It’s been about 12 months since the first time I tried virtual reality. It was September 1, 2017 and I still remember that day because it was a turning point in my knowledge of what entertainment could mean.
I had booked three installations of VeniceVR at the Venice Film Festival, 74th edition, without having the slightest idea of what they were about. As a newbie, I was a bit anxious to try them: all I could think about was how embarrassing it could end up being to have people looking at me while I tried a technology I did not have the slightest idea how to use.
Then an odd-acting, blond guy (1) opened for me the door to a closed room where a certain Alice the Virtual Reality Play was taking place and he led me inside.
And there, I found myself in a new world (literally and metaphorically). A world I did not even imagine could exist.
Till that moment – I’m a bit ashamed to admit – virtual reality to me was exclusive competence of videogames… and I was not even that much into videogames. A perception that, unfortunately, is still largely prevalent in those who have never had an experience with VR (and sometimes even in those who have).
I was so mesmerized by what I discovered during those VeniceVR days that I decided I needed to know more about virtual reality. I interviewed some great companies who explained to me how VR can be used, I read papers on the current state of the art and met researchers and professors who are currently studying its applications in fields such as health, psychology and, potentially, education (2).
At the end of it all, though, I always went back to entertainment and to a question I often found online, in discussions about movie festivals and VR installations around the world: what does VR’s future hold? And how does VR fit in entertainment and in cinema?
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door”. VR for entertainment: a risky path?
Indeed at Venezia74, despite my enthusiasm, I had had the feeling that while the potential of virtual reality was immense, the audience could be difficult to win over. Mostly because people did not even seem interested in giving it a chance. A problem confirmed from multiple sources:
(Saatchi, 2018. In Watercutter A., “ Virtual Reality is officially immersed in the film world. Now what?”)
Everything I could’ve imagined to legitimize the artform, almost all of it’s happened […] The only thing that hasn’t happened is, like, any evidence that consumers will purchase it—which is a fairly significant missing piece. So the really important ‘What now?’ is demonstrating you can make revenue
Venezia75 took me back to these reflections (here my previous article) and last week I had the chance to talk about VR and cinema with someone who knows both fields from direct experience: the French producer and director Marc Guidoni.
Founder of Fondivina, an independent film production company, he produced several movies and feature documentaries for French and international channels. He was also at Venezia75 as author and director of Elegy, a work selected by Biennale College VR about a lost soul trapped in a lift of a luxury hotel, disconnected from all the living expect for Bianca, the hotel’s room maid.
Our conversation started from one of the above-mentioned questions: where is VR for entertainment going? We know it will still be useful in psychology or, for example, with educational purposes (3) in the years to come… but can the same be said for entertainment?
Marc shared an interesting reflection with me: when Avatar by James Cameron was released (almost ten years ago), we were all mesmerized by what 3D could be. Everyone was talking about it, some were sure we were witnessing the beginning of a new era for cinema and I, too, remember the effect that Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón, three years later, had on me: it left me impressed, fascinated, slightly nauseous (true) but, because of this, as if I had just understood a little bit how going into space really felt like.
And then? Then 3D died. Not completely, obviously, but mostly it became a trick used to make people pay more for a movie that would not have given them anything less if seen in 2D. It is rare, nowadays, to find a movie where 3D really makes a difference.
As Marc said – and I totally agree with his words, “You have a sort of laziness around the usage of this technology now; it was confiscated by technicians […] A pity because it could have been a fantastic opportunity to create things differently. If you consider the example of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (4): he did not know anything about technical stuff but see how he took advantage of 3D cinema in his narration, in the storytelling, in the way he organized his set… Absolutely brilliant!”.
To Marc, the greatest risk that VR for entertainment could fall into is to follow a similar path: to cause a wow effect at first and then «to become lazy and be all about technique and technology». A risk we should not underestimate: while in many fields – even in other fields VR can be used for – technology is the most valuable resource, in VR for entertainment it should be used to enhance the effectiveness of storytelling, and not to take its place.
Stories vs technology: what is VR about?
Not me nor Marc want to devalue technicians’ work with virtual reality, obviously. What they are able to create is heart-stopping, in the best sense of the world, and fundamental for the experience.
Yet if we reduce VR to a technology, we miss the main point, in my humble opinion, that is the same point which allowed cinema to live long and prosper (5): novelties, per themselves, get old fast, it’s in their nature. Stories, though… they live forever, crossing time and space. And the stories that live longer are those that the audience, somehow, becomes part of. So, when you use technology for this purpose, and not just for the sake of using it, it’s then that it reaches its true potential.
Let me share an example with you: everyone knows what I’m talking about when I use the quote «A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…». But maybe not everyone knows how it all started. It’s 1977 and 20th Century Fox does not believe much in the commercial success of a certain Star Wars, sci-fi movie directed by George Lucas. So Fox releases it in less than 40 theatres (as mentioned in An interview with Gary Kurtz, by Ken P., 2002): if they want the eagerly anticipated The Other Side of the Moon, they have to order Star Warstoo.
It is an instant success, that immediately breaks box office records and is still in cinemas six months after its opening.
