Although Virtual Reality (VR) has yet to take off commercially, so far the Hollywood studios are mostly embracing the new digital frontier as a marketing vehicle to promote their franchises. On Wednesday, Paramount hosted the first VRTL Summit for VR professionals and investors, and announced a partnership with MoveoPlus to provide Moveo Virtual Reality Simulators in theaters and theme parks, with content provided by J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.
While they are among many top directors, from Alejandro González Iñárritu to David Goyer, who are experimenting with VR storytelling, everyone acknowledges that the technology needs to improve — along with bringing down the cost of those bulky headsets. And the push to bring engaging content to consumers remains a challenge. It comes down to effective storytelling. Nobody’s going to pay for VR marketing promos, so immersive adventures and interactions with virtual characters are going to have to be compelling for this new medium to really take off.
Here’s what we learned from the visionaries at the VRTL Summit about about how to bring the wow factor to VR and its companions, Augmented Reality (AR, adding digital media to reality) and Mixed Reality (MR, interacting with VR in the real world):
It Takes a Director
Robert Stromberg, director of “Maleficent,” Oscar-winning production designer of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Avatar,” and founder of The Virtual Reality Company, deconstructed his first foray into VR: “Raising a Rukus,” an animated VR experience coming to headsets and theaters later this year. It’s about two siblings and their mischievous pet dog, but, rather than stressing interaction, Stromberg prefers to drive the narrative via branching options, so that we can follow the characters on different paths.
Stromberg compares it to a holographic play: “Will people sit and watch a story in front of them without having to interact?” Stromberg said. ” VR is a very powerful tool and most people look at it as something that needs interaction. If the characters ignore you, does that feel strange? But if you get too close, do you feel like you’re disturbing something?
ILMxLab Takes a Deep Dive with Alejandro González Iñárritu
Meanwhile, Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab, which has partnered with Magic Leap to introduce a mixed reality for the “Star Wars” universe (inside and outside the home) and is working with Marvel maven David Goyer on a Darth Vader VR Experience, just completed the short, “CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible)” with Oscar-winners Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emanuel Lubezki (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”). Produced by Mary Parent and financed by Legendary Entertainment and Fondazione Prada, the hyper-immersive story allows us to cross the border with Mexican refugees. It marks the first VR project to be chosen for the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival.
“It really uses the medium in a very powerful and impactful way,” said Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive in charge of ILMxLAB. “It really feels as if you’re there, and Alejandro pushed the boundaries in so many different ways in terms of storytelling, in terms of scale, in terms of what you would do in immersive space with a story that unfolds. And because of that power presence, because of the nature of the medium, you can create experiences that are more lasting and they actually create empathy.”
IMAX and Warner Bros. Go Beyond Marketing VR
IMAX (which is partnered with Google on a new camera) is also working with Warner Bros. to make three interactive VR experiences based on “Justice League” (opening November 17), “Aquaman” (December 21, 2018) and a third untitled experience. IMAX has already raised $50 million to incubate VR experiences in its VR centers (including one across from the Grove in LA) and, if all goes well, this would extend to displays in their theaters and on mobile devices.
“You have to go beyond marketing pieces and that’s why narrative is so important,” said Rob Lister, chief development officer at IMAX. “And the mandate with Warner Bros. is to do 10-minute pieces that stand on their own…a good story and an intimate moment with a character.”
Creating the Ultimate Spatial Experience
Fox made the first significant splash with “The Martian VR Experience” and has spun off a new immersive division called FoxNext, which has partnered with Chris Milk’s VR startup Within to produce a slate of VR experiences, including a “Planet of the Apes” experience directed by Milk.
For Futurist Ted Schilowitz, who works with Fox, it’s all about spatial storytelling, which he calls “imagination styling.”
“The idea of being guided through a story where we create the illusion that you are indeed in control of your own destiny as a character is a really powerful approach,” said Schilowitz. “It’s actually like we brought you into this world and you get to participate in it, with the knowledge that good direction, good storyline, and good design are going to make you make choices that we think you want to make. You’ll always have the ability to be your own entity.”
Schilowitz optimistically believes this medium will reach critical mass by 2030. “If it takes hold the way I think it will, then human nature will have had a fundamental change,” he added. “We will forget what it was like using a smart phone because we will be wearing things that are embedded in different ways within us.”