The Martian

VR in movies

Hollywood has fully embraced the dawn of the VR age.

Read more about all aspects of Virtual Reality technology

Any entertainment format needs content. There must be something to watch. Convincing content providers to adopt a new one requires two things: first, powerful research and development and promotional support for the core hardware platform. Second, a comprehensive infrastructure that enables cost-effective development and production of the content itself. The early signs for VR moviemaking are that those components are in place.

In hardware, Sony (PlayStation VR), Facebook (Oculus Rift), HTC (Vive) and Google (Cardboard) are the spearhead - megabucks players that have made Hollywood take notice. There is potential for a format war, but parallel progress on the infrastructure front is overcoming those concerns.

In December, Nokia announced availability of its OZO professional-grade VR camera. Providing a 195-degree field-of-view using eight synchronised 2k x 2k sensors and equipped for spatial audio recording, OZO’s starting price is $60,000 (£41,000). It’s steep for holiday snaps, but incredibly competitive for pro-standard kit.

Other key infrastructure builders include Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB (part of The Walt Disney Company), Fox Innovation Lab (part of Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox studio), exhibition specialists Dolby, effects group Framestore and a raft of impressively-staffed consultancies such as The Virtual Reality Company (the last of which has one Steven Spielberg as a senior adviser).

The mention of Spielberg brings us to one of VR’s biggest infrastructure advantages: leading directors are backing VR aggressively.

VRC’s founder Robert Stromberg told January’s Sundance Film Festival that Spielberg has a project in hand “solely for VR”. That could prove as massive a boost for the format as Spielberg’s support for CGI on ‘Jurassic Park’. However, this time, Spielberg wasn’t the first member of Hollywood’s movie royalty to embrace a new technology.

Sir Ridley Scott unveiled a VR spin-off from his latest blockbuster at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. ‘The Martian VR Experience’ lets you navigate another world through astronaut Mark Watney’s eyes. Scott, in turn, followed in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan. He offered a VR tour of Endurance, the spaceship from ‘Interstellar’, in 2014.

Also some way below the summit, there is as much work going on as talk. Sundance and the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival provide showcases for VR’s less famous pioneers.

As impressive as these festival works are, they show what still needs to be done, but, a critical point, that debate is now largely about filmmaking ‘language’. A simple example concerns one of its most basic tools: editing.

In a traditional movie, we are used to a director jump-cutting between different perspectives in a single scene. Yet does that become jarring in an all-enveloping environment and shatter the suspension of disbelief? Should VR take its visual style more from the fixed perspective of theatre’s proscenium arch and the stagecraft used there to position or highlight actors and objects?

It’s not an engineering question, but a cognitive one - and that’s largely the point. Hollywood has accepted the viability of VR technology and is getting down to the nitty-gritty of how to exploit it.

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