As Cinema transforms into Virtual Reality, it will remain a masterfully directed telling of a story from a particular point of view
While virtual reality is on the rise and the corresponding technology is getting better and better, sooner or later the question will arise as to what role cinema will still play. Some prophets of doom are already sounding cinemas decline. But just as the printed book has been declared dead since at least two decades, cinema will only disappear slowly. And just like the printed book, cinema will never disappear completely.
Cinema offers something that virtual reality will not be able to develop in the foreseeable future, because the technical means for it do not yet exist and the effort will also be exponentially higher.
Cinema offers masterfully told stories for which not just one person in the form of the director is responsible. Those stories are created and produced by large groups of people that seems to grow larger and larger with each new blockbuster sequel that is coming out. These film teams are largely made up of specialists, each of whom is very good at a particular thing, be it set design, lighting, camera work, character portrayal, drawing, props, costume, etc.
Making a movie takes years of work and the producers ofteh struggle with many different factors. Not only is the preparation itself a major undertaking, but the amount of work that goes into actually shooting the movie is huge, even on smaller “indie” productions. For some scenes you build studios (or more and more often green screens) and for other scenes you wait hours, sometimes even days, for the perfect lighting conditions and the perfect cloud formations.
Films are sometimes produced with such a devotion to detail that it is hard to imagine how this can even begin to transfer to the experience of a virtual world.
The biggest difference between VR and film is that in film there is only one camera angle that captures the action and that we as passive viewers only very rarely have the opportunity to change this camera angle. By camera angle we are not only talking about the position and perspective of the camera, but also the choice of lens, which can strongly distort and/or bring into focus what is seen and how it is seen. The decision as to whether we look at an object from above or from below or whether the camera angle is perhaps even at a slight angle. These are all means that allow the director to fill in what we see with more information in parallel to the actual telling of the story. And in most films, no element captured by the camera is left to chance.
A large puzzle coming together on screen
Great care goes into every element that the camera captures. But beyond the cameras scope there are elements that the camera does not capture. And anyone who has ever been on a film set knows exactly what is meant by this. For reasons of cost and effort, film sets are only built as far as is necessary As soon as the camera is no longer supposed to look at a certain angle, this angle is only built in the rarest of cases.
Most rooms are not even built as a whole and many sets only consist of the floor and two or three moveable walls. If the camera has to look in the other direction, those walls are moved. For many films, sets that are coherent on the screen are often not even physically built as one set, but are spatially distributed across several studios or locations. This can have various reasons (space, simultaneous filming of different scenes or “simplicity” of lighting and camera sets). Many films therefore always have one or more continuity officers, depending on the complexity, whose job it is to ensure that elements appear identical and coherent from set to set and from scene to scene.
In virtual reality, you can look everywhere
If we now imagine this in virtual reality, there are a lot of differences. In VR, there must be constant continuity, because you don’t just look at the world from the outside, but are part of it, right in the middle of it. You can move everywhere, as long as the corresponding part of the world has been created and made accessible. And anyone who has ever dealt with the medium of video games knows that games, similar to films, are built in levels that contain different sections and set-pieces in which the game plot takes place. Alternatively, there are also the so-called “open world games” in which a complete “boundless” game world is designed through which the player can run in any direction and within which the game story is set without being directly bound to a more or less linear spatial sequence. But even here there are differences. In most cases the classic construction of successive levels leads to a higher atmospheric density, because the work of the team is limited to just this level and it can therefore usually be equipped in much greater detail. The open game world, on the other hand, promises a higher degree of immersion and the players self actualization, which is further enhanced by VR. But open game worlds need incomparably larger teams to make them interesting. Those who remember open game worlds from the early days of the genre know that you often crossed large areas where nothing happened and where there was nothing to see. Of course, that was very close to our reality, where you also move very slowly on foot. But in terms of a game that is primarily meant to entertain in your free time, there has to be a condensation of those traveling sequences and the game world has to be filled with more elements that keep us busy and let us have fun. At the same time, the story team is working on filling the story with main and side tasks and plot lines in such a way that the players go into every area of the open game world, so that no corner remains undiscovered and the game world is exploited to the fullest. This requires more staff. Especially when you want to go on quests that require more than collecting an arbitrarry number of ‘x’ or bring ‘a’ to ‘b’.
But despite modern techniques of game development and production, there are still limits to the creation of worlds. Even the increasingly frequent use of parametric techniques, which generate or redistribute elements at runtime according to certain specifications, currently only help to a limited extent in making the open world more lively.
Year after year, the game worlds become bigger, better and more naturalistic in terms of content and visuals, but it will still take a few years before they resemble reality.
Another point where this virtual reality differs significantly is the narrative. You don’t sit in a chair whose position is unchanging, as in the cinema. You move around, change the angle of vision. This makes it almost impossible to dictate the camera movement to the viewer. Many games still use this as a stylistic device to tell the story in the form of interludes, but in VR glasses this leads to a break in immersion and the viewers are not only torn out of their world, but some even feel physically sick.
In VR storytelling shifts to the world and it’s setting
Everything that happens “in the world” of a film reaches the viewers through the camera. Everything that happens “in the world” of VR reaches the viewers through their own individual points of view. This ‘eye of the needle’ of directional storytelling will increasingly dissolve and instead the story will have to be told much more through the game world and the characters based there.
Films have another advantage
But all the new possibilities completely disregard one thing above all. Films are a passive medium. You are not forced to make active decisions, to actively experience the world. Rather, you can sit down and let the story unfold. If it is not captivating enough or the armchair is too comfortable, you can let it lull you to sleep. Everyone knows the pleasant feeling of watching a film at home on the sofa that you’ve seen before and thus know that you’ll still be aware of everything when you wake up if you doze off for a few minutes in between.
And that’s why the narrated film will stay with us for a long time. Not everyone wants to have to actively advance a story in order to experience it. Because not everyone is a good storyteller or is interested in being one.
Film allows us to experience a story from one person’s point of view and not have to think about it and, above all, not be active. It is an entirely relaxing experience. There will probably be fewer films of some genres each year and some cinemas will close, but cinemas will remain as a leisure activity.
Not everyone wants to be a storyteller for their own adventure. It can be very gratifying to just be taken on a journey by someone else. Especially if that someone else is a masterful storyteller.
Virtual Reality is still in it’s infancy
The devices are still in their adolescence and the content can’t really get beyond the level of experimental content at the moment.
But who knows, maybe the two media will merge even further and form a new form of storytelling that has not yet been foreseen?