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With 'Henry,' a cinematic leap into world of virtual reality

On a recent afternoon in sparsely chic offices here, the people making the virtual-reality animated short "Henry" convened to watch footage of their cutting-edge film.

The group of about a dozen — mostly young and many of them with Pixar backgrounds — gathered in a semicircle as the director, a gregarious filmmaker named Ramiro Lopez Dau, engaged in what appeared to be a tribal ritual. He dropped to the floor, strapped on a headset and began crawling around an area rug, extending his head this way and that in the manner of a disoriented cat.

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"I felt a lot of trail with that smoke," Lopez Dau said, poking his head in one direction. "It's really visible."

Others, able to track his perspective on a computer screen nearby that played the footage, called back suggestions.

"What we need to do is not reset the orientation but reset the [position]," Max Planck, one of the top executives at Story Studio and a longtime Pixar veteran, said as he sat on a nearby couch."

"Henry," needless to say, is not like most movies. The film is a virtual-reality short from Story Studio, the original-content label of Oculus, a VR company. Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, is best known as a hardware firm; in early 2016, it will mass-produce one of the first dedicated virtual-reality headsets, the CV1.

But the company is also seeking a pioneering role in the realm of scripted VR entertainment. And "Henry," which tells the story of a lonely hedgehog as he celebrates his birthday, is its big bet. The film is one of the first story-based virtual-reality movies, one whose creative process has major implications for the future of filmmaking.

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When Oculus unveils the film at an invitation-only premiere-style event in Beverly Hills on Tuesday afternoon — ahead of a free commercial rollout on the CV1 — it will mark the beginning of a new chapter in entertainment.

A heartfelt piece of animation that would fit nicely on any Pixar slate, "Henry" is notable as much for what it isn't as what it is. VR content to date has mostly steered clear of traditional narrative — it's tended instead to be a marketing offshoot of a studio movie, a snippet of live-event footage or a branded "experience" mainly designed to produce a sensation in the viewer. Or it's been a video game.

"Henry," on the other hand, tells a clear story with a conventional beginning, middle and payoff-y end. The difference is that it does so in the new medium of virtual reality. Rather than see a traditional frame, the headset-clad viewer occupies the entire space, able to swivel his or her head all the way around and see every corner of the world, as in real life.

If that sounds like it could transform how we watch movies, it will have an even greater effect on those making them--a reality that the creative types at Story Studio were quickly learning.

Perception shift

When they originally decided to make "Henry," the Story Studio filmmakers realized they had a problem.

"A lot of comedy in animated movies, like slapstick, is actually based on sad things — you know, someone falls on their face or gets a bad break," said Story Studio Chief Saschka Unseld. "When that sad thing happens in a traditional film, it can be funny, because there's some distance. But when you have as much empathy as you do in a VR film, it can be super sad."

In other words, "Henry" — in which the main character is sitting in his colorful home ruefully wishing for someone to play with — was ultimately conceived as a feel-good movie. But as Oculus watched people watching the film, they saw it was turning into a serious bummer. Unseld and his team went into overdrive on tonal adjustments, trying to find ways that viewers didn't feel like the comedy came from laughing at others' misfortune.

Unseld was an animator on such Pixar hits as "Toy Story 3" and "Brave" and also directed a well-regarded short called "The Blue Umbrella." The native of Germany has a philosophical streak that offers insight into the virtual-reality process.

"The experience of going from Pixar to making this film is really similar to moving from Germany to the U.S.," he said. "In the beginning, you miss all the stuff you used to have — in the case of filmmaking, the camera editing and everything else. And then once you start living somewhere else, you find things you never had before and begin to embrace them."

Indeed, VR cinema offers challenges and opportunities in equal measure.

Most obvious, the medium allows viewers to feel a much more intimate connection to a character; emotions come a lot more easily when sitting next to a cuddly pal like Henry than on a flat, distant screen.

These movies also offer the possibility to interact with an environment, through what virtual reality filmmakers call "discoverables." In "Henry," this takes the form of a ladybug that crawls out and begins to engage if you look in one direction long enough. Oculus filmmakers have been toying with how quickly to manifest the insect (should the movie reward a hard stare or just a quick glance?) and what to have him do once he does appear. It's a seemingly small choice, to be sure, but interactivity in VR is a slippery slope, and the "Henry" crew is constantly debating how much to slide down it. Planck tends to believe VR cinema needs more; others feel differently.

