there are some pretty impressive early ideas being kicked around by some developers and I for one am I excited to see what they come up with next.

KitGuru Says: Also, I don’t think I’m the only one who wants a least a Butts 2. We have to know what happens next. 

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