Hollywood looks to bring virtual-reality cinema to life

Studios are investing in cutting-edge technology to create a transformative, 360-degree form of viewing film

Buried deep inside the postproduction facilities on the 20th Century Fox lot, beyond where executives decide how best to sharpen Wolverine's claw and make Alvin sound like a chipmunk, sits a space with a more mysterious purpose.

Filled with multiple screens and piles of headsets, it is here that a select few executives, including the official Fox "futurist" Ted Schilowitz, are investigating all manner of digital possibilities. The area is called the Fox Innovation Lab, though it's informally known simply as "The Bunker."

The nickname only begins to hint at one of the venue's primary missions: aligning the promise of virtual-reality cinema with the exigencies of modern studio bureaucracy.

The bunker is where executives plotted a short-film offshoot of the 2014 Oscar nominee "Wild," made separately with stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern as a kind of ghost film production; it's also where they're planning a stand-alone virtual-reality short film for Ridley Scott's upcoming blockbuster "The Martian."

"The bunker is a magical place, and you have to ask where it is, because it's super-secret from the other labs," said Schilowitz, who co-founded the company behind the cutting-edge Red Camera before arriving at Fox. "Even the people working in it don't always know what they're working on."

At studios like Fox, at facilities across Silicon Valley and at directors' offices everywhere, a furious quest is underway. With virtual reality on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough--the well-received debut of several new technologies at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week offered the latest evidence--the chase is on among a number of players to gain a foothold in the realm of entertainment known as VR cinema.

Schilowitz and his peers are part of a bid to ensure that VR — a concept that has never seemed to match its hype — finally becomes what they believe it could be: a transformative form of cinema and the future of film and television.

Change the equation

For more than 100 years, on-screen entertainment has been consumed in pretty much the same way —from a rectangular screen maintained at a certain distance from our eyes. The size of the screen has changed, and what artists have been able to put on it has grown by leaps and bounds.

VR purports to change the equation. By presenting images, via a headset or next-generation smartphone, with 360-degree interactivity, a new kind of immersion is achieved.

Donning a VR-enabled device to watch a movie, one is immediately struck not just by the vividness of the colors and the depth of the images but by something more significant. A crane of the neck upward reveals not a ceiling of a movie theater but the sky of the scene in the movie. A quick swivel of the head backward reveals not the boisterous teenagers in the row behind but more of the same cinematic universe.

The effect is simple but devastatingly powerful. There is no escaping the world of a VR film.

If you're one of the people who haven't been following VR, a quick tutorial. In the past few years, a new series of technological developments — most notably with the Rift headset from Orange County-based Oculus and now HTC's Vive, as well as more homespun kits such as Google Cardboard for smartphones — have achieved what decades of previous attempts haven't. VR is now a lot less dizzying, and a lot more democratic.

Outside of the smartphone apparatuses, there are still no devoted VR headsets on the consumer market. But it's expected the Rift could be made available soon, as early as this year, for less than $400, and Vive may not be far behind. Many experts now agree it's only a matter of time before VR catches on in a mainstream way.

That's spurred a content feeding frenzy--there's no point for a tech company to releasing a headset, after all, if there isn't something to watch on it (and, by the same token, most content providers believe waiting for the hardware to catch on before creating entertainment means waiting too long).

So quarters of the movie business, at a speed that can be described as slower than Silicon Valley but faster than a Hollywood crawl, are intensifying their VR efforts. Top-tier filmmakers such as Mark Romanek, an early VR champion, and Robert Stromberg, who has teamed with effects specialist Chris Edwards to form a VR company, have begun developing projects; so have "Star Trek 3" director Justin Lin (working on a brand-related VR piece) and prestige-film investor Megan Ellison, who has launched a VR division.

Digital outfits such as Jaunt (behind the monster movie "Kaiju Fury" and the horror effort "Black Mass") and the Facebook-owned Oculus, meanwhile, are going the other way, expanding from the arcana of code to the intangibility of moviemaking. Last year, the latter poached some of Pixar's most promising young in-house creatives to make animated short films exclusively for Oculus equipment. They have at least five such headset-compatible movies in the works.

And avant-garde filmmakers such as Chris Milk and the French-Canadian duo known as Felix and Paul, who have been producing VR content for a relatively epic several years, are beginning to enter the Hollywood mainstream. (Felix and Paul made the "Wild" film with Witherspoon and Fox, while Milk has partnered with film powerhouse Ellison.)

But who's embarking on the VR efforts might matter less than what those efforts mean — the choices they entail, the issues they raise.

As technology and creativity collide in new ways, will VR be a narrative experience or something more experiential?

What genres make sense for this kind of full-on cinema experience? Will horror be too intense? Comedy too forced?

There's perhaps an even deeper question. On Hollywood sets every day, producers and animators strive to make films more tangible and immediate. But they rarely stop to consider what happens if they're too successful. What happens when entertainment delivers on its promise of putting you "there" — but that's not really a place you want to be?

A host of VR films

The Sundance Film Festival in January saw a host of VR films debut. None stirred as much debate as "Perspective."

The traditional filmmaker Rose Troche ("The Safety of Objects") and the more tech-minded Morris May had devised a piece in which one attends a college party — first as a man engaging in an assault and then, in the second part, as a very inebriated woman whom the man and his friend sexually assault. "Perspective" is VR of the quintessential first-person kind because it's designed to make the viewer feel like he's the participant; when you look down at the character's hand or shoe, they appear to be your hand and shoe. It's disorienting and dizzying and more than a little disturbing.

