From the WSJ:
VR headsets, like the Oculus Rift, can immerse you in the action as never before. Here’s how the technology is changing Hollywood—and 7 must-see virtual-reality experiences to try now…
WHETHER YOU’RE AN avid cinephile or you haven’t been to a movie theater since enduring “Attack of the Clones,” one thing is certain: Over the next few years, virtual reality will completely reboot your relationship to the moving image. That’s because the once-geeks-only technology, known as VR for short, is becoming shockingly good at making you feel as though you’re in the midst of the action—cycling through the air with E.T. or spinning atop an alp with an excitable Fraulein Maria—rather than observing from afar.
We hear your objections: “There’s absolutely no way I’m going to wear one of those dorky-looking headsets. I won’t even be caught dead in 3-D glasses.” Even if you acknowledge that the motion-tracking technology VR systems employ is pretty cool, allowing users to look freely around a 360-degree environment, you’re perfectly content with real reality, thank you very much.
Behind the scenes, however, VR is rewriting the script for Hollywood. VR works are already popping up at prominent film festivals like Sundance and next month’s Tribeca Film Festival (where screenings take place in small rooms rather than large theaters). A-list directors such as Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg are working on top-secret VR projects. Even “Airplane!” director Jerry Zucker, not usually associated with the cutting edge, is developing an immersive comedy.
Viewing VR is starkly different than watching a traditional film: With conventional movies, the director dictates your focus of attention. An aerial view cuts to a medium shot cuts to a close up—giving you no say in what you see. But virtual reality puts you in charge. The headset allows you to observe any aspect of a setting and, in some cases, even affect the way the story unfolds depending on where you look.
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Take the famously ominous scene from “North by Northwest,” in which a crop-duster chases Cary Grant. Instead of insisting you passively watch Grant try to outrun the low-flying aircraft, as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic does, a VR version might have you sprinting alongside him, with the freedom to glance back at the oncoming plane or farther afield at the cars zooming by, including that fast approaching tanker truck…
“For decades, we’ve been watching as observers in a dark theater,” said Robert Stromberg, the director of Walt Disney’s hit “Maleficent” and an executive at Virtual Reality Co. in Los Angeles. “Now, we’re taking on the role of observer [inside the movie’s] world.”
The new medium poses creative challenges for directors and viewers alike. For example, if you can look anywhere your short attention span allows, how do filmmakers signify where the action is?
One solution is to use visual cues: A character might point behind you, for example, prompting you to turn toward an approaching villain. But usually, said Mr. Stromberg, it’s like a dinner party: You end up turning toward whoever’s talking. Some classic film techniques, however, simply don’t translate easily. “The idea of a close-up is not something I think of in VR,” Mr. Stromberg said. “You actually feel like you’re intruding.”
Despite their futuristic slant, many VR projects can be viewed for free using relatively inexpensive equipment in the comfort of your home. With the simplest headsets, some made of cardboard, you just pop your smartphone into them then download a VR app that delivers the video. Three popular headsets are shown here, with many more slated to be released soon.
Other VR experiences require more rarefied equipment, like the $600 headset that Oculus Rift is expected to begin shipping later this month, which has high-resolution screens and connects to a computer instead of a smartphone. Meanwhile, special movie-theater seats that jostle and jolt you in sync with what’s happening in the virtual environment can heighten works like “The Martian VR Experience,” adapted by Mr. Stromberg from the Matt Damon blockbuster about an abandoned astronaut. Hit a boulder while driving a space rover, for example, and the seat jerks back like a car hitting the curb.
Every genre, it seems, is fair game for an immersive upgrade. Current and upcoming projects include Pixar-like animated works and sharp-eyed political documentaries. At this point, VR experiences are much shorter than feature-length films; most last fewer than 10 minutes, since viewing VR for extended periods can cause nausea. (This is a hazard to which we can attest, having binge-watched several VR projects back-to-back in the course of research.)
These are early days, and there are kinks to be worked out, including the potentially off-putting aspects of VR’s isolating nature. Many insiders predict that we’ll see widespread adoption 18 months down the line, as more user-friendly headsets go on sale. “It’s the first inning,” said Anthony Batt, co-founder of Wevr, a virtual-reality company based in Venice, Calif. “We can’t call this game at all.”
We traveled from VR studio to VR studio around Los Angeles, immersing ourselves in all the industry has to offer. Here are a few VR experiences worth seeking out now to get a sense of what the future of storytelling might look like.
Hollywood Cred: With a two-hour running time (divided into 10-minute episodes), this “Clue”-meets-“Taken” thriller plays like a full-fledged feature film.
The Pitch: Why is that shady-looking dude watching over a playground? And why did that mother need help with her stroller right before a young girl went missing? In this narrative, you’re something of a detective, looking for clues that appear throughout. Every time a small hovering light appears, you can tap the side of your VR headset to pause the narrative and zoom in and view footage of a telling clue—or complete red herring. Available on Samsung VR, wevr.com
‘Hard World for Small Things’
Hollywood Cred: This brief drama is making the film-festival rounds.
