Where is VR Headed?
This Summer, audiences flocked to experience a unique VR world, generating the particular project over $1 Billion at the box office.
This would have made for one of the biggest mainstream VR success stories, were it not for one issue: while the world was VR, the project itself was not.
In fact, a good proportion of audience-goers probably left the Jon Favreau’s 2019 remake of The Lion King thinking it had been shot in an actual Savanna, rather than inside a studio, with a cast and crew who all needed to wear Oculus headsets to tell Pride Rock from The Elephant Graveyard.
To an outside observer curious about the future of VR as an entertainment medium, this can seem a little discouraging. 2019 also saw a project released by cult-filmmaker turned blockbuster-generator Robert Rodriguez: a full VR experience titled The Limit, which landed with of a dull thud.
While VR and various forms of mixed reality are rapidly finding their place as a tool in gaming, production, marketing and even military training, its ability to deliver linear –particularly live-action– storytelling stills seems to be in its early stages. Yet insiders are content that its exactly where it needs to be.
The production team of The Lion King at work.
“It’s sort of a cult technology with a cult viewership, and that’s a great place to be right now,” explained Craig Bernard, a producer who has been working in the VR space for almost a decade.
Bernard entered VR after almost twenty years directing and producing award-winning music videos for musicians such as Bruno Mars and Wolf Alice. He originally got interested in some of the basic concepts of VR by sitting in with post-production teams as they worked on his VFX-heavy music videos, watching how they guided the viewer through a digitally created world.
“When I started working in VR, I was approaching it from the same conceptual basis as my non-VR projects,” he explained. “It was all about knowing how to work in a space where the camera is unlimited, so we had to know exactly how we wanted everything to move in relation to the viewer.”
In 2010, Craig began trying out immersive projects by creating a 360 degree project for Lexus. After six years of further experimenting, he created the VR music video “Drugs” for the electronic musician Eden. The video was a psychedelic 3D trip built over a span of three months, with one technician constantly wearing a headset to test for motion sickness and other physical effects. However, it was during production of this project that Bernard encountered what he describes as an incredibly supportive and dedicated VR community.
“It was very well vetted, and conceptually we were trying new things at the same time technology companies in post-production were exploring the space, so a lot of it was collective experimentation, which was fascinating. You had larger companies that would contribute software, contribute rendering and help us achieve the vision in so many ways.”
Bernard believes that this kind of collaboration, that can only occur in a space where everyone working within VR is simultaneously experimenting and innovating, is essential for the medium to evolve.
“I think that every new experiment into VR we’re seeing is simply adding to the arsenal of what’s available,” Bernard explained. “For example, every project that uses VR as a training tool, even for the military, should be seen as something that provides VR the necessary funding it needs to move forward. Likewise, the gaming side is making incredible strides with how it’s using cloud computing to decrease rendering times. One after another, all of these stumbling blocks are getting lifted at an incredible pace.”
Before and After, on set of “Drugs”.
Indeed, the video game industry could possibly serve as an apt example for how VR as a medium might develop.
One of the biggest complaints that live-action VR content has faced in recent years –especially projects such as the aforementioned The Limit– is the feeling of being taken on an amusement park ride, as opposed to an actually story-driven experience.
This is partially because, in many cases, creators are focusing on delivering a sense of spectacle, rather than prioritizing an immersive journey. Ironically, this is a lesson the video game industry started learning at the turn of the decade with the rise of indie gaming.
Idiosyncratic titles such as Braid, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Gone Home all revealed an audience appetite for games that prioritized a unique player experience, rather than just trying to be as realistic and action-oriented as possible. In other words, game creators stopped trying to make video games that resembled blockbusters, and instead focused on making games that could forge their own identity.
“I think, ultimately, a lot of creators are obstructing themselves by seeing VR solely in the terms of other forms of entertainment,” Bernard said. “Whether we’re making it or ingesting it, a lot of people make the mistake of trying to relate it to either a game, a movie, or a 3D stereoscopic experience. I think we need to accept it as very much its own medium, and adopt a new language to evolve and capture what it really is.”
The set of a VR production can be surprisingly minimalist.
It can sometimes be easy to forget just how new mainstream VR consumption is; after all, the Oculus Rift wasn’t released to the public until March of 2016. In some ways, it comes as a no-brainer that the medium won’t just require a collective investment in technology, but also enough time for new conventions to be adapted.
But that raises the question of who is going to create the medium’s language. We’re at an unprecedented moment of accessibility, wherewith a miniscule budget anyone with a phone can become a filmmaker and anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of coding can create a video game.
VR, however, has a higher barrier of entry, what with both the tremendous cost of the gear and the intense computing power needed to render 3D worlds. In Bernard’s view, however, this shouldn’t be a major obstacle for people with enough knowledge of the core tech at hand.
“I think new voices in VR and immersive storytelling are going to emerge from some of the side technologies. I think we’re going to see artists come from less creative spaces: think mixed reality that’s being used for marketing or medical simulations. We’re going to steadily see people take these skills and use them to make something new. If people know how to place the viewer’s experience front and center, they’ll be able to create something truly innovative.”
My final question for Bernard was on whether he thinks we’ll see more mainstream directors approach VR as a venue for storytelling.
While Robert Rodriguez’s attempt had mixed results, we also saw a far more successful venture into live action VR storytelling with Alejandro Inarritu’s acclaimed Carne Y Arena.
To Bernard, the answer was ‘yes and no’, and he was eager to point out that, as amazing as Inarritu’s project was, it was also an anomaly, as it was consumed as an art installation, rather than a home entertainment product. At the same time, that might still be an important model, moving forward.
“In effect, your story has to be so much simpler to be effective, convincing and immersive, so there’s a great deal more appeal to the art aspect for directors that see VR as an artistic outlet,” he explained. “I think embracing it as an art medium will allow more storytellers to bring a much-needed curiosity and sense of experimentation to this field.”
Promotional still for “Carne Y Arena”.
Looking at VR, it’s hard to tell where exactly things are going, but that’s undoubtedly why so many people consider it the most exciting realm of storytelling.
To Bernard, it’s a new plateau for experiences that allow audiences to be engaged and learn about each other and the world around them.
Near the end of our conversation, I was curious about what projects Bernard himself had in the pipeline. In 2017, he joined the VR immersive agency Fever Content, founded by filmmaker Elia Petridis; however, he recently left that company to focus on a series of personal upcoming projects. In a fashion that felt totally appropriate, he couldn’t give me all the details on his next project; it sounded like something you had to experience to fully understand.
“The best way to describe what we’re working on is that it’s a story equally set over two mediums. We want the viewer to really travel from one platform to another to fully enjoy the story. Beyond that, all I can really say is that we’re excited to take audiences on that journey.”