For a long time virtual reality was a popular subject in fiction. Even now the concept of VR tickles the imagination. Just look at the recent Spielberg Movie “Ready Player One” to see how Hollywood depicts virtual reality technology. But the most exciting things concerning VR in Hollywood isn’t what’s on the screen, it’s how professionals use it to create movie magic. This is how the movie industry uses virtual reality.
From prediction to reality
The concept of virtual reality has been used for decades in Hollywood. The mostly forgotten 1983 movie “Brainstorm” featured a weird-looking helmed used to sync VR headsets in order to view the thoughts of people wearing the device. The most (in)famous example is probably “The Lawnmower Man” which took a short Stephen King story to create a virtual environment that was colorful, baffling and by 2020 standards extremely dated.
“Disclosure” starring Michael Douglas, “Johnny Mnemonic” starring Keanu Reeves and the David Cronenberg ‘body horror’ flick “eXistenZ” all feature VR technology in both fantastical and prescient ways. Now the tables have turned and virtual reality technology is used to create new movies.
When George Lucas created his second Star Wars trilogy he used the available digital tools in such an excessive way it took the viewer out of the story. In “Solo: A Star Wars Story” virtual cameras were used to create realistic camera movements in the space battles. The camera would ‘film’ digital models of spacecraft, allowing for a very natural camera motion bringing the audience into the scene.
A more grounded and therefore more challenging project was the ‘live action’ remake of “The Lion King”. This time photorealistic lions in Africa were filmed using virtual cameras on an empty sound stage in the United States. In order to sync VR headsets a local network of devices was set up so the director and camera crew could walk among the lions as if they were actually there. This allows the director to view the scene from a first-person perspective, instead of looking at a computer monitor from the comfort of an office chair.
The art of animation has evolved at a rapid pace in the last century. From hand-drawn images in black-and-white to the groundbreaking multiplane animation of Disney, up to the fully rendered Pixar movies. Now virtual reality has become a part of the toolbox, which has led to award-winning results. Although “Lost” was a groundbreaking short from Oculus Story Studio, followed by the lighthearted “Henry”, they were mostly 360 videos created with traditional animation tools. “Dear Angelica” was decidedly more innovative, in this narrated and deeply affecting story the visuals were drawn in Quill, virtual reality software created for the Oculus Rift headset.
Now the artist can draw in three dimensions and walk around in the drawings which has literally added a new dimension to digital storytelling. If you sync VR headsets you can create a virtual cinema in any location.
It has become pretty common to hire a second camera crew to record behind-the-scenes footage for promotional videos. Thanks to 360 cameras it’s now possible to shoot all angles of a movie set for a truly immersive experience. Tom Cruise has become the Hollywood equivalent of Jackie Chan with his insistence on performing his own stunts. With a 360 promotional video his death defying work can be captured in a new and exciting way.
Another interesting yet totally different promotional video is “Battle at Avengers Tower”, a computer generated video starring the most popular Marvel characters. In this presentation the viewer can travel along with their favorite heroes in a stunning 3D VR video. The promotional team of “The Martian” went even further and produced a 20-minute interactive game placing the viewer on Mars. Almost every big Hollywood movie uses some kind of VR content to promote upcoming features, ranging from behind-the-scenes 360 video, immersive 360 content with high production values or virtual reality content created specifically for the VR format. Although the more advanced presentations require a VR headset, a lot of 360 video content can also be viewed on regular screens.
360 movie tie-ins
With hundreds of millions spent on the production of movies and even more on marketing, all possibilities of extra revenue are explored. The VOID, one of the most popular VR Arcades worldwide, made a deal to incorporate the famous Ghostbusters characters into their immersive and interactive playground.
The player becomes part of the crew and dons a (virtual) Ghostbusters suit and a controller that closely resembles a real proton pack. This is a particularly interesting way of using existing properties to enhance VR experiences. It allows for more immersive presentations while promoting the movies.
Another interesting example is the Star Wars tie-in Cardboard VR viewer from McDonald’s. The iconic Happy Meal box can be folded into a smartphone holder. With a QR code the accompanying VR app can be downloaded for free. This combines a tangible item with a virtual experience.
Actual VR movies
So far so good, but what about actual movies in VR? Although you can easily sync VR headsets with some clever software, there are no actual (big budget) full-length 360 movies. There are complementary productions, for instance “Dunkirk: Save every breath” which was filmed alongside the actual movie. Most filmmakers agree that a full-length feature is too much of a good thing at the moment, the audience will also have to adjust to this new format. When you sync VR headsets a large group can enjoy the experience at the same time, you do need rotating chairs to make it a comfortable experience.
Robert Rodriguez, director of blockbusters like “Alita: Battle Angel” and the “Spy Kids” franchise, has created a 360 project called “The Limit” which stars Michelle Rodriguez (no relation). The first-person perspective places the viewer in the middle of the action. The production looks and feels great, but it also shows that even A-list filmmakers have some trouble adjusting to this new format.
VR in movies can be ‘in your face’ like “The Limit” or used as a tool like “The Lion King”. In any case, it has created a new way of filmmaking like sound, color and digital have done before.