The Pitch: Short but intense, “Hard World” explores race relations to harrowing effect. The story opens in the present day, in the back seat of a convertible, where three African-American friends are hanging out. After they pull up to a bodega, one heads inside to buy food. A few seconds later, two police officers appear and ask the driver to turn his music down—and the tension escalates from there. Available on all systems, wevr.com
Hollywood Cred: A futuristic music video boasting eye-popping visual effects.
The Pitch: When Reggie Watts—the unorthodox beatboxing comedian—makes a 10-minute virtual-reality video, you know it’s going to be a rabbit-hole of an experience. The vocalist often layers samples of his voice to create a sonic smorgasbord of beats and harmonies. That music is the soundtrack to “Waves,” which begins here on earth but soon transports viewers to various dimensions and galaxies, with Mr. Watts singing and philosophizing along the way. Available on all systems; wevr.com
Hollywood Cred: This visceral documentary has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival (and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland).
The Pitch: In about 15 minutes, “Collisions” tells the sweeping, true story of Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, an indigenous elder living in Australia who witnessed the country’s test of the atomic bomb in the 1950s. Mr. Morgan’s words are interspliced with newly filmed footage of him watching a video of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as well as a graphic simulation of the bomb killing nearby kangaroos and devastating the Australian outback. Available on all systems; jauntvr.com
Hollywood Cred: A sequel of sorts to the “Paranormal Activity” horror films
The Pitch: Sure, this piece is set in a typical haunted house with creaky floorboards and an apparent disregard for electricity. But the 360-degree experience ups the spook factor exponentially. By tapping the power of more advanced VR rigs like the Oculus Rift, “Paranormal Activity” responds to your real-life movements: Walking around your own (hopefully empty) room with the headset on allows you to virtually walk down the fictional house’s halls, most of which are lined with doors left disconcertingly ajar. There are up to six hours of content to explore here, but skittish viewers will want to rush to the nearest virtual exit. Available this summer on HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR; beastmg.com
Hollywood Cred: This animated children’s short looks like other big-budget kids movies—in part because it was developed at Oculus, which has poached employees from Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.
The Pitch: Henry is a hedgehog who wants to make friends but can’t get anyone to see beyond his prickly exterior. The piece begins in Henry’s tiny home, which you can snoop around for bit. Then Henry ambles in, ready to celebrate his birthday—alone. This charming VR experience is specifically tailored to youngsters: A child watching while standing will see eye-to-eye with Henry; adults will have to sit down for similar effect. Available soon on Oculus Rift; storystudio.oculus.com
Hollywood Cred: The sketch-comedy videos by YouTube sensation Lilly Singh have made her one of the hottest live performers of the YouTube circuit.
The Pitch: This concert video (think “Katy Perry: Part of Me” meets digital diary) opens in the Canadian comedian’s dressing room ahead of a big performance. She amps herself up and turns to face the camera: Are you pumped up? She introduces her team of backup dancers, who all mug for the camera. Then the show starts, and you’re not in the front row—you’re on stage. Turn around, and the adoring crowd is reaching toward you. Available on all systems; jauntvr.com.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Earlier immersive technologies had some rough patches
The Technology: The introduction of polarized 3-D technology in the 1930s meant that 3-D films could finally be shown in color, according to Jack Theakston, co-founder of the 3-D Film Archive.
The Dud: Though hugely popular, 1952’s “Bwana Devil,” Hollywood’s first full-length 3-D color film to be released, was panned by critics. The film—whose tagline read “A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!”—was based on the true story of the “Tsavo Man-Eaters.” Variety opined: “Although adding backsides to usually flat actors and depth to landscapes, the 3-D technique still needs further technical advances.”
The Technology: Introduced in the 1950s, Circle-Vision 360 uses nine cameras to capture movies that are projected on nine screens that completely encircle the audience (even the theater is round).
The Dud: The 1984 work “O Canada!,” created for Epcot, celebrated the nation’s people and places. According to the Toronto Star, the attraction was “filled with hokey clichés, and was causing embarrassed snickers among Canadians who saw it.” The film depicted “stampeding caribou, chuckwagon races and an angler in a plaid flannel shirt displaying a hooked salmon, among other eye-rollers.” Disney unveiled an updated “O Canada!” in 2007, hosted by Martin Short, that continues to run today.
The Technology: The reels for this children’s toy (introduced in 1939) were created using stereoscopic cameras. Photographers documented everything from such sweeping landscapes as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park to major events like the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the World Cup.
The Dud: Among the most dubious View-Master reels are those based on TV shows, including a few that wouldn’t seem especially thrilling to view in 3-D, like “Eight Is Enough” and “Romper Room.”