The Virtual Reality Close-up

12.03.2015 § Leave a comment

The immediately obvious “wow” in immersive cinema is the 360-degree surround experience factor: the action is all around you now. No more screen with edges, a frame, a limit. In any or all directions things are happening.

It’s a huge issue: how to storytell in such an environment. Many strategies have been proposed. Certainly sound — being perceived directionally agnostic — can be used to direct attention (I read a VR film screenplay once with stage actions written in the second person: “You look up to see your parachute unfurl”!) And character eyelines can point viewers where to look — next-gen match on glance. And as far as editing goes, well, you can have looser timing (wait for someone to look a certain direction before cutting, for instance) or just reposition people absolutely (assuming thereby that they are cordless and on a swivel chair)… I could go on.

These challenges are fascinating, but I will argue that by immersing people in action like this we do not actually bring them closer to the story emotionally and psychologically. In fact, by not being able to know with whom any given audience member’s attention currently resides as authors, an insurmountable new distance has been introduced! Storytelling in VR is like storytelling in music: certainly a thing, but far from the most magical thing.

As a director of theater, I could choose to place my actors on a stage in one direction from every attendee, or I could do theater in the round with the audience surrounding the actors, or I could choose to have the audience in the center with actors acting in any direction from them. Depending on my expressive needs, I can introduce the same factors that immersive cinema does with respect to surrounding action.

But one thing I can’t do, which film lets one do (while being limited to the one-directionality) is let everyone watching together get right up in the face of an actor. The close-up didn’t immediately catch on as a cinematic technique; performers were intimidated by sharing their skin pores with strangers, audiences were terrified that bodies had been cut off from heads, and studios thought they paid for the whole body and weren’t getting their money’s worth. Soon though the close-up was a big part of the success of the film industry and of the essence of celebrity: becoming that intimate with a beautiful stranger was an experience no one had shared before.

I argue, then, that the most important aspect of the immersive cinema medium is not going to be this obvious one of the surrounding action, but the increase in intimacy it allows for. With immersive cinema, we can combine the best of both worlds from theater and film: we can not only occupy the same three-dimensional space as the actors, but we also occupy it from impossibly perfect and precise positions. With the film close-up, the face can occupy an entire screen, a large part of a person’s field-of-view, and it can even get cut off on the edges of the screen if the camera is so close that it’s only recording part of a face. With the VR close-up, the viewer can be shrunk down to the size of a fly and be inches away from an actor’s face; the viewer could be physically closer to the actor than would even be physically possible in real life because your nose would begin to intersect with the actor’s face. Imagine not just close-ups for intimate emotional conveyance, but also experimental and wild moments such as the eye slitting from Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou.

We’ve seen the beginnings of this importance with shorts such as the Evolution of Vrse from Chris Milk, when you are placed in the palm of a 2001 star child and lifted right up to its giant infant face. This works because the child is a computer model, and thus exists in 3d geometry, with true depth, parallax, etc. Perhaps the disproportionate obsession with surrounding action over the next level of intimacy is why so few others are as obsessed with light-field technology as I am. A film projected onto a sphere I’m trapped motionless in the center of, with some shoddy 3D-film “rapey” (as Jodorowsky puts it) effects, is crap. What is gold is actually feeling co-present in another space with a story playing out. And we won’t have that with actual human actors playing off each others’ co-present performances until Lytro’s Immerge and other technologies ship to content producers.

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