The Oculus Rift was developed for video games, but that hasn’t stopped a crop of pioneering documentary filmmakers from using the technology to pioneer new ways of telling stories. At this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, four short “immersive” documentaries will premiere at the DocX Virtual Reality Showcase, proving that the portable Oculus Rift technology holds huge potential for filmmakers as well as gamers.
“We’re finding that people are really enjoying the 360 videos more than the fake worlds that are being created because they’re real,” says Thomas Wallner, whose latest film is a part of the exhibit. Polar Sea 360°, directed by Wallner and Stephanie Weimar, takes users on a trip through the Arctic, allowing them to view melting icecaps and the intense Aurora Borealis of the Arctic circle as if they were right there rather than viewing the sights through the frame of a theatre screen or television set.
Originally filmed with a 360° camera as an interactive web component for a ten-part series by the European broadcaster Arte, Wallner and Weimar realized the footage made a great fit for the new wave of VR technology. Specifically, Wallner recalls how surprised he was at the effectiveness of the OR technology. “I didn’t have huge expectations,” he says “I just put the headset on to watch this and it was just a completely transformative moment.”
For Wallner, VR technology has helped filmmakers achieve what French film theorist André Bazin called “the myth of total cinema,” a totally immersive experience. “People imagined what the cinema would be like before even the film camera and the projection screen was invented,” says Wallner “and what they imagined is what we’re starting to do now, cinema that surrounds you, that is in 360, that is in 3D.”
Filmmakers currently working with the technology are pioneers in the field, and they’ve been tasked with solving a series of problems that come with being the first at something. For starters, the necessary 360° cameras have created a new series of problems for their users. “When you’re shooting 360 video and you don’t want the crew to be in the movie, they have to hide,” says Wallner. “When we were shooting in the arctic, we actually wore camouflage suits and laid down in the grass or hid behind rocks.”
Furthermore, the language of film as we know it, a series of shots juxtaposed against each other to create temporal and spatial meaning, has to be rethought in the context of an immersive and interactive viewer experience. “You can’t really do that kind of montage in VR,” says Wallner. “If you were to chop it up really quickly like an action sequence, you would feel like you’re having a schizophrenic episode.” Polar Sea 360° does cut from shot to shot, but only after allowing each 360° image to sink in first. It’s now up to documentary filmmakers to figure out where the boundaries are and how much technique from conventional filmmaking can be transported to the new medium.
Compared to the clunky VR gaming devices from the 90s (as recently parodied on Community), users will probably be surprised at how immersive and uncanny the new technology is. “What I was most blown away was how totally responsive it is to your movement,” says Brett Hendrie, a Hot Docs programmer, “Without any lag or effects that would disorient you, it really positions you in that environment.”
In addition to Polar Sea 360°, the Hot Docs exhibit will also feature three other short films from Canadian filmmakers. Herders, by the Montreal filmmakers Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, uses Oculus Rift technology to put users in the company of nomadic Mongolian yak herders. Strangers with Patrick Watson lets users sit in at the celebrated musicians home studio while he works on music. Another film, Songs of Freedom, eschews the advanced VR technology in favour of a smartphone app that can be used with disposable cardboard headset.
For Hendrie, this kind of Virtual Reality set-up is also appealing because it makes the technology more accessible to average people. “It’s really just over the past year or so that’s you’re seeing a significant number of projects come forward,” he says “and now creative filmmakers are figuring out how they can tell stories.” Indeed, many users at Hot Docs will be seeing it for the first time. But given that the first Oculus Rift consumer device is set to be released this year, it’s unlikely it will be the last.
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'Polar Sea 360' screens at this year's Hot Docs. Head over here for more info.