Virtual Reality or VR for short, a name that stands proudly as an insignia at the front engine of a large train in the entertainment business. Many people call it the way to view the future, alongside the Augmented Reality (or AR for short). A way to experience an environment, a story, that is unparalleled to the ways we’ve been used to in the past. A method that exceeds the capacities of the S3D (not 3D).
Before I start confusing you with terminology, allow me to use my background to explain what I mean. S3D basically stands for Stereoscopic 3 Dimensions. The shooting is done from two cameras, one for each eye, thus simulating a three dimensional environment. It is not a real 3D, no matter the advertising we come across. The actual 3D space is a lot more expansive and detailed.
In a similar way, VR uses several cameras – currently – known as the “camera rig”. A full dome-like VR space requires five of them, covering slightly more than 90 degrees each (for a conventional 5-camera rig). Now, imagine a cameraman carrying that behemoth around in film action scenes. Poor guy/lady has to be The Hulk to bear such weight. Lately there have been advancements in cameras that can solely take a significant load off that rig, but to be perfectly honest, they are far from achieving the requirements of an actual film resolution. Bear with me for a moment and imagine viewing a movie in the theater. You are watching an angle – on average – between 35 to 60 degrees, which bears a 4K resolution. That is pretty much the standard (with a few exceptions that use the 8K). Now, imagine what resolution will be required to produce the same image clarity on a 360 degree (or even an 180). The amount of data is enormous and at risk of appearing fuzzy and with various artifacts to the points where the cameras overlap.
On the up side, you – as a viewer – will have a lot of space to look at, which is prone to distract you from observing key elements of the story. A reaction, a gesture from the lead actor or actress, is most likely you will miss, because you are admiring the architecture or that hottie at the edge of the screen. Or as you are enjoying a scene, a cut suddenly takes you to an irrelevant place, completely cutting you off from the visual continuity and forcing you to enter a different environment. To top it off, imagine a close up of a character. A face that will pop up right in front of you, taking your entire field of view, looking like a blob – due to camera angle distortion! In short, viewing films in such a manner can be very distracting. Now, if you add S3D to them, it is a recipe for motion sickness.
All in all, S3D, in conjunction with VR makes you feel like the 3rd person in the room, who “teleports” around uncontrollably. Now, add to that the selective camera focus and depth of field (the blurring of foreground or background). If the combination of all the above doesn’t throw your senses off, disconnecting you from the film immersion, I don’t know what will. In the past, I happened to work in VR, but the real-time version of it (first person view – as in looking directly through your eyes, leading the action yourself) and engaged in a full 360 degree Dome Theater productions. The requirements are pretty standard.
Why am I saying this?
About a year and a half ago, I was contacted by an interested party that wanted to come into my flagship project (some 90+ million USD worth) and shoot it in VR. This could work, should the film be a simple one, without any intense action and visuals. However, Mortal Guard is an emotionally intense action thriller in the science fiction genre. As you can imagine, the number of visual effects and custom design sets is pretty high in both numbers and required quality. Both the post production house and the VFX facility would have my head on a diamond platter! Therefore, for all the reasons I mentioned above (and then some), I placed some key questions to that corporation. If they were able to satisfy them, then I would accept the additional financing they would bring into the film and shoot it all in VR, despite the reservations of my insanely veteran VFX Supervisor & Producer (mind you, that guy has a ton of blockbuster films under his belt). After those questions left my mail server, I never heard from them since, so I decided to continue down the traditional path.
Recently I was hearing about the first big film, Top Gun, is intended to be shot in VR. Rumor has it they came across the same production problems, which has kept the project in pre-production for 9 months now. Paramount hopes to cover for this with the building of the first virtual reality theater, alongside Bigscreen, which it intends to offer as a free of charge for the audience to experience. I honestly hope that these guys can get through the bottlenecks that the S3D/VR combo brings forth.
Let’s face it, the software for VR has been around for nearly 20 years now, so that is not the problem. Hence why we have so many companies popping out with their own headsets. The playback capacity is there… the recording? Not really. The hardware has yet to catch up. We are lacking in shooting equipment for such an endeavor and the current expectations and advertising has set the bar way too high.
As a former programmer, CG & VFX artist/lead/supervisor with experience in VR, I can safely say I have a decent knowledge of what is required to make great stories in that medium. Though I hope you will forgive me for not disclosing the ideas in a public blog. In addition, I am 100% convinced that the people who work in the post production and the gaming industry are very much aware of it as well. VR is best used with a certain combination and a very specific set of additional tech applications. However, I will offer a tip: a lot of good programmers will be needed in the future. So, keep that in mind if you ever love to code with a creative aspect in mind.
Conclusively, we have the software, but not the hardware; and in film, VR alone is not enough. It needs something extra. If you are interested in such productions and want to know what, drop me a line!