Virtual reality headsets are not a new technology, but when it comes to storytelling, cinematic VR is very much a new frontier for creators. A combination of technological advances, such as more effective VR headsets from companies like Oculus and HTC, as well as an ever-increasing interest in the emerging field at international film festivals, have prompted many traditional filmmakers to consider the medium as a new frontier to tell stories in dynamic and different ways.

“It's a legitimate, interesting way of creating stories, because it's so new and I think people can really tap into the emotion,” said Chris Lavis, co-director at Clyde Henry Productions and co-creator of the VR experience Gymnasia.

“The strong emotions people feel while experiencing something, and then the memory they have of it as an experience; I mean, that's the future.”

Gymnasia made its Canadian premiere at the PHI Centre in the summer of 2019, as part of the >HUM(AI)N exhibition. It was co-produced by Felix & Paul Studios and the National Film Board. It has also been showcased in France, at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, as part of the VR Works competition. To this day, Felix & Paul Studios are still touring around major international festivals to present Gymnasia.

Gymnasia, photo: Felix & Paul Studios

This experience uses 3D 360-degree video, stop-motion, miniatures and CGI to reanimate memories from a childhood event. The intention was to use VR to transport someone into a miniature environment that would evoke emotions in ways conventional cinema could not.

“[We said], could we convey the feeling of being in a dollhouse with a living puppet that felt both like a memory and like an experience, which is kind of impossible in cinema,” said Lavis.

The Aristotelian Stories of VR

Virtual reality works, such as Gymnasia, are in many ways breaking the mould of traditional cinema. It is not the sole intention of the medium; rather it's impossible to tell stories in VR in the same way traditional cinema does. Leaders in cinematic VR say it should be looked at as an original art form, not as a replacement or iteration of cinema as we know it.

While traditional filmmaking relies on the manipulation of time, the strength (and weakness) of VR is its reliance on space to tell a story. Few people are as knowledgeable on this topic as Michel Reilhac. He first came into the art world through contemporary dance in the 1980s before discovering film. He is now a director and designer of VR experiences, as well as a VR competition curator for the Venice Biennial International Film Festival.

“We have all the tricks and grammar and language that cinema has invented. This is available to VR storytellers in terms of how to play with time, but we're also discovering that we can do the exact same thing with space,” said Reilhac.

“Storytellers need to learn and discover how one can play with space within a story, in a way that the viewer experiences that story by being transported and manipulated into its world with a very flexible space.”

Chris Lavis agrees this is an important aspect of effective VR production. He asserts a work that’s designed to play with space, in contrast to time, creates a more user-specific, less-controlled scene.

Phi immersif: théâtre du virtuel, photo: Camilla Martini

“[It’s] a different way of approaching the Aristotelian structure of telling stories. It's just completely driven by them and you can't even really necessarily know what their experience will be. They can actually have a very emotional experience, by discovering things for themselves,” he said.

Of those who have viewed Gymnasia, Lavis said many people are moved because it triggers a certain memory. While others aren’t affected at all by the experience, sometimes people are entirely transported and live a deeply affecting moment.

VR is truly in its early stages, in terms of an artform. As Lavis puts it, in cinematic terms, “we’re at the Nickelodeon stage of VR,” which, one can imagine, will lead to many more advances in the future. The first wave of VR is almost over, and key to its next chapter of development is interactivity within experiences.

It's as if there is a new set of colours that have been invented that you can use to paint your stories.

The Wild West of VR: Interactivity

The concept of Star Trek’s Holodeck, where participants can engage with virtual environments, can seem as distant as space travel. But for people at the forefront of VR, the manipulation of virtual space is the logical next step for the industry.

Currently, most VR creations operate according to three degrees of action: the viewer can look around, in 360 degrees, to see all around them. But this world only exists as a bubble-like orb over one’s head, whereas getting closer to a VR object, by one's own decision, is impossible.

Now, says Michel Reilhac, VR is moving into six degrees, and beyond. Audiences can not only get closer to people and objects, but they are also able to 'break down the fourth wall,' meaning the viewer can interact with and modify their environment.

