VR is the opposite of cinema

I was on a panel this evening about the future evolution of VR. At one point I made the argument that people who try to “make their film in VR” are getting it very wrong. In fact, I argued, VR is essentially the very opposite of cinema.

The most salient feature of a movie is that everybody in the audience sees exactly the same thing. The goal of a cinematographer, an editor, a lighting designer in movie making is, in fact, to optimize for a single viewpoint. The craft of filmmaking is built around this fundamental imperative.

In contrast, future content in VR will have far more in common with theater: Everybody will see events unfold from their own unique viewpoint. VR has even more in common with immersive theater, in which audience members are free to roam around on their own.

Pre-cybernetic versions of this kind of experience stretch back for centuries. Recent examples include the current Sleep no More, as well as both Tony and Tina’s Wedding and Tamara from a generation ago.

Those experiences could be experienced only by relatively audiences — unlike a movie, which can be seen by hundreds of millions of people. VR holds the promise of combining the best of both worlds: the sense of participation of immersive theater, as well as the potential for massive distribution we see today in cinema.

The sorts of emergent talents needed to make this kind of content will probably not come mainly from the world of filmmaking. They are more likely to come from the worlds of interactive theater and game design.

6 thoughts on “VR is the opposite of cinema”

  1. This reminds me of Disney themepark rides. They try to tell a story by moving the audience through 3D dioramas. Unlike movies, traditional “dark rides” have only limited control over the audience’s point-of-view. Disney imagineers came up with the Omnimovers (like the “Doom Buggies” in the Haunted Mansion) which not only take you through the ride, but turn to direct your attention and nearly envelope you to limit your peripheral vision.

    It also reminds me of sitcom gags that depend on limiting the field of view (say, a close-up of of a character) and then suddenly revealing the context by pulling back or cutting to a wider view. To get the studio audience to experience the reveal (hoping that they laugh at the right moment), they will sometimes obscure the set with a large curtain that’s dropped at the moment the television audience would get to see the wider shot.

    I could imagine that a narrative VR experience might have to invent similar tricks to ensure that each viewer sees the key actions at the right moments while preserving the illusion that they can wander freely through the fictional world.

  2. I don’t think I’d call that the opposite of cinema, just as I don’t think that live theatre is the opposite of cinema. They both strive to tell a story through sound and images. If you’re going to go there, then silent film is also the opposite of cinema, since the music is always a bit different.

    I don’t even think I’d say VR will be more theatre-like than cinema-like. The thing I love about the live theatre experience (as both a performer and audience member) is that it is live. Every performance is a little different. The show depends not on editing and CGI but the skills of the performers this moment. When things don’t go as planned, sometimes it comes off as a glitch, and sometimes it comes off as a “happy accident”, and sometimes the audience doesn’t even notice.

    Unless there’s a fundamental change in how movies are made and presented, even a VR movie is not going to allow a performer to make a “happy accident” (mistake) one night, and have the artistic director see it and decide he likes it, and then do that intentionally the next night.

    You’re focusing on VR showing each person a different view in *space*. Live theatre is so interesting because even the same person in the same seat will get a different experience on different nights, i.e., in *time*. That’s one killer feature of live theatre that recordings can’t replicate.

  3. VR is the Renaissance Fair of interactive immersion. At a Ren Fair, visitors move among the scene, and the scene interacts with them. Each person has their own unique experiences, and events are unfolding around them, whether they see it or not. Stories are being told, there are plots, things are happening.

  4. Hello,

    I am perhaps a traditionalist, but VR is very much defined by something called an action-reaction loop – you perform an action, the system reacts, you react to that, etc.

    This is essential, because without this you don’t have immersion, nor a sense of presence (“joining another world/place”). And without those two there is no virtual reality.

    The interactivity is what makes the difference between a cinema and VR. That the cinema offers 360 degree views is immaterial – it is still only cinema, because it is noninteractive. It is not “another world” where you have been teleported into – a defining feature of a world is that you can explore it and interact with it, not just look at it.

    With cinema (or theatre), you have none of that. It is a a completely passive experience. Now, I am not saying that such experience cannot work or be enjoyable – but it is not virtual reality.

    If you try one of the 360 “experiences” or videos that ship with e.g. Oculus Rift, you will see right away how boring and frustrating it is to be able to look, but not touch. This has been tried before, with the QuickTimeVR and similar – and didn’t catch on.

    In my opinion, this is a dead end – similarly like the “interactive films” in the 90s where you could choose a few actions here and there, switching between pre-recorded video/image sequences. These have been sold as “games” and have been a huge failure for the same reason – it was a totally or mostly passive experience and game is just the opposite. The interactivity is not an optional extra there. If I want to play a game, I want to be in charge, not only passively consume content. If I wanted that, TV will do a lot better service.



  5. By your definition, reality is the opposite of cinema. VR is simply a more extreme version of what Roger Ebert credited Citizen Kane did to cinema (by opting for long, wide shots with high depth of field, the audience was allowed to choose what to look at for the first time).

    A VR film will still be a highly curated experience, and the pacing, editing, and sound will still be just as specific as before. I suspect most people will end up looking at more or less the same places, at least the first time through, aside from those checking their phones or making out or fumbling with candy.

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