In a recent interview with WIRED Magazine, legendary filmmaker Steven Soderbergh addressed a number of hot-button film industry topics, including virtual reality. If you’re part of a VR video production agency and hoping for a glowing assessment of virtual reality in film, prepare to be disappointed, at least temporarily.
“There are several things working against it,” Soderbergh said. “When you can’t see your protagonist, it’s virtually impossible to hook into the story. This is how we engage, looking into the eyes of the protagonist.”
Soderbergh wasn’t done: he listed such diverse issues as headset discomfort, isolated viewing experiences, and the inability for directors to incorporate montage as significant barriers to successful VR filmmaking. All-in-all, Mr. Soderbergh is skeptical of virtual reality’s potential as a long-form narrative format.
Opinions like Soderbergh’s haven’t dampened the film industry’s enthusiasm for virtual reality, though. At the Busan International Film Festival this October, a standing room only crowd listened intently as VR evangelists sang the medium’s praises.
“To me, VR is like a dream, you can walk, you can fly, you can do anything,” said Jerome Blanquet, creator of Alteration, a VR experience starring Bill Skarsgard, Pom Klementieff, Lizzie Broscheré and Amira Casar.
“We think the impact of this medium is going to be incredibly powerful,” added Eugene Chung, whose project Arden’s Wake won Best Virtual Reality at the Venice Film Festival. “There’s a spaceship factor. When video games came out I think we as a society underestimated their impact so there are definitely things we need to look out for in VR in the coming years.”
The Cannes and Tribeca film festivals have also introduced special virtual reality categories, and IMAX has invested heavily in the technology, opening its first IMAX VR centre in Los Angeles earlier this year. In November, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences signaled their support for VR by awarding Alejandro G. Inarritu, director of Birdman and The Revenant, a special Oscar for his virtual reality project Carne y Arena, which portrays the experience of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. All of these are good signs for any VR video production agency with plans for the future.
So which is it? Is virtual reality the next big thing in film? Or are the challenges it presents too many and too imposing to overcome?
The reality, as is so often the case, likely lies somewhere in between. In fact, a recent incident at Australia’s Adelaide Film Festival is a useful metaphor for the current state of VR in film.
This year, in lieu of a feature film, attendees of the festival’s opening night gala took in a virtual reality experience called The Summation of Force, by Trent Parke, Narelle Autio, and Matthew Bate.
Here’s how The Guardian’s Luke Buckmaster described the events: “After excitable speeches and a countdown – huge descending numbers displayed on a cinema-sized screen behind the stage – the VR film we’re there to watch doesn’t actually work. My screen says “video loading”; on every table, confused guests lift their headsets off their faces and ask each other what is going on.”
After roughly 40 minutes of speeches and troubleshooting, attendees were able to view the film, which Buckmaster describes as “visually striking” and “both voyeuristic and highly stylised.”
This rollercoaster experience – overwhelming hype leading to technical difficulties and, eventually, a satisfying, memorable payoff – mirrors virtual reality’s ongoing journey within the film industry. The technology has been endorsed by influential industry figures and now must struggle through technical conundrums, monetization issues, and the skepticism of a conservative public. If imaginative filmmakers and the odd VR video production agency are able to resolve these issues, virtual reality could have a bright future in Hollywood and beyond.