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Since the creation of film, very few major changes have been made in the way we watch movies. The introduction of sound made the largest impact, allowing for more in-depth stories to be told, but there has also been colour, 3D, and CGI all of which changed the worlds we can experience and the things filmmakers can dream up to show us.

Enter the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality (VR) headset that may be the next massive change in the way we watch movies. Virtual reality won’t just change the way we watch films, it will change the way we experience them. If 3D was created to give viewers a more immersive experience, VR takes it to the next level. It’s something that needs to be experienced to fully understand, and if director Elli Raynai has his way, moviegoers will all have the opportunity to do just that.

Raynai recently completed work on his short film, I Am You, which is viewed using an Oculus Rift headset. In the film, a man finds himself feeling disconnected from his girlfriend, so he suggests they use a new technology to get closer. The experimental tech allows them to place their consciousness into the other person’s body, which of course mirrors the way the Oculus Rift places the viewer inside the film. “The film was inspired by the tech,” explains Raynai. “We [Raynai and his partner Alexander Kondratskiy] were like, how can we use the technology to tell a story? And that story is really intertwined with how the tech works. You are moving through the body of  a character. You can’t really do that without VR.”

The film was inspired by the tech. The story is intertwined with how the tech works. You are moving through the body of a character. You can’t really do that without virtual reality.

Raynai has set up the experience in the Oculus Rift to begin the moment viewers put the headset on. Viewers will find themselves sitting in a movie theatre, looking at the film playing on the screen in front of you. You can look left and right and see rows of empty seats all around you. It’s here where you’re given a bit of freedom to play in the world of VR. This was a decision that Raynai made to capture the attention of viewers. “I throw them in the cinema for half the story because that’s how they’re used to experiencing a film and they look around and it’s not like crazy. They look around, they watch the film, maybe they’re paying attention, maybe they’re not, but they’re there long enough that they start to watch the story.”

It’s not exactly what you might be expecting at first. VR has been handled oddly in films like Demolition Man over the years, so to find yourself in a theatre with the film playing in front of you is fascinating, but perhaps a little disappointing. You want to be ‘in’ the film, which is exactly where you end up, you just have to wait for the appropriate moment. Raynai is right though, it’s hard to pay attention to what’s happening within the film at first. It’s so strange to be in this VR world, but you quickly get used to it, and that’s when focus turns to the film. When the characters start getting ready to use their technology in the film, viewers should start getting prepared for the most insane experience they’ll ever have watching a movie.

As the characters find themselves in each other’s bodies, viewers find themselves inside of the young man in the film. This is a point of view shot in the most extreme definition. You feel like you’re that character. The process to create this feeling wasn’t a simple one, and Raynai explains some of the ways in which they had to create the film to enhance the experience. “We built a rig where we put two GoPro cameras, and they mimic the eyes of the viewer, and we shot in 3D so that’s what it feels like. We hacked things together to make it work. As hard as we worked on the story, we worked as hard on the tech to make the story work, so that’s why I think this film is a success. It was rehearsed, it was choreographed, the actors had to learn how to use the camera because they wore this helmet rig and they had to learn where to look and how to move so there was a lot of planning and there was a lot of consideration that went into this before. We didn’t just go out and shoot a film. It was slow.”

No matter what happens, you still have that focus of ‘where is the story happening?’ What we’re finding is that people are engaged in the story and that is something where we’re like, wow, we succeeded in a huge way.

In order to keep viewers interested in the narrative of the film, Raynai faced a few problems that needed solutions. Within the world of the Oculus Rift, you can look and see in every direction. A lot of people are creating 360 degree video, so users can turn around, or look up and down and see something. While that obviously mimics our reality, it doesn’t necessarily work in terms of telling a story. “If you have 360 [degree view], how do you control a narrative when the viewer can look anywhere and they miss the action?” Raynai says. The solution was to limit how far the viewer can look away from the action of the film. “You could look around a little bit, but no matter what happens, you still have that focus of ‘where is the story happening?’ What we’re finding is that people are engaged in the story and that is something where we’re like, wow, we succeeded in a huge way.”

This is obviously a first step into the world of VR filmmaking, but it’s an important one. The ability to use some simple, cost effective options to use a smart phone is coming closer to putting a cheap VR option in the hands of every person. It wouldn’t be strange to think that you could fill a theatre with people using their phones to watch a VR film together, and Raynai is excited at the prospects the future holds. I Am You is an amazing piece of work in VR filmmaking, and Raynai is ready to continue moving forward, challenging himself to work on bigger projects. At this point, the experience is still limited in how many viewers can enjoy it at once, but Raynai is doing his best to bring his film, and the technology it was created with, to viewers in Toronto.

On Wednesday, June 3, 2015, Raynai will be presenting his film at Videofag (187 Augusta Avenue) beginning at 7:00 pm. A small number of Oculus Rift headsets will be available so a few viewers will be able to experience the ten minute short film at the same time. You can buy tickets to the event here, and it’s an experience that you just don’t want to miss out on. A small clip of the film is below, offering a look at the story that will be presented, even if it can’t offer a look at the actual experience.