SAN FRANCISCO — While virtual reality's latest iteration has gone hand-in-hand with gaming ever since its inception, the technology also provides enormous opportunities for film. Movie makers are just starting their first tentative forays into VR, with some fascinating early results. From fully interactive shorts to fixed experiences with contextual storytelling, VR filmmaking could transform what's currently a passive medium into a fully active and participatory one.
I saw a variety of VR films at the Game Developers' Conference 2016, and each one had something interesting to offer. While this isn't an exhaustive list of films shown at the conference, the movies below demonstrate some of VR's potential impact on storytelling and audience experience.
Based on a developer's experiences as a child in war-torn Serbia, Giant tells the story of a family trying to remain safe in their basement while an army advances overhead. As the situation outside worsens, two parents try to calm and distract their young daughter with stories of an angry giant who lives above ground. Giant is surprisingly Americanized for a story about a Slavic country, and the acting is a bit hammy. Where it excels, though, is in its use of context. Viewers cannot participate in the story, but they can look around the entire basement and glean a lot about the family and the situation outside from their supplies, their old magazines and their toys. The film also appeared at January's Sundance Film Festival.
Gary the Gull
Gary the Gull comes courtesy of two former Pixar employees, and that pedigree is easy to spot. Gary the Gull will launch on PlayStation VR, and while it's not a game, it is a fully interactive story that keeps track of the user's head motion and voice. As you sit on a beach with a cooler full of food, a garrulous seagull named Gary comes along and makes conversation. Whether he succeeds in stealing your sustenance depends on whether you follow his prompts, as Gary is fully aware of simple spoken responses and where a user is looking. It's not hard to see how this technology could enhance other films, especially ones for children.
When aliens invade, it's no laughing matter — unless, of course, the aliens are hilariously incompetent and foiled by a pair of cute rabbits. Invasion is a kids' film (which will eventually be feature-length) that does something unique by giving the viewer an actual body. Look down, and you'll see a round white belly with two sets of paws. This helps put everything in the film in context, from an early hawk attack to your clever lagomorphic companion. The film is not interactive, but it does give viewers a very clear sense of who they are supposed to be in relation to the story. Invasion will appear at next month's Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Those with acrophobia might want to steer clear of The Walk, which recreates Philippe Petit's iconic tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York City. The Walk is interesting in that it is not a wholly new experience, but rather a recreation of the climax from the 2015 film of the same name. Being able to recreate a real-world event is an exciting idea for a film, but so is the prospect of participating in other existing movies. It's not hard to see how stepping into the protagonist's shoes for an adventure or sci-fi film would also be an exciting prospect. You can experience The Walk yourself on either Android or iOS.
The Rose and I
Inspired by (but not based on) Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Rose and I is a short, non-interactive film about a boy who lives on an asteroid and finds a rose that demands his care. The story is familiar enough to anyone who's read Saint-Ex's classic, but The Rose and I is interesting in that it eschews words, opting instead for music and visuals to tell the story. What makes the experience unique is that audience's position is not fixed. They can walk around (as much as the cord from a VR headset allows) to see the asteroid from a variety of different angles, and take full stock of the planetoids and stars beyond.