Virtual Reality (VR) is no longer an arcade gimmick. Like an entertainment platform out of “Infinite Jest,” the Oculus Rift (OR) is bringing an exciting and startling array of possibilities to VR and the idea of fully immersing oneself in a fictional world. When someone talks about the OR and its version of virtual reality, they’re not discussing a cumbersome helmet equipped with math-sheet grid screens, abundant geometric outlines, and no tangible connection to reality. Instead, the device is futuristically sleek, with a 110˚ diagonal view (matching the average human eye-line), low latency, and a high-definition image that brings you into rendered environments in a brand new way.
Oculus VR, the company behind the Rift, pushed VR out of the arcade and into contemporary visual arts industries by strictly adhering to neuro-scientific parameters of scale and visual continuity, thereby building plausible worlds on the screen. Despite that Oculus VR’s wunderkind CEO Palmer Luckey has described the system and its virtual platform as “specifically for gaming,” the potential for rendering fictional environments seems limitless. Also, with a $2 Billion purchase from Facebook, a partnership with Samsung, and demos popping up at gaming and film festivals like TIFF and Tribeca, developers are clamoring to get in on the action. It seems only logical that filmmakers would jump at the chance to be in on the ground floor of this emerging visual medium.
Regardless of what skeptics and film purists say, new technology has always been a guiding force in visual media. It’s easy to forget that, little more than a century ago, film itself was considered brand new technology, with a future that was excitingly uncertain. Most recently, for better or for worse, the advent of digital 3-D changed the mainstream theatrical viewing experience for now and the foreseeable future. The Oculus Rift has the potential to change the movie-watching experience once again. Despite that no consumer models of the OR are currently on the market, the intimacy, immediacy, and believability of its images could drastically change the way we emotionally, psychologically, and physically interact with cinema. Yet, relatively few filmmakers are jumping at the chance to create something out of this potential.
Enter upstarts Elli Raynai and Alex Kondratskiy, two plucky independent Torontonian filmmakers currently blazing their own virtual trail with the Oculus Rift. Raynai, coming from a traditional filmmaking background, has an admirably romantic notion of the narrative possibilities presented by the Rift than Kondratskiy, who comes from the more technical game-development side of virtual reality and whose knowledge of the equipment borders on encyclopedic. Armed with resourceful head-mounted cameras that make the wearer look like a cross between a mugwump and Johnny Mnemonic, they’re currently in pre-production for their short film, I am You, which, potentially, will be one of the first films to be produced for the Oculus Rift. Both men are understandably excited about their new film, the brave VR frontier, and the exciting possibilities of filmmaking in this new medium.
“The film is basically about someone who is in a long-distance relationship,” says Raynai, explaining the crux of I am You’s story. “He feels disconnected from her, he feels disconnected from himself, and he decides to create an app that allows him to basically feel what it’s like to be in another person’s body… I wanted this to have some experiential value for the viewer.”
Experiential value is very important to VR. Proximity to lived experience and interactivity are the Rift’s selling points. An issue arises, however, in the question of differentiating gaming and film. “We’re trying to look at how you can bring interactive things [from gaming] into filmmaking,” says Kondratskiy. “We’re looking into where the boundary lies.”
The two filmmakers have to bridge the gap between the passive film-viewer and the relatively active gamer. They have to balance on the tightrope between choose-your-own-adventure kitsch and the master narratives of conventional filmmaking. It’s a tough challenge, but they’re more than up to the task. “We can’t use standard film language,” says Raynai. “We have to reinvent how to tell a story.”
Reinvention is the name of the game, and Raynai and Kondratskiy are well aware that the inherently first-person nature of VR is hardly a novel prospect in cinema. Using films like Being John Malkovich, Upstream Color, and Time Code as springboards, they’re using the new medium to expand upon previous filmmaking limitations. According to Raynai, the VR version of first-person is a way to render a much purer example of “experiencing [a] film through someone else’s perspective.”
So, could we still call it filmmaking? “People are saying ‘it’s not really film anymore,’” says Kondratskiy, “it’s not really that one is better, or one is an evolution of the other. It’s just that this is a new medium. You have to learn a new language in the techniques we use.” This new language is something that excites Raynai, who argues “one of the things that excited me about the [OR] is that it’s new… I was enticed at the beginning by this brand new, futuristic device that people would want to watch content on and I was like, ‘cool, can I be the first guy who makes a film on that?’ [laughs] Let’s see what happens, but I was really inspired by it.”
Then, Raynai allowed me to try on his developer-issued OR.
As I followed a woman I didn’t know through a park, she began to throw leaves at my face, I found myself smiling, wincing, and entranced. I had no basis for it, but I felt like I knew this person. An intimacy enveloped me that I had never felt before while watching a film – and this was just raw footage. I imagined what could happen if this technology were applied to a romantic comedy or horror film. In five short minutes, new vistas opened in my mind. While I am You is still in pre-production, Raynai and Kondratskiy have me excited for their film and the possibilities the Oculus Rift will bring to filmmaking.