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Why VR films are inherently flawed

While VR has exploded in popularity, and VR headsets are now starting to enter the market, developers and experimenters are starting to find new and interesting ways of using the tool. In the Amplified Robot series of talks in London, these developers come together to discuss these ideas and debate on how VR can be used best.

But what is very interesting is that many of these developers are not looking into video games, as the entertainment giants of Sony and Oculus are looking into. Instead these developers are looking into how VR can benefit mankind, such as creating a VR space for museum trips, or granting the ability to fly for those who cannot walk – less for entertainment, more for societal application. These are low-budget developers who are working on their projects as a side job, but who will most likely become bigger names in a few years’ time. But for those with bigger budgets, some are using VR as a tool for filmmaking – an idea which I find to be inherently flawed.

Experimenting with new tools

From this perspective, I find no flaws. Shorter, crafted experiences which express a single message, designed for the use of VR, is not only something we should embrace but also something which we should support. Advertisements in newspapers or television can only go so far when the medium itself is less immersive than words on a flat surface. While I do not think that VR is flawless – the technology has its limitations – it is still another step forward to better express an issue or statement for the user.

What I find difficulty in accepting is the concept of VR films: full length, theatrical releases with a run time of above an hour and a half and where the user sits in a cinema seat.

What makes movies the way they are today?

Even a long take – mastered by Steven Spielberg and nicknamed the ‘Spielberg Oner’ – can be described as a single camera take with multiple angles to grant the illusion of cuts. In Raiders of the lost Ark, when Ravenwood is in a drinking contest, there are four different shots: a push-in, two singles of their faces, and an insert of them switching turns. This was all captured in a single take, but with the movements of the cameras it feels like several cuts, immersing the viewer more in the viewing experience.

Another can come from the creativity of scenes and cuts. With a VR film you have to assume that there is going to be a singular perspective for the entirety of the movie – whether it be from the perspective of the main character, or as a middle-man between the main cast.

This grants a lack of diversity, and the viewer will likely get bored from the single, static and stagnant perspective. Whereas in Edgar Wright movies like Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, visual comedy can be expressed with quick, purposeful cuts to highlight a mood. These processes are crucial to why movies maintain the viewer’s interest and immersion, and Every Frame a Painting is an excellent channel which explores this in greater detail. But the point being made is that VR lacks the flair and flexibility of traditional cinema, and it cannot match what films can do.

This article may convey my sentiments as rather rigid and traditionalist, citing the old as superior to the new. Yet it should be emphasised that I have no doubt there will be some short-form VR experiences which will do very well, and that the Guardian is head of the game in this respect. But if the experience is not crafted for a particular purpose, or lacks the interactivity of video games, I am unsure if VR films are a step forward, instead of being an experimental step sideways. Perhaps it may work with a Hardcore Henry setup, where VR could work very well if the entire movie is designed in that way, but for the most part I am dubious of its mainstream application of most films.

Thomas Ffiske, Diffusion PR