This year marks the 120th anniversary of L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, an early piece of silent film footage that astonished (and by some accounts even terrified) its audience. Points of light on a canvas transformed into mortal fear. Since then, technology and technique have evolved in tandem – bringing us into greater heights of action and suspense, into deeper wells of horror and despair. For a couple of hours, our consciousness is swallowed up by the screen.
Great directors use lighting, angles, actions, and a variety of other techniques to create their greatest scenes. Every Frame a Painting, an online film analysis series, dives into some of these techniques. From movement in Kurosawa to the tight composition of Drive, camera angles and the constraints of the screen guide your gaze and understanding of the scene. Each frame really is like a painting.
But with the rise of cinematic VR, the frame around the painting is exploding off. The darkness of the cinema is gone. The lines between reality and fiction are disappearing. In some ways, we’ve stepped back 12 decades. We are the new sensory pioneers, shocked by the realism of the new medium.
The first and greatest change is presence. VR has the power to transport us into worlds of fantasy, and forget where we are. We can encounter Syrian refugees or Pixar-like animated creatures. Cinemas are setting up shop in the metaverse, so we can sit back and watch 2D film classics like our favorite Christmas movie (Die Hard, of course). Human beings are being filmed and rendered in engines like Unity with full 3D clarity.
Presence within the narrative is just one way that VR cinema is breaking the mold. (And while there are some massive artistic possibilities in ripping away the borders, there are also some huge challenges to spherical storytelling, nicely covered in this essay by VR photographer Scott Highton.) Instead of passively watching, we will now be able to control where we look.
The next evolutionary step is the power to reach out and influence how the story unfolds. This is one of the inspirations behind Oculus Story Studios’ Henry, where the character is brought to life so that it feels like he’s in the room with you. Sightline: The Chair is another experience that feels more like an art film or a trippy ride than a game.
This shift from watching to interaction demands some pretty exquisite scripting and storyboarding. Otherwise it runs the risk of feeling like a series of cutscenes, or an immersion-breaking vote for what Calculon should do next:
So what’s the next step? With hand tracking as the fundamental input for VR, there are some really exciting possibilities for film over the next 10 years. Not just reinforcing presence, not just pushing them forward, but discovering secrets and weaving them into a bolder vision of what film can be. Storytelling in the fourth dimension.
Imagine a drama that plays out across multiple dimensions, allowing you to jump forwards and backwards through time. Reaching out and grabbing a photograph to see a glimpse of a character’s past. Or switching between different character perspectives on the fly, like a fully interactive Rashomon. Uncovering Easter eggs and hidden clues that take you into strange rabbit holes. This is an incredible time for experimentation, and we can’t wait to see what projects will make it into the textbooks and college courses of 2025 as landmarks of the medium.
One approach that we found really interesting was last year’s 3D Jam winner, Aboard the Lookinglass. While it’s a puzzle rather than a movie, the demo has a really striking narrative device – looking into the past and future through your hands.
This kind of interaction has the potential to bring you closer to the experience by bridging gaps and seeing scenes in parallel. (Ancient spoilers ahead!) Fight Club with Tyler Durden, or without him. The Usual Suspects with Keyser Soze, or without him. Star Wars: Episode I with Jar Jar Binks, or without him. (Hey, we can hope.) Truth, lies, and everything in between, just beyond your hands.
Films on the big screen take you along for the ride. But with cinematic VR, we’re in control. We’d love to know where you think the future is headed – let us know in the comments section.