Venice: Inside the Virtual Reality Screening Room as Festival Becomes First to Show VR Feature

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
'Jesus VR'

The team behind 'Jesus VR,' which gets less than enthusiastic reviews, discusses the filmmaking process as the industry debates the future of VR technology.

Virtual reality has become the hot topic among film distributors, with some arguing that it will be cinema's savior and others thinking that it will become simply another fad.

The Venice Film Festival made history this year, becoming the first major film festival to launch a dedicated screening room for a VR feature film. Cannes and other festivals have experimented with screening shorts in the past.

Venice launched, over a period of four days, a preview of what is being billed as the first-ever full-length virtual reality film, Jesus VR – The Story of Christ. While other low-budget productions have also made similar claims, Jesus VR is the first one that aims to have theatrical distribution. 

The 90-minute film will launch at Christmastime, showing the story of Christ from birth to resurrection through vignettes, as told from the New Testament. It is the largest VR production to date, shot in 4K 360 degrees in Matera, Italy, employing a crew of over a hundred and hundreds of extras, according to its producers.

THR went to the VR screening room to see the setup and people's reactions.

The screening room held 30 white vinyl rotating chairs that allowed viewers to turn 360 degrees. Demonstrations for the headsets were given before each screening in English, and after some complaints, an Italian interpreter was added to later screenings for the instructions. Many viewers reported issues throughout the screening with sound and picture quality, but alternative headsets were on hand to allow for swap-outs. Because the chairs were so close together, spectators often bumped into each other when spinning around, which awkwardly took them out of the VR experience and back into the screening room.

Interest was strong, as long lines out the door were seen at each screening as people on the Lido waited to get a taste of the technology. Reactions to the film in Venice were less than enthusiastic, however.

While acknowledging the groundbreaking technology of the film, some critics panned the acting and what they called the low production quality of the film. Critics also said that more emphasis was put on creating a 360 degree experience than on feeling up-close-and-personal to real 3D characters, as some VR productions have been able to do.

Other festivalgoers complained about overheating headsets and commented on the isolating experience of watching a film completely within a headset, something that seems more fit for an individual at-home experience, they said.

One big believer in the technology is industry veteran Enzo Sisti, producer of Jesus VR, who was also a producer on Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of Christ, the highest-grossing R-rated domestic film, and the highest-grossing non-English language film of all time.

Not knowing much going into the project, Sisti says he was contacted to come on board. “They explained what they wanted to do and I said, Let’s see what you really want to do.’ I accepted the challenge,” he said during a Venice press conference on Monday. “And while we were shooting I realized that the atmosphere was very similar to the atmosphere we achieved in The Passion of Christ.”

About VR, he said: “Initially I was rather skeptical, but now I’m very enthusiastic about what we’ve done. I’m not going to say that this will replace cinema, but this is really a new medium. It’s a new novelty."

Producer Alex Barder said the film will be distributed both theatrically and through VR technology, including premium headsets and through mobile. “There are two billion-plus people with smartphones in their pocket," he said. "Anybody with that phone can consume virtual reality. It’s an amazing opportunity to reach a very broad audience."

“We’ve seen a lot of theatrical offers and a lot of opportunities to release this in theaters. You’re seeing a lot of theater chains converting one or two of their theaters and screens into virtual reality screens,” continued Barder. “You’ll have a room full of people with virtual reality headsets on. There are all kinds of opportunity and it’s only the beginning. This is day one. The market is very rich and very full and everybody has a virtual reality device in their pockets already. They can buy it today, or when we release it this Christmas.”

“I think that this film should film should be screened in all countries in the world, similar to the level of Mel Gibson’s film,” said Sisti. “Also because of problems of cost, this is going to be another tool to disseminate the word of the Gospel. It’s already been seen in a very positive manner in Europe and in the States.”

The filmmakers also spoke of how VR is changing the way movies are made, shifting from a rectangle to a sphere.

“Instead of crafting it scene by scene, you’re creating an experience,” said director David Hansen. “You know the viewer is looking in 360 degrees, so it would be your job as a director to make sure the action is interesting in 360 degrees. It would be your job as the director to figure out how to make it as completely immersive as possible.”

The producers explained that because they shot in 360 degrees, many of the crew were hidden in plain sight, with everyone from the first [assistant director] to the sound guy wearing costumes. “We saved a lot of money on extras,” joked Sisti.

Concluded Sisti: “There will be new ways of writing, new ways of shooting scenes. The ways in which the screenplay is written will be very different because of VR. So we will have to raise and educate the new generations because of this medium. I think the director will always be the director because he chooses what to shoot in those 360 degrees.”