The Virtual Reality boom started back when the Oculus Rift and PlayStation Morpheus reared their heads during the past few years. Now, it has steamrolled its way to relevance and been on a hot trending streak since. But while its application in interactive media is renowned, you can also experience movies in VR mode. Think of it as an amplified 3D glasses experience, only you ARE in the film itself.
Chameleon VR plans to tap into that specific market, but with an Asian touch. The company is focused on creating & distributing VR films set in the region. While it’s the platform, its partner Vostok VR is the technological enabler; to make sure it has a steady stream of content to start with. From the volcanoes of Kamchatka to the remote parts of the Philippines; it doesn’t matter. If it’s good to shoot and if there’s a story worth telling within that landscape, both Chameleon VR and Vostok VR will champion it.
Their upcoming film Abandon will be doing just that. Based on the trailer, it’s a drama about a girl who follows her ex-boyfriend to an abandoned tower in Bangkok. The film features purposely-tailored moody shots with a sense of dread and a level of tension, all the while taking note of its VR-watching feature. The film used 4 different cameras with 360 degree technology to shoot all of its scenes, and so far the camerawork looks promising.
Not Just A Gimmick
But having the right equipment and gear isn’t enough: skill, technique, and knowing how VR perspectives work is important too. The right engineer can make or break an expensive project like this. 360 degree film director and production house Vostok VR founder Vitaliy Nechaev knows that VR delivers what regular films can’t — a higher sense of immersion and ‘freeform’ perspective. “It is hard to compare [VR films and regular 2D films], but there is one main difference. In 360 degree filming for VR films, there is no such thing as a ‘forced perspective.’
This works to the field’s advantage, because being in the scenery itself and viewing it as an invisible outsider bumps up the immersion factor by a ton. Viewers also have the freedom to take all of it in.
“You can't force a person to focus on one particular view or subject(s).” said Nechaev. “In VR films, viewers are free to look around and also to find different clues and other nuances, which in turn makes them immersed in the atmosphere.” This also mean that VR filmmakers cannot stage 360 degree shots like in conventional filming. As a result, these scenes come off as more natural and believable.
One good example is Happyland360, a documentary Nechaev and his team created and shot in the Philippines which is about life in the country’s biggest dumpsite. In one scene, the team filmed kids swimming in the Manila Bay. While they’re happy and cheerful from the outside, the actual port was extremely dirty and filled with poisonous water. If viewers looked further on, they could see two boys burning copper to make extra money for their families. Just 10 seconds of viewing that with 360 degree view is enough to give the audience a more empathic perspective.
With New Styles Come New Burdens…
It’s definitely not easy to shoot films tailored for VR. The big challenge that Nechaev sees in the fledgling industry comes threefold: lack of ideas, the cost of production talent, and the cost of equipment.
“Most people believe that everything in 360 degrees will work. But in reality filming without a clear 360 degree concept in mind will lead to the creation of another gimmick. Just browse YouTube/Facebook for 360 degree videos and you will see tons of low-production quality content from Korean girls dancing in a circle to a dog’s point of view.”
If your idea isn’t solid or does not stand out, you’ll be paying through your nose. “If you look for 360 degree camera professionals all over the world, “ Nechaev added, “you will find at max a thousand of them. 90 percent of them will be in concentrated places where big video productions are made. The cost of these professionals are at least five times more than a regular 2D film crew.”
His solution? Before production, he will ask his team this one most important question: “Why 360 degrees? If we can do it better in 2D, why do it?” Also, since this is new ground in film-making, going cheap isn’t an option. You’ll need 12 times more equipment in VR filmmaking compared to 2D filmmaking. “This is a main factor that stops Southeast Asian film-makers from creating high-quality productions,” said Nechaev. “In the future, we will collaborate with Asia-based artists to enable their creative ideas using our top-notch execution.”
It also pays to know how VR filmmakers do their work. Nechaev said the professionals in this field can visualize the shot in a sphere and predict where and what viewers will see first. “What makes 360 filming more complex is that you need to “cover” the whole area. Professionals think of how to move the camera without appearing in the shot. While doing it in 2D can be done with various methods, we have to come up with new ideas for 360 filming. You can’t hold the camera, you can’t walk with the camera; you have to improvise with these restrictions.”
The Best Genres For VR Films
What are the most popular genres that aspiring filmmakers should tap into with this new realm of film making? Documentaries and awareness spots are the way to go for now. Nechaev thinks that when you can show people the lives of others in another country, especially war-torn ones like Liberia and Iraq, the 360 degree style will make you feel more immersed in its setting and can draw out more emotion.
Seeing the world in another perspective can also put viewers into their host’s shoes, and in some ways raise awareness. Nechaev’s production house is now finalizing the 360 degree experience for Channel News Asia, where you can see the point of view of a person with dementia. “I think this is a very powerful experience, where you can be inside another person's head to feel what it is like to have dementia. This is to create awareness and bring empathy to viewers and society as a whole.”
Horror is also another genre to tap into. With games like Resident Evil 7 and indie darlings like Stifled garnering buzz for their implementation of VR for immersion, filmmakers can learn a few techniques from these games and replicate them for their production.
Speaking Of The Future...
What’s next for Chameleon VR? The company will be searching for hidden Asian talent in the second half of 2017, who are willing to bring their vision to 360 degree film. The folks there are more than happy to provide their specialized equipment and workforce to help these individuals realise their ideas.
But honestly, is VR the way to go for films of the future and to capture a new kind of market? Yes, because it can deliver a layer of honesty not found in other mediums, said Nechaev. “You just leave the camera and hide behind the wall letting actors or regular people live their normal lives. And this freedom means a lot for viewers, as they are choosing where to focus, and what story to believe.”
Perhaps there is some truth in that statement. Being part of the conversation without being ‘in’ the conversation, and looking around with curiosity, taps into our inner voyeurs and the need to participate without getting caught — there’s a thrill in doing that while in a virtual space.
If the same principle is true for social media and YouTube, why not in films and virtual reality? At the very least, the people you’re watching getting blown apart verbally and mentally are just fictional. You can get started with Chameleon VR’s film Abandon, which will be out this year.
Photos: Title image - Direk Yiamsaensuk, Backstage shots - Marc Daniel Nair