Have you ever watched a movie using virtual reality goggles? It's pretty cool, but also pretty limited. They may be different, but the ones I've tried were shown through Oculus software. You are placed into a "theater," which incidentally is the coolest part: you get to look around a virtual theater that actually feels large and open. After selecting your film, you get to watch it on two tiny screens (in the goggles) that feel like an actual auditorium. My most recent experiment was watching The Lego Movie in 3D. The experience was pretty amazing, actually but as the technology stands right now, it's also awkward and fairly low-res. From my few forays into this arena, however, I can say with confidence that this will be a "thing" and perhaps even a game-changing one.
A new studio, Scenic, has recently launched with the express goal to foster the creation of non-fiction (yes!) films for VR viewing. Some of the directors on board include Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story), Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), and Sam Green (The Weather Underground)...to name a few. The first round of films will be released this summer with a purported 40 in its first year.
A lot about this venture is innovative and extraordinary but the stand out, for me at least, is the focus on non-fiction media. Filmmaker Magazine's Paula Bernstein quotes filmmaker Gary Hustwit, saying:
“VR is kind of dominated by gaming and CGI stuff. I think there is a real potential for documentary film to be made with this technology. But again, it’s about getting a lot of filmmakers to try it out and wrap their minds around it and figure out how it fits into their creative process."
Bernstein notes that VR is fundamentally about taking us to places we otherwise can't go, real or virtual. One could argue that documentary shares a similar goal. It's also a genre that's embracing innovation. Two 3D docs come to mind: Pina (Wenders) and The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog). Both bring you into places you really can't go otherwise. The first takes you onto the stage during a dance performance and the latter takes you into a restricted-access French cave containing 30,000 year old paintings.
The marrying of VR and documentary is an exciting and fitting one to be sure. We should all keep our eyes on Scenic's upcoming releases.