In 2017, virtual reality is more attainable than ever. Some of the biggest household names in technology remain committed to developing and cleverly marketing their VR contributions. Products by Google, HTC, and even Facebook who bought Oculus Rift in 2014, are becoming more and more available with options ranging from affordable ($15-$30) to high end ($500-$800). So what can we expect to see from VR and 360 films in the next few years—and how will it impact the film industry?
In 1992, Roger Ebert envisioned the possibilities of virtual reality cinema as something that could potentially capture the magic of film once and for all. At the same time, he acknowledged the daunting social consequences, from sci-fi electrodes monitoring our every thought to the alienating effects of choosing, for example, virtual love over human relationships. He was also quick to point out the inevitable novelty of the medium—which he playfully termed the “vrovies”—not unlike 1950s Smell-O-Vision or 1980s 3D glasses. Would it be a fad or a lasting medium where new masterpieces could be created?
Ebert’s characteristic hope for the “magic” of film is what carries through today. Blockbuster hits have captured this change as well. The Matrix (1999), for instance, portrayed VR as something that sapped humans of their humanity, while the more recent Avatar (2009) spun it as a way for humanity to atone for sins against and re-commune with nature. It seems the fear of dystopian mind control is a thing of the past.
Even if we still have another decade or so before VR films become a staple of entertainment culture, they seem to have found an initial home in film festivals. Sundance has premiered various VR projects in recent years, covering everything from comedy and animation to interactive art galleries and concerts. While the general public may not be flocking to check out the latest VR releases, these films are earning some serious attention, pushing film makers to develop the medium. Google made history at the 2017 Academy Awards, earning the first VR Oscar nomination for its short animated feature, Pearl.
Of course, VR and 360 film pose some unique challenges for production. Shooting a 360 film requires many crew members—even the director—to hide from the shot, leaving the actors completely alone with the cameras. And because many production companies are still figuring out the best ways to shoot panoramic footage, camera rigs are often comprised of relatively cheap equipment. Shots are later “stitched” together in editing to create a spherical image. The process isn’t always as seamless as it could be, and many VR films are created with CGI or animation rather than live actors.
For now, VR films seem almost supplemental to their feature-length counterparts. Many VR projects are short films. Some are even advertisements, given Facebook’s recent addition of 360 photos and videos. The newest film in the Resident Evil franchise, for instance, developed an interactive 360 promotional video titled “Can You Survive the Killing Floor?” The most recent game in the franchise, Resident Evil: Biohazard, was released for both VR and major consoles. We have yet to see many VR-only releases. Even Google’s Pearl can be viewed in traditional 2D video on YouTube.
It’s possible that VR will become just another option for viewing films rather than a dedicated medium for filmmakers. What format would you prefer? Blu-Ray? 3D? VR? Still, the developments seem to be coming faster with each project. It seems only a matter of time until we encounter the first classic film in VR cinema history.
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