Cinema is dead. Long live Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality was all over this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest, but is it the future of visual storytelling?

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 15 Jun 2016
  • We Wait

If you walked into Site Gallery during this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest you’d see a strange but soon to be very familiar sight. Scattered around the gallery space, on stools, in blackout booths, on benches and in a replica jail cell, viewers wearing massive goggles and headphones are lost in their own virtual worlds, oblivious to the hustle and bustle around them. One young man is visiting the International Space Station, another is crossing an anti-abortion picket line, while a young woman finds herself within the Calais Jungle hearing stories from refugees. Welcome to Doc/Fest’s Virtual Reality Arcade, and a possible glimpse into the future of visual storytelling.

Alternative reality is everywhere at this year’s Doc/Fest, and it’s been a key element at the festival's last two editions. The emerging form is given equal standing within the festival programme, with its own section in the brochure alongside the traditional outlets of films, talks, marketplace and parties. As well as the drop-in VR arcade there’s an interactive media exhibition, a day-long summit on VR and two awards, each with their dedicated juries. Doc/Fest is taking VR seriously. You should too.

It is a medium in its infancy, though, and the novelty of entering some of these worlds isn’t always matched by the storytelling on offer. Mars 2030, for example, a VR journey letting you explore the surface of the Red Planet, seems little more than a tedious computer game, complete with awkward handheld controls for walking and picking up stuff. The only exploring to be done is to follow a blue arrow through a difficult to navigate valley. No Martians to zap or perilous missions to undertake, just a boring trudge through a lifeless planet. It’s probably an accurate approximation of being a future astronaut, but it's not how most people would choose to spend their Friday night. Even being informed by Mars 2030’s invigilator that we are the first viewer to complete the journey doesn’t sweeten the ride.

A more immersive VR experience is We Wait, which transports the viewer directly to the heart of the refugee crisis. Wearing a life jacket and an Oculus Rift headset, you find yourself sitting around a campfire on a Turkish beach at night, a Greek city lit up across the bay. Joining you by the fire are a family of Syrian refugees who are trying to cross the strait. While we sit with a group of people waiting for smugglers to take them across by boat, one woman recounts a previous failed attempt while snuggling her young son close.

Based on accounts gathered by BBC News, the story is brought to life by animation house Aardman, who swap the traditional stop-motion technique for which they’re famed for a step into the VR unknown. “Using VR as a medium was immensely challenging during the production, both creatively and technically,” admits Darren Dubicki, director at Aardman. The dramatisation does have its limitations. The characters are blocky cuboids who could be distant relatives of Robert Llewellyn’s Kryten from Red Dwarf, while their motion is even more herky jerky than the early Wallace and Gromit shorts Aardman produced with plasticine. But so compelling are the characters’ tale that you quickly overlook their rudimentary design. “One aspect where we could not compromise was the story,” said Dubicki. “This was our key undertaking – to make sure our depiction of the plight rang as authentic and truthful as possible; to create a film to incite emotional engagement. If any facet of the narrative felt unbelievable, then we’d potentially undermine the real accounts and experiences.”

More on 2016's film festivals

Doc/Fest Sheffield Doc/Fest: Top Picks

Little Men Edinburgh Film Festival: Top Picks

We Wait is a rare highlight in the Arcade overall, with most of the VR films we look at failing to make the most of the technology’s immersive qualities. It’s understandable that filmmakers are struggling with this new form, however. “For filmmakers, the frame is the centre point of our medium,” says Jessica Brillhart, principle filmmaker for VR at Google, at a summit talk called The Future of Virtual Reality. “We study the frame, we don’t want our audience to turn away from it. But in VR, if you don’t turn away from any point, you’re doing it wrong. A frame as a construct is not the right tool for VR. What I had to do in order to rework what VR really was in my own head was to take frames and start thinking of them as worlds – worlds of experience that I could craft.”

Crucially, narrative doesn’t have the same stronghold in VR as it has in other mediums, Brillhart explains: “If you think of what we do in VR, we have this world and we put a visitor in that world and the experiences that are retained by that person becomes the story. So story happens after the fact.” Think of VR, then, as a high-tech equivalent of those choose your own adventure books. “The future of the quality of the artform comes from how well you can craft these experiences and how that engagement actually happens. And that requires a very different language to what any other medium has provided.”

VR masterpieces, then, are likely to be some years off as VR filmmakers experiment with the form and technology evolves, just as was the case in the early days of cinema. But even in its infancy, Brillhart notes that VR is providing a very particular thrill to audiences that used to be commonplace, but has become a rarity in our modern world. “We don’t experience things the way we used to,” she says. “We take photos, we check in, we tweet, I’m as guilty of it as everyone. OK, maybe some people pragmatically don’t use technology, that’s great, but for the most part we do.” Brillhart suggests that this new VR technology’s chief advantage, paradoxically, is that it forces us to change our technology-obsessed habits; if forces us to be in the moment. “VR is providing us with a way into remember what it’s like to experience things. And that’s why you see someone put on a headset for the first time and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is so great.’ Yeah, it’s because you’re there and you have to just deal with being there, that is all you have to do. There’s no expectation other than doing what you like doing, and that’s a remarkable thing.”

Sheffield Doc/Fest ran 10-15 Jun