Virtual Reality has been the next big thing for too many years now, but with the price reduction of headsets (down to $30, with predictions that it’ll be the go-to gift Xmas 2017) signalling market penetration, the player being your smart phone (and everyone’s already got one of those), and major companies such as PlayStation, Google, Facebook, and Hollywood film studios investing in both hardware and software, the time is ripe for content creators to get acquainted with the possible future of storytelling.
Australian creative studio, The Pulse, has well and truly taken the leap, as the producer of corporates in the immersive experiences space, and most recently with the production of Remember, a VR pilot for a proposed 13-part narrative series. FilmInk was privileged to be invited by the creator of Remember, George Kacevski, to The Pulse’s deceptively modest studio in the inner Northern Sydney suburb of Crows Nest to view what they had been up to prior to Remember’s launch at the recent 2016 International Film Festival & Awards in Macau.
Believe it or not, it was my first VR experience. I had always been sceptical of VR going the way of 3D televisions – everyone jumps aboard the latest craze but then lets it sit in the corner unused – and that may still end up being the case. For now, though, nearly every major film festival is showcasing it, and screen funding bodies are putting money into its development, so it was high time that I got with the program.
Before I got my VR on, I had a chat with Remember producer, Shane Fernandez, and directors, George Kacevski and Frederic Simard, for context. “The process of producing it isn’t easy, and we’re inventing tools,” admits George Kacevski. “If someone writes a thought-piece on the rules, next month we break them all. We view the 360 environment as a canvas rather than as a limitation, or a guide to what we should or shouldn’t do.”
And distribution? How does the public access the content? “It’s an arms race basically,” says Shane Fernandez. “All the distributors are trying to be the next Netflix for VR [not to mention that Netflix are also exploring the space themselves]. And they’re all attacking the problem from slightly different angles, and it hasn’t shaken out which way is going to be the best way.”
“We need to figure out ways of creating the stories that we want to produce, while finding commercial viability for them,” Kacevski says. “It’s fantastic to create something beautiful, but we’re here to make money out of what we do, and finding a model that works for us.”
“While exploring the medium,” adds Frederic Simard.
The country taking the lead in VR is China, who are about five years in front of the rest of the world when it comes to both production and consumption. It helps that they have a massive population, but they need the Western world to catch on, otherwise the content does not travel outside Chinese territories.
Right now, VR content is now largely in the “documentary” domain, with filmmakers plonking a 360 camera into an exotic location, and doing something art/experiment-based. Australian filmmaker, Lynette Wallworth, for instance, has famously been supported through a number of initiatives. Gaming is also big on VR, and so, of course, is porn. The holy grail is narrative VR, and that is why I have been ushered into The Pulse offices. Remember is a collaboration between The Pulse; video streaming infrastructure and VR distribution platform, LENS Immersive; and their sister company, Pioneer VR/AR Studios, the world’s first Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality film studio.
VR is literally immersive, with a headset obstructing your view of the “real world”, and in our world of multiple screen viewing, this will potentially be the only way to get a young audience to watch something uninterrupted; there’s even VR content which replicates the cinema experience! That being said, the world is working towards making VR incorporate social media (hello, Mark Zuckerberg), which many believe will give it true market penetration.
So, what of Remember? Well, it definitely takes a bold step into VR storytelling, borrowing the best bits from various narrative formats and creating something unique, engaging, and invigorating in the process. The story is set in the future, where an AI allows you to access your memories and to change them. In the first episode, you are seeing the world through the eyes of Sarah, and future episodes will be seen from different characters’ POV, and at different times in the future. One of the most interesting storytelling devices in Remember is the use of framing and blacks, narrowing the viewer’s fields of vision and focusing what they should be looking at.
“There is no right way,” says Tracey Taylor, The Pulse general manager/executive producer, who has joined us. “Everyone has strong and very different views on where VR should go. And no one is wrong; we’re all exploring. Six months ago, what I said what would be great about VR, but I’d probably change my mind now. VR is not 360. It doesn’t have to be that. Just because it can be, it doesn’t mean that it should be. And that’s the other exciting thing about the filmic language; you have this whole canvas that you can close and open, which is really exciting.”
Filmed in Australia and Macau, with Australian and Asian actors, Remember has been released globally in English and Mandarin in both VR and flat versions. “It’s an experiential film; it’s linear, and it’s narrative, but I can’t tell you what to look at,” says Kacevski. “So what you interpret from the story is totally up to you, and our job as filmmakers is to create enough layers for you to either scratch the surface of what the story is or dig deeper, and look at the little clues.”
“We can’t do traditional close-ups, but if you had an actor walk up close to camera, that feeling of presence has an emotional effect, so it’s a great tool for filmmakers,” says Fernandez.
“The easy thing to do is horror, and it’s great for that, but that only goes so far,” adds Tracey Taylor. “People are still testing the language. If you put a 360 camera somewhere and they try to tell a drama, straight away questions arise – am I a character? And if people don’t refer to me, then I’m not a character but just a voyeur, a floating personality. There are lots of people creating VR that haven’t actually crafted the story to use VR for its strengths. Often when I watch VR, there are just more questions. A lot of them revolve around the same thing: why is this in 360 and VR? For instance, with the documentary stuff, it’s interesting to be in the middle of a Syrian refugee camp – that’s amazing – but does that actually create more empathy than a well-constructed documentary where you can cut and focus and show close ups?”
The reason that The Pulse team have gotten me in is not to simply pump their egos and to promote their latest project. They’re actually hoping to encourage other filmmakers to get their VR on. Says Kacevski: “They’re saying that 2017 could potentially kill VR if not enough filmmakers get their head around how to create films in the format. We’re not just massive fans of it – we’re into teaching people, and to grow the industry because it benefits everybody. There’s a massive profit to be made for production companies and distributors equally as long as filmmakers and directors understand what it is. Any time that I have a conversation with a director, they say, ‘We’ll start with a close-up here and cut.’ But there’s none of that. All you can do is create a world and a story and interesting characters. It’s a huge learning curve for traditional directors.”