Monday, July 04, 2016

More Thoughts on VR

I attended a one day conference on VR & Film, sponsored by SIRT and ETV Film Inc in mid-June.  There were hardware and software demonstrations, but I was particularly interested in the talks, where people involved in creating virtual reality explained the storytelling issues they encountered.

Having worked in cgi in the early years, I'm confident that the technical problems of VR will be solved over time.  My personal interest runs more towards how VR is going to communicate with audiences as a narrative medium.

Pretty much everyone agrees that VR has a resemblance to theatre in that the audience is free to look where they wish.  The stage has various techniques for directing the audience's attention, lighting being a major one.  If only one part of the stage is lit, the audience will naturally look there.  Jeff Preyra of 360 Storylabs pointed out that with a 360 degree camera, it was impossible to place lights, as they would always be visible.  For this reason, he felt that the future of VR storytelling would be motion capture avatars in cgi environments.  The virtual lights in cgi are invisible to the camera, so in a cgi environment, directors could still control lighting.

Preya felt that establishing shots would have to be longer as the audience would naturally want to look around an environment and take stock of who is present before watching whatever dramatic action is going to unfold.  This makes sense, though when returning to established locations it shouldn't be necessary and if you want to surprise the characters and the audience, you could start the action of a scene immediately to prevent the audience from knowing everything that was present.

Preyra also felt that musical scoring didn't work in VR.  As the viewer was in the scene, any music needed to have a visible source.  I'm not sure about this.  In the early years of talkies, there was music under the opening and closing titles, but none during the film unless there was a onscreen source such as a radio, phonograph or visible musicians.  However, by 1933, just a few years after talkies became the dominant form of movies, King Kong had dramatic scoring by Max Steiner throughout the film.  By the late 1930s, composers like Steiner, Newman, Korngold, Waxman, Hageman and Tiomkin were hard at work scoring films throughout their run times.

Ian Tuason of CFC Media Lab said that cameras could only move in straight lines, as any change in the camera's direction might clash with head movements of someone wearing a VR headset.  This makes sense on the face of it, but again a look at film history leads me to believe that it can be done.  Films in the 1930s and '40s routinely shot in ways where the camera's position operated separately from the camera's view.  In other words, the camera's location would physically move while the camera itself would change what it was pointing at.  What was standard, however, was someone moving on screen that gave the audience a focus.  So if a camera was tracking through a restaurant before stopping at a table where the main action was to take place, the camera would follow a waiter while it was moving.  In a VR situation, if there is an obvious center of interest on screen, like a character, the camera could move, changing it's spatial and angular relationship so long as the audience has a reason to stay focused on that character.

I feel the same way about cutting to a closer view.  If the audience is looking at a speaking character, cutting to a closer shot should not disorient the audience any more than it does in a conventional film.

The next five to ten years are going to be very interesting with regard to VR.  No doubt gaming will be a leader, as it's a natural for putting a player inside the game.  But just as games have evolved cut scenes to provide the player with narrative information, VR is going to evolve storytelling grammar in order to do the same.  Once that grammar exists, we'll find out if VR is going to be successful with audiences as a storytelling medium or if it's just a fad like stereoscopic 3D.

For my earlier thoughts on VR, go here.