Baobab, Oculus, Penrose, Et Al: The Disneys Of Early VR Animation?

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the scene’s length, until the viewer turns to look at the actors? If so, each viewer will have some control not only of the visual focus of the scenes, but also of the film’s pacing, rhythm, and total running time.

It’s possible that a narrative film in virtual reality will, by necessity, be somewhat interactive like a digital game. Video games are a natural fit for virtual reality, because by their very nature they put users in the driver’s seat, controlling the progress and pacing of their actions within a fictional world.

Danielle Levitas, a research analyst for App Annie who is tracking the prospects of many forms of digital entertainment, predicts that gamers will largely drive the adoption of virtual reality. These early adopters also helped create beachheads in the consumer market for other technologies, such as the broadband connections that supported interactive games, and the DVD format, which boosted the market for videos, she says.

Still, Levitas doesn’t expect mass adoption to come quickly.

“Virtual reality is going to be a multi-year buildout. I’m not convinced that virtual reality in the next three to four years will be anywhere near mainstream,” Levitas says.

Darnell says Baobab will be learning from the game makers’ forays into virtual reality, but the studio’s top priority is to tell stories just as ordinary filmmakers do. Interactivity might be part of the mix if it enriches the narrative, he says.

“It all begins with a compelling story and a belief we can tell the story well,” Darnell says. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.”

In some VR films, the viewer might be a mere observer within the scene, invisible to the story characters. But some VR filmmakers might cast the viewer as a character, such as a spy, a ghost, or even a friend the hero confides in at private moments. “Maybe you can communicate with the character and change the story,” Darnell says. “All these are potential uses, though they don’t all have to happen.”

The narrative feature in VR, a cinematic form in its infancy, opens up still-unimagined possibilities. But the technology could also box filmmakers in to some extent.

There’s a lively discussion going on among VR experts about whether certain standard techniques of feature filmmaking, such as the widely used edit called a “jump cut,” can be translated into film storytelling in VR. If the movie takes viewers to a virtual mountaintop with a 3-D vista, can it suddenly jump-cut them inside a house for a family dinner party?

One not-uncommon complication of current VR viewing is nausea, as Darnell himself experienced while watching a cool clip of a Formula 1 race. “A good portion of people can’t handle that,” he says. Nausea or dizziness may result if there’s a mismatch between a viewer’s perception of his or her own body’s position and the movements of objects in the virtual world.

Darnell sees this effect as a potential curb on the early market for virtual reality, because some developers are putting out content without thinking enough about motion sickness. “I want to say, ‘Please don’t make content that makes people sick,’ ” Darnell says. “They may never put on a headset again.”

So does all this mean that VR filmmakers will never be able to use certain types of edits, or slow motion sequences, or other techniques from the film artist’s bag of tricks?

“I think it’s too early to start setting up rules about what you can do and what you can’t do,” Darnell says. He says he’s seen some jump cuts work in virtual reality sequences.

Audiences will also learn to interpret the virtual reality experience more easily when it becomes more familiar to them, Darnell says. In the 20th century, filmgoers came to understand the evolving language and grammar of film, including jump cuts, wide establishing shots, close-ups, fades, flashbacks, and other elements that signal the passage of time, a change of place, or other meanings and moods.

But in the early days of film, theater audiences recoiled in fear when they saw a train on-screen barreling toward them, Darnell says. “People would jump out of their seats and scream,” he says.

Virtual reality filmmakers are already trying out methods to corral the attention of a viewer whose gaze is wandering around the “set” instead of paying attention to the actors. For example, the VR filmmaker can trigger a sound to … Next Page »

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