Sorry, Virtual Reality is not a new kind of cinema

By Adam Westbrook 11 June 2015
Oculus Rift Virtual Reality

VR technologies are being lauded as the future of the cinematic experience, but are its creators taking it in the wrong direction?

It is one of those weird quirks of cultural history that when a new medium is invented, the inventors completely misunderstand what it is they’ve made. Early filmmakers thought they were creating a new kind of theatre, and just recorded actors moving around on a stage. Television thought it was a new kind of radio. Online video thinks it is a new kind of television.

It’s likely that the next truly transformative medium for entertainment is going to be Virtual Reality (VR). We are months away from the Oculus Rift headsets becoming available, and mere years from the price of those headsets dropping to mass market levels.

The race now is to come up with stuff to do in VR. Video games will transition easily into immersive experiences, and sports will too.

Meanwhile a lot of effort is being put into making movies work in virtual reality. Fast Company reports that manufacturers like Samsung and Google are partnering with Hollywood talent to figure out how cinema will work in virtual reality. Last year Oculus Rift opened its own ‘Story Studio’ to produce movies that experiment with the form.

Watching Story Studio’s glossy promo video, you can see they all very closely associate themselves with the DNA of cinema – they see VR as the next step in a lineage that extends back to the Lumière Brothers.

“We are here to make movies” declares Edward Saatchi, producer at Oculus Story Studio.

And this is the problem. They think VR is a new kind of cinema, but in fact they are making the same mistake all over again: misunderstanding their medium.

Why VR cannot do movies

What makes cinema cinematic? You might think it’s got something to do with explosions, action and dramatic kisses, but actually it is something much more fundamental. At its most primal level, the very essence of cinema is *the cut*: editing together two separate pieces of film, the contrast between the images telling the story.

Mad Max: Fury Road was filmed digitally and is shown on a screen – but so is CCTV. What makes the former cinematic? Simply that 2 hours of CCTV is just one long shot, whereas Mad Max comprises no fewer than 2,700 individual edits. Each edit adds a piece of information that tells the story cinematically.

You cannot escape this fundamental principle of cinema. And you cannot escape the fact that virtual reality does not – as far as we know – do cuts. You cannot control what the audience looks at as they explore a space.

Thing is, the VR pioneers have realised this. “One thing we did try was this concept of cuts” admits Max Planck, the Supervising Technical Director at Oculus Story Studio. “In virtual reality you are the camera so it’s more like a teleport instead of a cut. And we found that when you teleport someone it’s jarring.”

If you can’t do cuts, you can’t do cinema.

These pioneers talk as if these are just problems to be solved, but I fear they are charging down a road to nowhere. A lot of time, effort and money is being spent trying to make VR replicate something it cannot – in principle – become.

But if it’s not a new kind of cinema, what is VR? I think that it is more like a new kind of immersive *theatre*. You have a stage – which in VR can be much more expansive, limitless in fact – with the audience on the stage with the actors rather than in seats at the back.

And ironically, this is something theatre has been experimenting with for decades.

Rather than wondering how Michael Bay would do VR, Oculus and others should be studying and collaborating with these theatre directors instead.

Why aren’t they? I suspect it is simply because there is more glamour, and, importantly, more money, in appearing to ‘reinvent’ cinema than there is in avant garde theatre. It’s a shame really. It means we’re likely to endure ten or more years of quite bad VR “movies” before someone realises that they should have been directing plays instead.