Oculus Story Studio Producer on Samsung Collaboration, Cultural Immersion

Samsung Gear VR

Creative producer Yelena Rachitsky spoke about how virtual reality can create a visceral understanding of the world and is marking a revolutionary paradigm shift in media culture.

South Korean filmmakers, famed for their conservatism when it comes to new media, are unsurprisingly wary about virtual reality (VR) and once again demonstrated their caution at the Korean Film Council's annual Global Forum held in Seoul earlier this month. But with the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) preparing a special VR program for its 20th anniversary edition, and Samsung attracting scores of tourists for its VR Gear showroom, Oculus Story Studio's creative producer believes there is great potential for the medium in South Korea and other Asian countries

"The richness of the film history here does leave some filmmakers slightly hesitant to venture into VR, but what I learned [is] that early theater in Korea was actually a 360-degree experience," said Yelena Rachitsky, a guest speaker during the forum, following a tour of Samsung's D'light showroom featuring Oculus technology, with The Hollywood Reporter.

"The audience would stand all around the stage, and the actors would act directly to the audience. It's interesting that sometimes we should look to the past to understand how to create for the future. I'd be curious to see 360 experiences using those previous techniques mixed in with the tech of the present to see how Korea will venture into the 360 storytelling space."

Local industry insiders believe that the Korean media culture will influence other Asian regions, such as China, a major importer of Korean talent ranging from scriptwriters to VFX artists. "There is great demand for Korean filmmaking know-how, technology and trends in China, and Korea's experimentation with VR will most positively influence how things are done in China," said film critic Jung Ji-ouk.

Ever since Oculus showcased VR for the first time at Sundance in 2013, some 2 million hours of Gear VR is being watched per month and the figure is expected to go up to 3 million hours soon, according to Rachitsky. About 80 percent of people of those who use Gear VR everyday watch video content. The producer believes that VR will dramatically transform the landscape of media culture across the globe, marking a true paradigm shift.

"VR is different from 3D. 3D wasn't a paradigm shift; it was still limited to a rectangular box. But VR means the convergence of different media. The digital landscape of filmmaking, and the time structure we're used to, is getting blurred," she said.

This is often challenging to filmmakers, Rachitsky explains, because filmmakers are accustomed to having full control of the way the viewer perceives and experiences their work. "Now they have to let go of their control and let the audience feel more like they're part of the experience."

VR, however, does not change the ultimate nature of storytelling.

"Technology is always just a framework and a tool; it's always about [translating] people's ideas and brining life into it. VR is fully immersive, and geared toward the human," she said. The French VR production Notes on Blindness for example, utilizes the audio diaries of visually-impaired academic John Hull to allow viewers to experience a world without sight. The work, furthermore, reflects a visceral quality that is unique to French cinema. Likewise, Hollywood VR content often reflects the industry's love of action films. "I am interested in what the Korean sentiment will bring to VR," she said.

"For me, the experience of culture immersion rarely loses the ability to broaden my perspective of cultures, traditions and a way of life for people who have had different experiences, as it did on this trip [to Korea]," she said. "It furthers my conviction of VR's possibilities for immersion to broaden perspectives and create a deeper, more visceral level of understanding around common human traits regardless of cultural differences."

Also as head of education at the studio, Rachitsky says she is looking forward to working with film students who are part of the younger generation that grew up in the digital age. "It will be interesting to see what kind of perspectives they will bring," she said, which is all the more meaningful because VR is still in the works. "The VR storytelling industry is not fully formed. Everyone is experimenting and making mistakes. In film history, the edit was an accident that worked. What are these accidents that we are making in VR that will help us create something new?"

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