Filmmakers Look to Virtual Reality and Oculus as the Future of Storytelling

Oculus Crescent Bay prototype - H 2014

"I don't think this is cinema. I think this is something completely new."

Virtual reality company Oculus has been building momentum since it launched the Kickstarter campaign for its Oculus Rift headset two years ago. At its developer conference Saturday, it launched its latest prototype — while filmmakers made a convincing argument that VR is the dawn of a completely new form of visual storytelling.

Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe announced the company's latest prototype headset, nicknamed "Crescent Bay," during the conference's keynote presentation. The latest hardware iteration in the company's march toward shipping a consumer product, the virtual reality goggles are lighter than previous versions, feature integrated headphones and include full 360-degree head tracking — all in the name of letting users enter virtual worlds that feel more real than anything that's come before.

Since the beginning, the Rift has been seen as a tremendous opportunity for gamers and game designers, but Oculus has consistently articulated a broader vision for virtual reality that reaches beyond games — and the company's message today included driving home how important film, television and visual storytelling are to the new medium. "Our mission is to transform gaming, entertainment and the way we interact," Iribe said, with the keynote's location — the Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood and Highland complex — underscoring the entertainment focus.

Iribe said the company sees two different types of virtual reality in the immediate future: a PC-based version that uses goggles like the Rift for better quality, tracking and a more complete sense of immersion, and mobile VR. The latter is something Oculus has already been demoing with the recently announced Samsung Gear VR goggles, which use the Samsung Note 4 smartphone instead of an integrated display, with no outside computer required.

The Gear VR will be shipping later this year, with an array of available games and apps — or "experiences," as Oculus calls them — that will let users dip their toes into the world of virtual reality. Despite the progress demonstrated by the new Crescent Bay prototype, however, the company has yet to announce pricing or a release date for the full-bown version of the headset.

What's going to make that work, of course, is content; there won't be much incentive to buy a virtual reality headset if there's nothing to play or watch with it. To that end, Oculus showed off a number of new demos with the Crescent Bay prototype, filling out an extensive list of virtual experiences that has included everything from the movie theater simulator Oculus Cinema to the space dogfighting game EVE Valkyrie. During an afternoon panel, however, it was clear that many artists see filmmaking as a place where the technology will be truly transformative.

“I think the next step for us as filmmakers is to figure out what narrative filmmaking looks like in virtual reality,” said music video director Chris Milk, who created a virtual reality concert experience with Beck that showed at Sundance earlier this year. Up to this point, he said, the focus has been on documentary-style work — putting viewers into an experience, rather than creating a fully realized narrative. Now is the time to figure out how to tell human stories — and that involves questioning fundamental concepts that may be taken for granted when it comes to uses like gaming. "The profound thing about virtual reality is the immersion of it," Milk said, "and how interactive it has to be immediately is up for debate."

"You're not just telling a story," echoed Paul Raphaël, the co-founder of Felix & Paul Studio. "You're making a viewer experience a story." Everything from where the camera is placed to the type of agency that a viewer has in a virtual reality film will impact how effective that ends up being — and the only way those dynamics will be discovered is for artists and filmmakers to continue to explore the medium.

In a traditional film, for example, viewers have the standard frame to look at; in a VR project, they can look anywhere in a 360-degree environment. In one sense, that means filmmakers lose the power that framing a shot provides, but Raphaël emphasized it also opens up new dramatic opportunities. "Playing with the tension between points of interest is something you can play with that you couldn't before," he said.

For Milk, it's a case of exploring a totally new narrative art form. "I don’t think this is cinema," he said. "I think this is something completely new."

In a second panel dedicated to filmmaking, Maleficent director Robert Stromberg, visual effects artist (and Lucasfilm new-media creative director) John Gaeta and director Saschka Unseld spoke about their own experiences with virtual reality.

Lucasfilm is looking at virtual reality as a potential opportunity for the Star Wars franchise, Gaeta said, and has created a virtual reality "sandbox" populated with familiar locations and characters from the desert planet of Tatooine in order to test ideas. “We’re experimenting with story interface,” he said, explaining that, with 10 years of Star Wars films in the company’s future, they’re looking at the movies as a “portal” that can bring fans into other experiences that they could interact with.

Unseld, who directed the 2013 Pixar short The Blue Umbrella, admitted that he was underwhelmed when he first tried an Oculus prototype but found that the experience stuck with him despite the technological limitations at the time. Like Milk, he expressed concern about the base assumption that interactivity was the best path forward for VR films. "For the type of storytelling I’m currently interested in, I think interactivity is a problem," he said. "User-decided story threads are a problem. The audience is a horrible storyteller."

Gaeta echoed the sentiment, saying that he would never go to a Francis Ford Coppola film only to choose to diverge from the filmmaker’s intended path. Over time, however, he said he believed that VR storytelling would evolve into something where those types of concerns wouldn't apply.

When asked when major studios would jump on board VR filmmaking, Stromberg said that at first there will likely be VR experiences created alongside traditional filmmaking, rather than any kind of straight replacement. But as more filmmakers jump on board VR, he said, the medium would gain momentum. "I think there's a lot of talented people on the case," Stromberg said.

Sept. 20, 7:09 p.m. Updated with comments from Robert Stromberg, John Gaeta and Saschka Unseld.