A Glimpse at the Present and Future of Virtual Reality Filmmaking
To many of us, virtual reality represents a future that we only know about because of social media. Facebook has allowed virtual reality content to make its way onto timelines, VR is becoming a huge video game moneymaker, and you can now go out and buy your own headset for a pretty affordable price. For filmmakers, though, virtual reality is a tantalizing new frontier that offers more questions than answers. Why does this promising and exciting technology still seem so murky and undefined? For Paul Rothbein, VR expert and evangelical advocate, the answer is simple. Virtual reality needs to have, as Paul calls it, its “Avatar’ moment.”
“3D films in movie theaters was not about technology improving or time for people to adjust. It was about, boom, ‘Avatar’ comes out and people want to see 3D movies now… It could be the same way with VR where it has to basically ‘boom,’ but someone has to do it right.”
To Paul, virtual reality has already arrived as a technology, but we’re still waiting for the right artist to use the technology to its full potential. Rob Englert, whose company, (sphere), has created a one-of-a-kind 35mm full frame virtual reality lens, sees the “boom” Paul discusses as just around the corner.
“Once more and more of these (virtual reality) videos become available, people are going to want to create their own. They’re going to want to capture their own experiences.”
Rob and his team at (sphere) are in an interesting position to comment on the virtual reality phenomenon, as they’ve created a single lens that can turn a Panasonic GH4 (and more) into a virtual reality camera. Usually, a virtual reality video stitches together images from multiple cameras to create a 360 degree effect. It’s time-consuming and expensive, prohibitive to filmmakers without a nice budget, but (sphere) is attempting to change all of that.
“We got our first Oculus development kit when it first came out, so we started creating films with arrays of GoPros and it was so frustrating that it would take so long to process the videos, stitch the videos, and pull the videos of the cards. It would take days to over a week to process one video, and we just felt that there had to be a better, simpler, and faster way to do it. It took us over two years to do it, but we ended up with our lens.” - Tim Fisher, CTO of (sphere).
“We’re seeing some of these standard production companies are being asked by their clients to shoot more and more VR stuff, and they may not have the capabilities or understanding of how to do that. And what this allows them to do is shoot regular concepts with the cameras they’re accustomed to, and switch out the lens and shoot spherical video.” - Rob Englert
And a single full-frame lens is only the beginning. The folks at (sphere) are developing their own app for sharing and viewing video content shot with their lenses, and are working to create (sphere) lenses for GoPros and smartphones.
“We think we can miniaturize the lens to smartphones and GoPros, but you’re gonna be limited by the sensor technology of those devices, so the quality is not going to be as good as with a larger sensor… As sensor technology improves, our lenses are only going to get better and better.” - Rob Englert.
The goal of (sphere) is to democratize virtual reality technology so that VR creators range from big-budget productions to indie filmmakers with smartphones. The technology is almost there, but what about the stories? Is virtual reality even capable of capturing an engaging, feature-length, story? Paul Rothbein thinks so, but feels that virtual reality filmmakers need to change their priorities first.
“The problem with most (current) VR films is that when it’s not single shot and made in different directions you don’t really feel that first-person effect… Right now VR projects make you focus on the scene and the environments as opposed to focusing on the characters and the conversation of the characters.”
However, Paul does feel that one genre in particular can have an easy and effective virtual reality implementation.
“I think maybe the found-footage format for horror films could be told in a VR way. When you get scared in virtual reality it’s very immersive because it’s real first-person. It’s a lot more intense, the feeling of horror, and it’s a lot easier to scare someone when you’re making VR horror, but it’s got to be more than a Disney World ride… If Freddy Kreuger is talking to you, then it becomes a Disney World ride. You have no reason to look around or move your head. Then it becomes more of a gimmick than an actually immersive film.”
It appears that, technologically and creatively, filmmakers have their work cut out for them, but what about audiences? What is the next major implementation of virtual reality hardware going to look like, and how is it going to change the way we watch movies? For Rob Englert and Paul Rothbein, the answer lies in the headsets. Tim sees the the next step of VR as a simple one; remove the cord.
“I think right now, the 5 and the Oculus are both tethered devices, but they’re offering a much richer and more immersive experience. We feel that, as soon as they can untether it and still provide that kind of experience, we feel like that’s what’s coming. The Samsung Gear VR, which allows you to snap your phone into the device kind of like the Google Cardboard, it’s sort of a gateway into this world. It’s the first baby step into full immersion… Eventually you can wear devices like the Oculus around and move more freely.”
Where Rob focuses on how VR headsets are worn, Paul is more interested in where people can wear them.
“It would be easy to convert a movie into a 4D theatre if they had VR headsets in them. It’s very easy to put in a VR headset. VR headsets are relatively inexpensive nowadays and can be easily put into every theatre.”
Which brings us back to “Avatar,” a movie that reinvigorated movie theatre engagement and skyrocketed the use of 3D technology in movies. Between the technological optimism of the (sphere) team and the cautious artistic optimism of Paul Rothbein, it seems like virtual reality filmmaking is due for its “Avatar” moment any day now. Hell, if you play your cards right, you could be the one to make it happen.