Oscar Nominees Hint at Virtual Reality’s Future

By Jeremy Hsu | February 21, 2015 4:29 pm
Credit: Paramount / Warner Bros.

Credit: Paramount / Warner Bros.

Take a guess about which of these Oscar-nominated films were promoted through virtual reality experiences. Was it Christopher Nolan’s science fiction spectacular “Interstellar,” Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” or Jean-Marc Vallee’s biographical drama “Wild” about a woman going on a 1,100-mile hike of self discovery?

The correct answer is all three films. Hollywood has shown great interest in virtual reality’s power to immerse people in imaginary worlds and trick their brains into believing the experience. But VR technology demands a new style of storytelling very different from traditional filmmaking that might seem more akin to first-person shooter video games or live theater. That’s why film studios have been experimenting with VR experiences in bite-size packages that can whip up interest in the full-length feature films.

In the case of “Interstellar,” Framestore’s virtual reality studio created a short VR experience for moviegoers to try through high-end Oculus Rift headsets at select theaters. The experience represented a short, “zero-gravity” virtual tour of the spacecraft Endurance that carries four astronauts on an interstellar journey through a wormhole. Such a VR experience seems fitting for a film that was was nominated for five Academy Awards in mostly technical categories, including visual effects, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and music (original score).

For “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” virtual reality company Jaunt built a VR experience that was available for anyone who owned either an Oculus Rift headset or a cheap Google Cardboard headset that works Android smartphones. Titled “The Hobbit VR Experience,” it enabled viewers to follow the wizard Gandalf on a stroll through the picturesque Shire that serves as home to Bilbo Baggins and his fellow hobbits, according to VR Focus. That VR experience is no longer available online, but you can get some sense of the visuals without the full VR immersion through this video. The third film in “The Hobbit” trilogy received one Academy Award nomination for sound editing.

A more unexpected use of VR came from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and its Fox Innovation Lab, an arm dedicated to developing filmmaking through new technologies. They made an intimate three-minute VR experience for Fox Searchlight’s film “Wild,” the biographical story of a woman named Cheryl Strayed who decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo from California to the border of Washington state.

It’s a far cry from the zero-gravity experience of “Interstellar” or even “The Hobbit” experience of walking through J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world; VR viewers simply watched Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, walk up a trail and take a breather by sitting on a tree stump. If the viewers looked at the right place at the right time, they could trigger a conversation between Witherspoon’s character and her mother’s ghost played by Laura Dern. Both Witherspoon and Dern have received Academy Award nods for best actress and best supporting actress, respectively.

“It’s not a linear experience in the sense that depending on where you look, the event of Laura’s character’s apparition might happen or not,” said Félix Lajeunesse, a co-director of the “Wild” VR experience, in an Engadget interview. “And the behavior on how all of that unfolds in the story depends on your behavior as a viewer. And people don’t notice it. … It just subconsciously increases your feeling of belonging to the moment and being a part of it.”

That feeling of “belonging to the moment” is what VR pioneers call “presence.” It’s the quality that most excites Hollywood and many other people about the possibilities of virtual reality. But much of that sense of immersion relies upon giving VR users the freedom to look all around them within the virtual world. That means the movie camera is no longer under the control of the director and cinematographer; the individual viewer has taken over the camera by default. If the camera viewpoint moves outside the VR user’s control, it can make the user feel nauseous and disoriented through a condition known as simulator sickness. Similarly, traditional film editing techniques that cut sharply between different scenes or jump from character to character may seem jarring in a virtual reality experience to the point of ruining the feeling of immersion.

Those limitations are part of the reason why Hollywood’s VR experiments remain far from feature-length films. Instead, they mostly drop VR users into a world where they have a few minutes to look around freely but can’t interact with anything. Many such experiences don’t even let users walk or move around on their own. The overall experience can resemble something that looks more like a realistic video game than a Hollywood film.

That’s not to say that Hollywood doesn’t have the talent and know-how to create compelling cinematic experiences within the limitations of VR storytelling. The work of Emmanuel Lubezki, a cinematographer nominated for his work on the film “Birdman” this year, provides some hints about story sequences that could work in virtual reality. For “Birdman,” Lubezki worked with director Alejandro González Iñárritu to create the illusion of a single-take film that appears to seamlessly follow characters through the claustrophobic corridors and rooms of a Broadway theater without any cuts. It’s possible to imagine a VR experience someday encompassing a story of that scope, even if the technical challenges of shooting such a lengthy VR film would still probably be hugely daunting today. (Lubezki went on to win an Oscar for his “Birdman” cinematography; “Birdman” also seized the top honors by winning both “Best Picture” and “Best Director.”)

Other examples of Lubezki’s past work might also provide inspiration for Hollywood’s new VR storytellers. In the 2006 film “Children of Men,” Lubezki helped director Alfonso Cuaron create similar illusions of long, single-shot scenes unbroken by cuts. One such scene depicting a roadside ambush is filmed almost entirely from within the car. It’s almost ideal for the current limitations of VR filmmaking; a mostly stationary viewpoint within the car that would merely allow a VR user to look around.

Virtual reality probably won’t make it into any of the Academy Awards categories anytime soon. In fact, virtual reality stories probably deserve their own “Academy Awards” as a fundamentally different medium. But at least some of today’s great films may already contain the technical and storytelling seeds for tomorrow’s compelling VR experiences.

Update Feb. 25: My original post mistakenly credited New Deal Studios with creating the “Interstellar” virtual reality experience. The credit for that project goes to Framestore.

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  • Dan Ferguson

    Dallas-based Animation and VFX studio, Reel FX created acclaimed VR experiences for 20th Century Fox animated feature “The Book of Life” and Legendary Pictures’ “Pacific Rim” earlier this year. “Pacific Rim” was used for the international product launch of the Samsung Gear VR. “Book of Life” is on tour with DELL and can be seen at NAB, or you may have seen it at CES and DellWorld earlier this year.

    • Jeremy Hsu

      I read a bit about the “Pacific Rim” Jaeger Pilot experience, if that’s what you’re referring to? Wouldn’t have minded trying that, though I would have preferred an interactive version.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    ORTEP was hot stuff in its day. HyperChem stereoview is very nice. This? Meh. Good depth and sharpness in ordinary viewing is not especially grabbing (OK, maybe Hooters). Exaggerated stuff in interesting, but often leads to nausea (seasickness) when eyes and inner ears conflict..

    • Jeremy Hsu

      It’ll be interesting to see how well Oculus Rift and other VR makers deal with the simulator sickness.

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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