Virtual reality movies are the culmination of many years of experimentation and evolution. In the late 1920s, the film industry was revolutionised by the commercial introduction of sound with movies, or talkies. Now we see a repeat of this phenomenon with VR films.

Originally with The Jazz Singer (1927), continued by All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and parodied in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), audio began to transform film. It was a time of rudimentary transition, restricted camera movements, live dialogue, and minimal editing. The earliest talkies were primitive, designed to capitalise on the novelty of sound. Talkies eventually dominated the filmmaking landscape – after extensive exploration and experimentation.

The VR industry is filled with gimmicks and improper use of the tech as companies once again cash in on the novelty, or fail to capitalise upon the potential assets. This may evolve in 2019. This is an exciting time, and will give birth to influential companies in much the same way that Warner Brothers was born from the talkies era. This article will give a comprehensive overview of virtual reality films.

What are virtual reality movies?

Virtual reality movies are immersive experiences where viewers can watch a film with a VR headset. From the Oculus Rift to the HTC VIVE, the Lenovo Mirage Solo to the Google Cardboard, a wide range of headsets can be used to watch movies.

However, there is a difference between virtual reality movies and 360 videos. Virtual reality is when players can move and interact in a virtual environment. 360 videos are passive viewing experiences similar to YouTube videos, but not within a virtual space. Some virtual reality movies can only be used on high-end headsets with interactable elements. 360 videos do not let the viewers interact, yet they have a powerful impact because of its immersion.

Most people use virtual reality and 360 videos to mean the same thing. For the sake of simplicity, I shall also do the same.

An Oculus Go can watch virtual reality movies. Photo credit: Oculus

Examples of the best VR films

Here are a few examples of virtual reality movies, and one of my favorites. These are taken from the Raindance Gallery of Immersive Stories, my favorite event of 2018.

  • 7 MIRACLES. The world’s first feature-length film in VR, which had its world premiere at Raindance. The production was made under HTC VIVE and VIVE Studios as well. The film covers the life of Jesus Christ, from the perspective of the Disciple, John.
  • THE DAIRY INDUSTRY. Directed by Animal Equality and featuring Evanna Lynch, the film portrays the suffering of cows in dairy farms, with the world premiere during Raindance. The short film covers a cow’s journey from birth, to excessive milking, to being put down for meat. The production made me feel very uncomfortable, and I had to turn away for two scenes. The soothing voice of Evanna contrasted with the abuse on sight. (I also bought soy milk afterward).
  • GRENFELL: OUR HOME. A documentary on the Grenfell disaster last year, survivors recount what the home was like before, during, and after the fire that consumed the building. The documentary featured the Gomes family, Alves family, Corinne Jones, Jason Miller, and Lilian Alwa. One of my favorite experiences at Raindance, the movie gives an arresting insight coupled with stunning visuals, sombre music, and a respectful insight into the disaster.
  • THIS IS PROGRESS VR. Previously showcased at the Inception / Kaleidescope Online Film Festival, this is a series on Progress wresting, a British professional wrestling promotion that was established in 2011. Peter Collis and Jessica Driscoll provides an insight into a burgeoning niche community which is gaining sway in North London, using VR in an intimate manner to bring the full-on nature of wrestling right up to people’s faces.

How are virtual reality movies different from normal films?

Between films and virtual reality the crucial difference is the role of the viewer. Will McMaster, Head of VR at Visualise, highlights that the viewer is taking up physical space within the virtual world: “I think the sensation of watching a story in VR is as much a physical experience as it is visual… in traditional media, we don’t have to take physical space into account because the viewer never changes physical position. They’re always in a chair, watching a two-dimensional representation of reality. In VR, we are changing the viewer’s entire sense of reality.”

“It sounds really obvious, but it’s something I think about a lot because you start to realise that your entire set of advantages and limitations in telling a story in VR stem from this physicality… I don’t think these disadvantages mean that you can’t tell a great story in VR, but I do think that how that great story is told is going to be very different from how it’s done in traditional media.”

At the most basic level, the viewer has a place in a new world. While films audiences are led by cuts and camera movements, their identity is separate. There is no need to give the audience a role.

VR challenges this. When placed in a virtual world, the viewer feels that they have a physicality and presence within it. Viewers start to question their identity among the fuss and furor.

From theatre techniques to VR films

So what techniques are being pioneered for the medium?

The team at BBC Research and Development are currently exploring VR, experimenting with various techniques and applications. After a short while Alia Sheikh, filmmaker at BBC R&D, found there was a solution within traditional theatre. “Consider a traditional theatre production which deals with audience members – viewers –  that observe from a fixed location, who are only ever seeing a wide angle view and who have independent control over where to look.

“There are obvious commonalities with VR and 360 experiences. We found that members of a theatre troupe are expert at directing attention across a field of view by using sound, lighting and visual cues, and an understanding of group behavior – using their own attention to direct the audiences.

“It’s these sorts of cues we need to be using in VR experiences. If every other person in a 360 scene looks to the left, in the direction of a sound cue, chances are, your viewer will look in that direction as well. But instead of the action feeling forced, it becomes natural, as if the viewer is discovering things for themselves.”

Here, Alia draws parallels between a play production and VR. Virtual reality movies must subtly direct the viewer’s attention in the story, the same way a play might. If out of sight, a person is also out of mind – until they move, and they then become a point of attention. This cannot be shown with camera cuts or flashes, as they have to become a natural part of the scene.

