VR + Documentary = Yes please.

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.

For more information, click here to read Bernstein's article.

Participant Cinema: Make Your Avatar a Star

Ready Player One is one of the most enjoyable and intelligent trade sci-fi books to appear in years. Without giving away too much, the premise is about regular users occupying and hacking a virtual world named OASIS. Themes of user engagement, activity and collective intelligence run throughout the novel. 

Warner Brothers and Steven Spielberg are working on a film adaptation right now. As I read the novel, I could clearly imagine what a movie would look and feel like. It's a cinematic novel. When I heard that Spielberg is at the helm I felt pang of sadness as I wasn't sure his heavy-handed directorial style would work with the intelligence and subtleties found in the book. But, then I remembered Minority Report. Spielberg did not ruin that adaptation; in fact, I think he did a pretty decent job of depicting Phillip K. Dick's complex story.

One indicator that this movie has hope is the manner in which the folks involved (including the book's author) are including regular users, just as the OASIS engineers/owners do in the book. Follow this link to see the CFA (Call for Avatar). They're inviting gamers and designers to create their own avatars, a few of which will be chosen to appear in the film. The old commie in me sees a red (haha) flag in that the media companies are now asking us to produce content that we will then pay to consume later. But, another view, a less dark one, sees this gesture as one wholly appropriate to the story and our current context. 


VR is coming to a theater near you!

It can be hard for old-timers like me to not think of cheesy Lawnmower Man and (awesome but simple) Battletech when the topic of VR emerges. We clearly need to don some goggles, open our eyes, and pay attention to this rapidly changing and expanding technology. The apparatuses and available content are definitely on the upswing but we're also clearly in a transitional moment.

This article from Variety reports on the likely (upcoming?) addition of location-based VR to IMAX movie theaters. In large part this seems like an obvious coupling: IMAX and VR are both about immersive media experiences. On the other hand, they are quite different and from what I can see the IMAX attributes are taking up the foreground space here.

VR has the promise to transport you elsewhere from wherever you are. Anchoring VR to a specific location makes sense for exploring a new technology, but it's really beside the point. IMAX, on the other hand, has to be location-specific. Special auditoriums are decked out with specific equipment from massive screens to audio to projection (and glasses of course). You can't move an IMAX theater without a substantial investment. 

In terms of content, movies are arguably less interactive then other digital media formats. VR is designed to place you in a virtual context in which you can interact. These two forms of media engagement are not in diametric opposition, but they are vastly different. Filmmakers have been trying to figure out how to make film more interactive for a while now, and this new move from IMAX may be a gesture toward a more interactive cinema.

What IMAX is proposing seems to pull aspects of VR into the theater context, but the experiential goal is unclear. Would you wear googles to see the movie, rendering projection and a big screen unnecessary? Would you play a game related to a film, right after seeing the movie (this seems like the idea, given the reference to the John Wick game)? We'll have to wait and see. For now, the plan raises compelling questions for content, exhibition, synergy, convergence, and engagement.

Read Variety's article by clicking here.