There is also, not insignificantly, the chance to tell a story at a different, far slower pace. The velocity of storytelling in traditional modern films is quick, and has grown quicker, especially in animated movies. But in VR, which more closely resembles real life, that kind of pacing becomes information overload.

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"What feels normal in traditional film feels fast here, and what feels boring in traditional film feels good here," said Lopez Dau, an animator on "Cars 2" and "Monsters University," as he sat in front of a computer mousing through different speeds of the action he had tried over the previous few weeks. "In VR, we're learning you don't need a character to do as much to be interesting."

The effect is paradoxical. Digital culture is making everything move faster as it begins to match the speed of real time. But this technology is becoming so lifelike that it now has to slow down again.

(A similar dynamic, incidentally, is at work with how a character moves in VR. The conventional wisdom has been that, without the edits of traditional filmmaking, you can't go from one place to another in the bat of an eye. The truth is, you can--technically. But when "Henry" filmmakers tried it, putting Henry in one part of the house and then quickly in another, they realized it looked like teleportation. They quickly scrapped it.)

Part of why virtual reality feels so different is because viewers themselves can move — certainly with their heads and, within limits, their bodies, walking or crawling toward various spots of an environment. That has a kind of democratizing effect, turning film from its long-held status as a director's medium, with well-curated shots, to something looser and more participatory.

That movement, though, brings a challenge: As VR cinema skeptics have noted, it can undermine big story moments. No filmmaker wants to have Michael Corleone shoot Sollozzo and McCluskey in a restaurant while an audience member is in the kitchen ogling the appetizers.

“Henry” set about solving this challenge in a particular way. At a dramatic moment involving the title character and some balloons (hey, it's Pixar-y), Lopez Dau lets the drama linger for a beat longer than he might otherwise, and then over-emphasizes the effects of that moment so that even if the viewer missed it, he'd eventually understand what happened. Still, it’s not foolproof.

If all this sounds daunting, it should. Creators say they must adjust to a reality that operates not just on new rules but a new foundation. And VR filmmakers can be as in the dark as the rest of us.

"There are shows like 'House of Cards' and 'Parks and Recreation' that make a conscious choice to break the fourth wall. But here there is no wall," said Planck. "You need to go into this kind of storytelling thinking about who we are as viewers, what's our reason for being present. And that's a heady concept."

That is true in some unexpected ways. Henry is fundamentally a lonely character: a creature attempting to be chipper but whose melancholy seems to win out. Lonely characters are an easy sell in traditional moviedom, as anyone who’s seen a certain kind of romantic comedy knows well. We don’t question our role in this — we simply assume we’re peering in on solitude with a high-powered telescope. But in virtual reality, where the watching and the watched essentially share a space, the viewer compact is different.

"We thought we had a good idea with this lonely character. And then as we got into it and it didn't necessarily make sense, it was like, 'If we're right at the table with Henry, why is he so lonely?' " said Edward Saatchi, a British-born executive who is Story Studio's marketing guru and most public face. One solution is to try to have Henry turn to the viewer a little bit more and acknowledge he at least has some company, though that doesn't fully solve the problem.

One advantage to VR filmmaking, it should be said, comes with the screen-testing process. Long an inexact science in traditional filmmaking, the stuff of notecards and imprecise numbers and adjectives, Oculus has invited friends and family to watch "Henry" and gained more concrete feedback by tracking where they look, and for how long. In the new world of VR cinema, filmmakers can create heat maps and conduct granular--or insidious, depending on your point of view--research on test groups of what's working, potentially even down to every second and eye twitch.

Mainstream viewers will soon get a chance to decide how all these creative questions are being sorted out. "Henry" will receive a traditional rollout — after Tuesday's debut, there will be both a trailer (online, which admittedly doesn't do the medium justice) and then a wide release early next year as part of the CV1 package. The idea, for now, is not revenue, but to see how — and whether — a new medium works.

Planck notes that these are experiments, and likens them to the earliest days of CG animation, which wouldn't give rise to full-bodied features or a defined genre for years; to judge early VR films without these caveats, he says, would be short-sighted.

Lopez Dau said that for all the hiccups, he remains energized. "What I've learned with 'Henry' is that it's not really a movie anymore. It's storytelling in a new medium, and we're trying to figure out what to call it," he said. "A movie is the closest name because it's the most familiar. But if we keep adding layers of complexity, we'll come up with a new one."

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