Is Virtual Reality the next frontier that will help our movies break the fourth wall?

Is Virtual Reality the next frontier that will help our movies break the fourth wall?

A trivia from the history of cinema, which almost sounds like spoof, goes like this: Thomas Edison was showcasing his pioneering work The Great Train Robbery in 1903, at a time when stage performances were the norm and motion pictures were a novelty. In a scene, the hero of the film takes out a gun, turns towards the audience and pulls the trigger. Shocked and confused about how to react to an actor breaking the fourth wall (addressing the audience directly breaking the imaginary wall between the audience and the actors), a panicked viewer from the crowd stood up and returned fire at the actor on screen.

The world has come a long way in filmmaking and popularising technological innovations in cinema.

We have already made tons of films in 3D that it has become a household term in the world.

Now we view 3D content at home. After getting used to viewing spectacular fantasy productions on 4K resolution and IMAX screens for a few years, we have been seeing incremental improvements of combining 3D and widescreen plus a few more dimensions thrown on top of it.

4DX roller-coaster

One of those state-of-the-art technologies that gave a truly multi-sensory cinematic experience was 4DX.

Many theatres in metropolitan cities have 4DX, which is a 4D film format developed by CJ CGV, a South Korean company.

Is Virtual Reality the next frontier that will help our movies break the fourth wall?

4DX allows films to be augmented with various practical effects, including motion seats, wind, strobe lights, simulated snow, and scents.

When we booked tickets to a 4DX show of Peter Rabbit 2 a couple of years ago in a Bangalore multiplex, we were not quite sure what to expect.

Soon, we joined the rest of the adults and kids in screaming on top of our voices as the seats and the surroundings moved in sync with the visuals on the screen and the experience of mist, rain and face air which made us feel in the middle of all the action.

VR and the personal experience

Virtual reality (VR) has been around for a while now, in a variety of flavours.

Travel video makers, gamers and simulators use VR to take their work to the next level.

VR is all set to take over the computer gaming space. VR Games based on popular fantasy movie characters such as the Iron Man are already popular among those who can afford a good quality VR headset.

As a concept, immersion into virtual reality refers to the feeling of being physically present in a non-physical world. During the run up to the release of Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk in 2017, Warner Bros had released Save Every Breath: The Dunkirk VR Experience, a promo footage in VR that encapsulated the soul of the film, a journey through a bloody world war-II episode spanning a conflict that happen on land, sea and air at the same time.

Is Virtual Reality the next frontier that will help our movies break the fourth wall?

The film gave a 360-degree view of the scale and the intensity of the conflict that the audience could look forward to.

Before the virus hit us, we were used to converting the release of any big film to nothing short of a festival.

However, it has always been a subject of astonishment how we constantly reinvent cinema to be more up close and personal.

When asked about the social vs personal aspect of cinema in a recent webinar, the great Kannada director Girish Kasaravalli responded that it is the market forces such as the Hollywood that marketed cinema, which is a deeply personal medium, as a mass event.

Though he chose to appreciate the cinema watching experience in a social setup, he distinguished it from the experience of consuming the content as personal.

Nolan’s Tenet on OTT fuels debate

The news of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet releasing on OTT/VOD, as theatres are at the risk of closing down back again, has fuelled the talks about how to upgrade the quality of film viewing at home.

As the pandemic does not show any sign of easing in the US, Nolan is all set to have a limited theatre release of Tenet, closely followed by a premium video-on-demand release.

Given the nature of Nolan’s films, the threat of piracy and the chances of spoilers travelling fast through social media, Tenet does not qualify for a staggered release worldwide.

More than pushing the content experience a notch above, at a more subsistence level, the question in every filmmaker’s mind is, whether they can offer a matching alternative to the theatre experience.

Recently, filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery came up with a proposition offering VR as a better alternative to the theatre experience.

If the plans that he had put out on social media materialise, the fans would soon experience his new film Churuli from a close enough 360-degree experience sitting in their homes and at a fraction of the cost that a branded VR headset costs.

Lijo also pits VR as an alternative to sidestep the distributors’ and producers’ lobby that dictates the terms in the market.

Are we close to VR adoption?

The latest news that would excite the VR fans is, an interactive VR film titled Killing a Superstar has been shortlisted for an award in the ‘Venice VR Expanded’ category of the prestigious Venice International Film Festival.

The film that offers an immersive audio-visual experience using cutting-edge 360°+8K HD VR technology, gives the audience freedom to switch between scenes at any time and to pick up clues and complete tasks while watching.

These days, many film festivals have come up with an exclusive VR section in which mostly short films and documentaries are premiered for a limited number of festival audience.

360-degree cameras allow filmmakers to capture a scene from all possible angles to make it truly immersive.

Though some of the content is best consumed using a VR headset, most of the 360 recordings can be viewed on a regular screen.

Though there are plenty of VR content out there in the form of videos, short films and documentaries, we do not have a full-length, big-budget VR production yet. These days, you can sync a VR headset with your smartphone software easily, but the cost of quality VR headsets continue to be the biggest barrier for VR adoption.

Facebook, Google and Apple are said to be betting big on VR. In fact, experiments are on to make the form factor of headsets more wearable and comfortable while keeping the cost low.

The latest ‘proof of concept’ VR headset that Facebook had shown off pretty much looks like 3D glasses.

Facebook claims that the field of view that their ‘holographic optics’ offers is comparable to any VR product available in the market today.

If such projects succeed, we will soon have glasses-like VR headsets as opposed to the current headsets that have box-like form factor and provide only a fraction of the resolution of the human eye. Emerging optical design techniques, such as polarization-based optical folding, or “pancake” optics, promise to improve performance while reducing size.

As these experiments succeed and the companies evangelise the VR experience among the audience, A-listed directors will start making full-length VR features.

How soon will we be able to download and view an immersive fantasy movie from Marvel or Disney on the day of its premiere?

(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)

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