Now, 2018, we have 40 years of Star Wars saga behind us and new episodes are still being released. This saga went beyond cinema: it touched sports (such as martial arts), science, art, even religion.
Why all this? I think Roger Ebert, one of the most famous American film critics (6), summarized the reason perfectly:
Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they’re referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it’s up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them. “Star Wars” works like that. […] The movie’s happening, and it’s happening to meRoger Ebert, 1977
I read something like this and I cannot help but smile because I, too, have often said (and heard countless people saying) that the greatest thing about VR is that experiences feel real and can take you to a new world. Even though you know you are still in a room, with a headset and sometimes a backpack on, your mind tricks you into believing something different: that you are not only watching a story unfold in front of you, but you are living it, even if only as a voyeuristic ghost.
Technology aids this feeling, but it can’t be all there is to it.
As said by Ebert in his Star Wars review, in fact:
The movie works so well for several reasons, and they don’t all have to do with the spectacular special effects. The effects are good, yes, but great effects have been used in such movies as “Silent Running” and “Logan’s Run” without setting all-time box-office records. No, I think the key to “Star Wars” is more basic than that. The movie relies on the strength of pure narrative, in the most basic storytelling form known to man, the JourneyRoger Ebert, 1977
So, effects used for the story, not a story built around the effects.
Virtual reality is not cinema, but it works similarly from this point of view. As Marc said to me, it makes sense only «if you use it to tell a story that actually needs VR and if VR is part of the story from the beginning. It cannot be added at a later time. As a producer, I’m convinced that a VR product will work only if VR really is at its core, at the center of the experience». And, I add, not only as a technology, but as a new way of creating, sharing and making you live stories, which is to me the main function VR for entertainment should have to prosper, too.
VeniceVR: the stuff that dreams are made of?
The Biennale College Cinema – Virtual Reality (7) moves from this idea, selecting only works for which VR is at the core.
Elegy, directed by Marc Guidoni and produced by Joanna Szybist and her producing company Komintern, was one of the nine projects chosen among the more than 100 works from all over the world that applied to Biennale College.
«[We did] a week of workshop in January: we had mentors and tutors and then there was a new wave of selection that allowed three teams to join a second workshop on March 2018 and receive a financing to produce their work. What is really fantastic about those two workshops is that we (directors and producers) were really helped and coached to work on the script, on the technology, on the visuals and to ensure that the project could benefit the most out of VR. […] They select you and what they offer is the opportunity to work with experts. The winning package is first and foremost work. And of course, financing for the happy three projects finally selected».
An experience whose quality Marc emphasized and expressed his gratitude for.
Elegy did benefit from the workshops and indeed it does reflect this combination of technology + narrative. It is a story where you play a role, despite not being physically there, and that moves you emotionally and on a narrative level. An experience that is similar to a cinematic one (Elegy was presented as a VR Theatre story at Venezia75) but that differs from the other big area of VR for entertainment, the one made up of more interactive experiences such as VR_I or Eclipse (8).
The relationship between VR and cinema, as Marc emphasized, should be analyzed taking into consideration these different types of VR experiences and how technology and other elements influence the perception of a VR story.
However, another crucial element that could determine virtual reality success or its failure is how the reception of virtual reality works is mediated by those who will talk about them to their potential audience: film critics, cinephiles, journalists, and so on. A complicated matter that me and Marc discussed during our conversation and one I will get back to, here on Linkedin, in the upcoming days.
I’d like to thank Marc Guidoni for the chance to discuss all this and for sharing with me his enthusiasm for virtual reality. Also, a special thanks to Joanna Szybist and to Biennale College Cinema.
(1) An integral part of the installation, which adopts a theatrical approach; he was played by Maximilien Delort, stage director (and if you are out there reading this, Maximilien, know that you have my undying love)
(2) e.g. Micalizzi A., Gaggioli A. (2018), Il senso di realtà del virtuale e i “principi di presenza”. In “La realtà virtuale. Dispositivi, estetiche, immagini”, Mimesis Edizioni, Sesto San Giovanni (MI)
(3) See for example the enlightening 1943: Berlin Blitz, directed by David Whelan, produced by BBC and Immersive VR Education, in competition at Venezia75
(4) From The Guardian (2013): «Made in 1953 during Hollywood’s first, brief flirtation with 3D, Dial M for Murder is a version of Frederick Knott’s popular West End and Broadway thriller that Hitchcock took on as a technical exercise to fulfil a contract at Warner Brothers»
(5) Yes, that sentence was used on purpose
(6) Pulitzer winner, Roger Ebert was the first critic to have his own star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame
(7) Biennale College is the project of La Biennale di Venezia «dedicated to the formation of young people in the artistic field and in the activities of the organizational structure of the Biennale» (more information here). The third edition of the Biennale College Cinema – Virtual Reality is currently ongoing (call for proposals available at this link).
(8) Both at Venezia75. VR_I is directed by Gilles Jobin, Caecilia Charbonnier and Sylvain Chagué and produced by Cie Gilles Jobin; Eclipse, in competition, is directed by Astruc Jonathan and Favre Aymeric and produced by Backlight