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Virtual Reality by Sean Walton

Reel Disruption

November 11, 2016

As virtual reality changes the language of film, where it leaves the filmmaker has become an open question.

By Richard Gershman

Disruptive art may be a redundant term since arguably all art, in forcing us to look at the world differently, disrupts. But traditionally, when we think about art that disrupts, what we’re really thinking about are disruptive artists. That notion, however, may be changing, given the influence of technology across artistic disciplines, and in particular in filmmaking.

Virtual Reality by Sean Walton

Virtual reality, or VR, is increasingly becoming one such disruptive technology. VR first began as a construct of science fiction writers, and then, with the advent of video gaming, appeared in the mainstream as clunky arcade games. At that time, early adopters of the technology also included the health, automobile, and military industries, but it was not until computing power developed sufficiently that what we now regard as VR—a streaming, immersive, 360-degree image that surrounds us in a created “world”—could emerge. This evolution has largely occurred only in the last five years.

VR essentially asks the viewer to stand inside a globe. The realities it creates can be photographically authentic or completely fabricated, but in most respects VR requires the viewer to guide her or his experience. This may seem like a nuance, but its implications are significant. While VR may not have begun with the idea of infringing on, or perhaps supplanting, the artist, what’s interesting—or troubling, depending on your viewpoint—is how the technology challenges us to do things independently of the artist. In ways the artist may not necessarily control.

Consider the fundamental tool of filmmaking (also of painting and photography): the frame. In VR, the frame is eliminated. Instead, VR offers a “canvas” where the viewer bears the responsibility of deciding where to look. Once a viewer is handed the responsibility of deciding what’s important, it becomes logical to ask: What is the artist’s role?

In that same spirit, if an artist loses his or her ability to orchestrate an experience fully, do audiences also lose something?

Since VR is a first-person experience, filmmakers wading into VR quickly realize and must embrace that their audience of one will be experiencing their stories differently. For VR proponents, that may connote a more personal and intense encounter with the work. A car crash becomes much more horrific if you are in the middle of it, a love scene more voyeuristic if you are seated in a chair in the bedroom. For critics, however, the “detachment” that audiences encounter when the artist is more in control actually allows them to be less distracted and to better focus on and wrestle with the ideas the work summons.

The question becomes: Does participation ultimately render a work of art more temporal and disposable—“been there, done that”—or does VR allow us to embody it more? Put another way: Do we need artists to guide us in order to have a transcendent moment, or are we capable of generating that on our own?

Then there is the question of genre.

Just as VR creates new possibilities, it challenges us to rethink some of the old models. Some things do not work as well in VR. Comedy, for instance, relies heavily on a group experience. That challenge faced programmers in the early days of television. That’s why laugh tracks were added to sitcoms as viewers sitting alone in their dens were not as apt to laugh unless cued by others’ laughter. Of course this has since become hackneyed and annoying and now only sparingly used. But, if you are watching a comedic scene in VR by yourself, are you as likely to laugh?

Action sequences, so far, don’t seem to work as well in VR because they have to either be elaborately staged where you don’t see the artifice involved or depend on extensive editing, which has also proven to be challenging. In today’s film lexicon, we accept the ability to constantly change the point of view of a scene by editing different angles and shots together. In VR, hard cuts are unsettling and more self-conscious. So, most VR films stay in a singular point of view and make few transitions, usually by fading in and out or by dissolving from one scene to another.

All of this begs another debate about the communal nature of art. What do we lose or gain by strapping on a VR mask and plugging in? With the adoption of VR technology, will audiences see any reason to go out to a movie theatre?

For some, the experience of a dark movie theatre and being transported to a galaxy far, far away is why driving 10 miles and enduring eight-dollar cartons of popcorn is worthwhile. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would do the same to don a headset and watch a film in isolation. So will VR just be a home device that appeals mostly to gamers? Or will it evolve to the point where other people will inhabit your film as themselves or their own avatars? Maybe that’s the next evolution for VR.

VR technology has already been successfully adapted to many areas. In sports, athletes can experience real-time game dynamics without risking injury. In the military, pilots can train in combat without losing a $20-million plane. In travel, the vacationer can sample a stateroom on a cruise ship or a walk through the Kasbah before buying an expensive vacation. If VR is to succeed as a new way to tell stories, artists will have to figure out what those stories are and how to build a cinematic language to tell them.

Sound, for example, becomes more important. Sound can cue the viewer to look in a particular direction, seeing something the artist wants him or her to experience. Moving the observer’s point-of-view is another technique that can create focus, as most viewers in a VR setting will naturally want to see where they are heading.

As with all disruptive technologies, virtual reality presents artists with the opportunity to invent new ways to express themselves and connect to an audience. But it also forces artists to examine basic and fundamental concepts that define their art form. At the same time VR encourages the creation of new paradigms, it raises questions about whether those paradigms fulfill the purpose of the artist or the artful moment.

It has been said that there are no new stories to tell, only new ways to tell a story. VR may be new proof of this truth.

Richard Gershman is the chair of the film department at Watkins. He began his career in theatre where he served on the staff at the Mark Taper Forum and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. He has more than 50 stage productions to his credit, and his television and film work includes direction of multiple episodes of Judging Amy and Chicago Hope, and the award winning short subject, Joni & the Whales (HBO, A&E Network). He has also worked on such features as The Hunt for Red October and Queen’s Logic. The illustration above was created by Watkins student Sean-Tyler Walton.