That is, its creators say, by design. Troche and May are trying to put us in the moment, using the radical immersion of VR to give voice to subjective experience. "We have had some people come out and say, 'Why did you just eye-rape me?'" Troche said. "But the feedback has been very positive. We're just trying to give you a different perspective."

Those questions can be emotional as well as ethical. VR allows consumers to experience a character in an unusually intimate way. That's a particularly tricky problem for hard-core dramatists and comedians, whose preferred modes can seem over-the-top in VR. Ditto for horror movies, which can achieve their desired results perhaps a bit too successfully

Directors won't be the only ones seeking to modulate. "Actors will face the question of how to perform and how much do you have to tone down," said Jens Christensen, the CEO of Jaunt, which indeed has tried a horror movie with "Black Mass."

Filmmakers are also grappling with the challenge of how to streamline the story when a viewer can look anywhere, often over long takes, as opposed to being specifically guided via a frame and edits. After all, if everything is a possibility, is anything?

VR pioneers say some of these problems can be turned into opportunities.

"A series like 'The Wire' explores all these themes, but it does it in a branching story line related to the central story," said David Greenbaum, an executive at Fox Searchlight who oversaw the "Wild" films and is working with Schilowitz, Fox Home Entertainment President Mike Dunn and Fox's postproduction chief, Ted Gagliano, in the company's bunker. "I'm not sure VR is all that different from expansive television storytelling. It allows you to tell a more complex story than many forms of traditional entertainment."

Schilowitz added that "a lot of this is using tricks from theater and others days of yore and migrating it to a modern experience."

Still, others caution that VR storytelling should be regarded in radically different ways.

"Storytelling for many centuries has been, essentially, people sitting around a campfire telling you about the buffalo hunt," said Danfung Dennis, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker who has created the VR company Condition One. "And with virtual reality, you're on the buffalo hunt."

Or as Nonny de la Pena puts it, “If you look at Spider-Man or ‘Vertigo’ and you feel the way you do watching it on a screen, imagine what happens when you feel you are on a ledge yourself.”

de la Pena, the so-called godmother of VR who has spearheaded some of the innovations at her USC lab, is in talks with several top-tier filmmakers on a pair of virtual-reality projects. She believes that headset VR will catch on first for entertainment, followed closely by mobile.

VR filmmakers also like to talk about what might be called "invisible interactivity" — that is, a film subtly changing based on viewer habits. In the "Wild" short, Dern appears only when a viewer turns to look at her; if a viewer never looks, she never appears.

Invisible interactivity is also at work in the Oculus-produced “Lost.” The short deposits viewers in a kind of otherworldly foliage when a robotic pet arrives, followed shortly after by a much larger owner overlord who wreaks some havoc. “If someone looks around frantically, we can slow things down for them. And if they’re more passive, we can speed it up,” said Oculus’ Max Planck, a Pixar veteran. “And they wouldn't know it was even happening.”

Think of it as a kind of cinematic personalization, though that raises yet another question: If you and I see the same title, are we really seeing the same movie?

Giddy enthusiasm

VR is moving fast. Last week, Samsung and Cirque du Soleil announced a partnership, and Lionsgate and Samsung have just revealed plans for a VR short for the upcoming Shailene Woodley-Ansel Elgort franchise "Insurgent."

Those making VR believe that it will change how we experience entertainment, particularly short-form. (It's not at all clear full-fledged features will be cost-effective for filmmakers or palatable to consumers; more likely it will take the form of episodic content, short bursts of intense storytelling, or even a throwback to old-school serials).

Putting on the headset, it's easy to understand why the excitement runs so high. The thrill of seeming to be in the room is deep. In my VR travels I've yet to find someone who gets excited without putting on the headset; I've also yet to find someone who has and doesn't come away with a sense of giddy enthusiasm.

After using it, this latter group struggles for analogies. It's like the addition of sound in a cinema that was silent; it is the advent of moving pictures in a world that knew only paintings and photographs. (It is never like 3-D, they say, which is just making the action more vivid, not more real.)

"Even bad content will be more memorably bad," said Oculus' Saschka Unseld, a longtime Pixar veteran who is now running Oculus' original-content division, Story Studio. (All of Oculus' efforts thus far are in the world of animated features, which can be pieced together in a studio; shooting live-action, with its need for a camera to cover an entire environment and other real-world variables, is trickier.)

And while a fully 360-degree cinematic world might seem like it offers more possibilities, the opposite may prove to be true. "VR allows you to walk them into another room, but you can't, say, have them miss the brother getting shot," said James Stewart, a Toronto-based independent filmmaker developing the VR feature "Outfoxed."

The thinking is that because people can now wander anywhere, they need more guidance, lest they walk right out of the story you're trying to tell. "With VR it's almost more important than traditional filmmaking to always bring them home," Stewart added.

Filmmakers are seeking new means to do this. In "Way to Go," an animated piece directed by French Canadian Vincent Morisset and a group of Quebec artists, a viewer moves as if in a video game, following a ghostly character through various landscapes. The experience is richly cinematic, conjuring up metaphors and meaning — think Malick by way of Q*Bert. But a straight line guides the viewer through the landscape, limiting meandering. It's a fitting symbol of a burgeoning form that, even as it offers possibilities in many directions, also needs to find a clear way forward.

"We wanted it to feel like a film but have a through line," Morisset said. "But how much freedom should we give the viewer as opposed to telling them a story? It's a question we struggled with. It's a question I think a lot of people are struggling with."

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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