How to form a connection with the viewer

Immersive theatre is used by other companies as a term. Aardman used these same techniques in the production of We Wait. Aardman collaborated with the BBC to collect the stories of migrants, and illustrated their flight during the refugee crisis. We Wait follows a Syrian family about to embark on their second attempt to cross the sea to Greece.

Daniel Efergan, Digital Group Creative Director at Aardman, understands how the viewer personally connects to the experience. “With this piece we were interested in how the connection between our characters and their stories could be interlocked with the audience, in particular using eye contact and other social interactions to drive greater emotional connection. This was a chance to play with these situations, understand how they can be used to drive the story forward.

“When we were forming this narrative the press was full of stories around ‘the migrant crisis’, as it was dubbed, but we felt the coverage offered simplified views, gathered facts but ultimately a homogenous point of view that didn’t deal with the multifaceted issues, the wealth of wants, fears, and feelings of the many individuals affected by what was going on.  We hoped by telling a few personal stories we could add a little more to this important conversation.”

In We Wait, being shouted at and blinded by headlights makes a mark on the viewer. This occurs while being restricted to a singular spot, making the viewer feel helpless. The abstract models added to the experience. By taking a less realistic approach, the production felt emotionally charged, or rawer. A sense of place also contributed to the story’s engagement. As Daniel said, “a simple glance from another character seemed enough to draw the audience closer, more likely to follow a character’s story.”

Migrants in Aardman's We Wait. Photo Credit: Aardman
Migrants in Aardman’s We Wait. Photo Credit: Aardman

Provoking an emotional response

These sentiments are mirrored by Ctrl, the world’s first long-form virtual reality drama which gave the viewer a specific role. In Ctrl, the viewer is invited to watch the last round of an e-sports tournament from inside the virtual tournament arena. They have front-row seats to the action and can see into the player’s real world through webcam-style screens around the arena. Because the audience feels like they are actually watching a tournament, they become part of the narrative.

I was fortunate enough to see the production myself. The production allowed a level of emotional investment which linked the viewer to the story. Virtual reality movies allow viewers to feel a sense of presence unparalleled by traditional media, and Ctrl capitalised on that unique feeling.

Viewers felt emotionally drained and shocked by the end. Virtual reality movies plays tricks on the mind, and can be far harsher than watching television. Similarly, YouTube is cluttered with content creators playing horror video games and they cite that there is no parallel. For horror games, VR always wins.

Footage from CTRL, by Breaking Forth. Photo credit: Breaking Forth
Footage from CTRL, by Breaking Forth. Photo credit: Breaking Forth

Horror beyond video games

Any genre can fit into VR even something as banal as a cooking show would be more intuitive if you’re stood by the host watching them cook. Virtual reality movies are not limited to particular genres, though some genres may require more creativity in application than others.

The VR experiences may, therefore, go beyond what some minds can endure. Kate Gray, a videogames journalist developing her own game, is both fascinated by VR and terrified of its capabilities:

“Our brains have no way to process something that looks very, very real, but won’t actually hurt us, so obviously the only thing it can do is go through the motions as if it were real. That means anxiety, panic attacks, and heightened adrenalin levels, which are all the things that are unpleasant and potentially dangerous for our bodies to handle. It’s not like a rollercoaster, because there’s some level of trust in the underlying mechanics that the ride won’t break. Virtual reality movies are different as they’re entirely immersive, so we forget that level of trust.

“So I foresee a couple of stories about horror games taking it too far. That’s a boundary that people will want to push, and with a medium that’s really, really new and incredibly interesting, I don’t blame those devs for wanting to see what the platform is capable of, I’m just wary of that, mostly coming from the experience I’ve had some anxiety attacks. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!” Such concerns should be taken into consideration.”

Evangelists may discuss how the technology will revolutionise how we consume media – but few currently explore how it may be too immersive as some may not be able to cope with heightened adrenaline or anxiety. There can be, realistically, too much of a good thing.

How will virtual reality change the film industry?

So far we have explored the ways in which virtual reality movies affect us. But movies themselves are not going anywhere. They are a great form of entertainment, journalism, and art which will not be taken over by new mediums.

Rather, VR films will likely continue to form their niche. Stories best told in an immersive way will continue to flourish, while the blockbusters keep the cash rolling.

There is a time and place for VR films, particularly with storytelling. It isn’t a competition between mainstream movies and an upbeat new medium. Both will grow and be used depending on the tale to tell.

Conclusion – VR movies in the box office

All these examples all come together in some fascinating conclusions on how to tell stories through VR. Aardman, the BBC, and Breaking Fourth among others have all identified theatre techniques as a solid base for production.

By inspecting how actors on a stage direct the viewer’s attention – movement, sounds, glances – the companies are finding ways to move the viewer’s head to where they want. VR is intrinsically different from films. It is not a passive square to be watched, but an immersive production where the rules change. Visualise correctly identified this distinction and applied it to their own works, while Kate Gray points out that this feeling of immersion may be too much to some. A VR comedy show was the worst example of VR that I have seen – no engagement, or purpose, just merely an exploitation of a gimmick. VR goes beyond simple gimmicks towards artistic complexity.

At the beginning of this article, I cited comparisons to the sound revolution in the film industry. We are in the Wild West, using new technology and finding ways to maximise its potential. VR is in the same role, and there is no doubt that the revolution shall come to an end. Probably with a bang and a Warner Brothers equivalent arising in a few years’ time. The question is one of application, and how these experiments in VR storytelling shall develop.

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Tom Ffiske

Editor, Virtual Perceptions

Tom Ffiske specialises in writing about VR, AR, and MR across the immersive reality industry. Tom is based in London.