“We are now at that point where this interactivity makes these experiences very realistic and engaging in the sense that the audience truly becomes an active part of the story world,” he said. It's here that many of the concepts behind video games are put to the test in new and exciting ways.

Chalkroom, Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang, photo: Sandra Larochelle

This means, for many creators, that VR is a marriage between new technology and cinema -- one cannot create a truly immersive VR experience without both. Chris Lavis of Clyde Henry Productions finds most people who are writing about VR, right now, come from the tech and video game worlds, rather than classic film criticism. He, and Reilhac, expect this will change as the industry continues to 'grow up.'

A big part of that 'growing up' will be due to technological advances. While the vision of VR creators is to see it as a completely interactive media, the technology isn’t quite there. Headsets can be uncomfortable, and interactivity can be difficult to achieve without a certain amount of equipment that can prove cumbersome and remind the audience that they are simply 'playing a game'. But the industry is moving fast, adds Reilhac; with high-quality, low-cost, tetherless headsets, like the Oculus Quest, new levels of freedom and creation are possible, at scale. "They cannot manufacture these devices fast enough because they're selling so well. And that is a sign that now people are ready to embrace this."

As more and more film creators get interested in virtual reality, there’s more and more money being invested into projects such as Gymnasia. This influx of investors is pushing developers to innovate and create new technologies faster, and it is up to the storytellers to figure out how to best combine this technology with cinematic principles that push the artform forward.

Cinéma VR, photo: Vivien Gaumand

VR and Conventional Cinema: Can They Co-Exist?

For Reilhac, and many others deeply invested in the field of cinematic VR, the skepticism of some of his colleagues is nothing new. He says many conventional filmmakers tell him they see virtual reality as a passing fad and could never replace traditional film. But for Reilhac, the two worlds can exist in harmony as two completely different types of media: cinema, which takes the viewer on a trip through the manipulation of time, and VR, which takes the audience through a manipulation of space.

“It's as if there is a new set of colours that have been invented that you can use to paint your stories,” he said. “I feel incredibly fortunate that once again in my lifetime I can experience the birth of a new artform. I experienced it in the early eighties when I was a dancer, when contemporary dance really invented itself, and it was an incredibly exciting moment. Now, it's happening again with virtual reality storytelling.”

For Clive Lavis, not only is there room for both artforms, but there are transferable skills for filmmakers playing with both palettes. “For the first time, we're actually letting scenes breathe. It's so nice to explore a set, to see a character in that set, and to just discover the character without needing to push the audience into the next event or occurrence.”

And for audiences, there’s no need to choose either. Film and emerging artforms, such as virtual reality, both continue to receive an unprecedented level of exposure as artforms. Exhibitions such as VR Cinema at the PHI Centre allow people to step into this new world. Also, popular film festivals, such as Sundance, Tribeca, and of course, Venice, are offering a blend of both film and VR showings. This comes to show can co-exist and complement each other.

Aquaphobia, photo: Acute Art

"I find it tremendously exciting to go, almost blindfolded, into a new dimension where you have to invent everything. You have to invent the rules, the codes, the words, the drama, everything. This happened with cinema, and here it is again, it's happening again with VR," said Reilhac.

"We're inventing it as we go. We learn from our mistakes, we discover what works and doesn't work. It's an incredible luck that we're alive in this time."

Article by Patrick Faller

Gymnasia is part of the programming of PHI VR TO GO.

À propos du Centre Phi
Le Centre Phi, c’est des salles qui se transforment au gré des activités: lancement, conférence, colloque, projection, exposition, concert, spectacle, installation interactive. C’est des studios de création et de production, avec la technologie la plus sophistiquée, mise au service des besoins artistiques. C’est un centre multifonctionnel où l’art peut s’exprimer dans tous ses états. Et c’est surtout un lieu d’échanges, d’apprentissage, de découverte, de lancement, de tournage, d’enregistrement, etc.

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