When Elli Raynai, filmmaker and founder of VR production company Cinehackers, decided to leap into virtual reality, he wanted to do something special. He didn’t want to work in 360, because he felt it’s best suited for documentaries, and he wanted to maintain control of where viewers had to look. Most of all, he wanted his production to have a fictional narrative that would allow him to explore the cinematic possibilities of VR. All these ambitions were guided by two goals: “How can I make something that’s different?” and “How can I make something that’s remembered?”
Before he could make anything, however, he had to better understand what virtual reality would allow him to do. Much like a director will turn to a cinematographer to help realize his or her vision, Raynai turned to software engineer Alex Kondratskiy, who he met at a Toronto VR meet-up, to better understand how storytelling would be tied to technology. “He didn’t know a lot about filmmaking, I didn’t know a lot about development, but together we were able to collaborate to make a product that worked from both sides,” Raynai says.
The result is “I Am You,” the impressive Being John Malkovich-influenced ten-minute short film about a couple who use an experimental app that lets them swap bodies — A swap you get to experience through a point-of-view VR experience.
Narrative Informed by Technology
True to the still fuzzy line in VR between technology and story, the narrative of “I Am You” didn’t materialize until Raynai became more familiar through experimentation with virtual reality. “The technology helped influence the narrative,” he says. “The story didn’t really come out until we started getting fully into it. I started saying, ‘Based on the tests we were doing, I think this is a good idea for a film. This is the narrative. This is how I want to do it.’”
The story also couldn’t have been shot without the technology. Once the characters swap places, viewers get to see the world through their bodies and eyes. That effect was achieved by having the actors — Nina Iordanova and Andrew Pimento — wear modified bike helmets with GoPros placed 64 millimeters apart to simulate the gap between most people’s eyes. An Oculus headset was also attached to the back of the helmet and tracked where the cameras were looking, feeding that data into a laptop inside a backpack the actors would wear.
Essentially, the actors doubled as cinematographers. In addition to their acting responsibilities (Raynai rehearsed the story with them for three days to ensure they would be comfortable enough with the narrative beats to deliver natural improvised performances), they also had to be aware of the choreography of the cinematography. With the cameras mounted to their heads, the actors had to be precise about their movements — including the speed at which they moved their bodies and turned their heads. That’s because if they did anything too fast, they could trigger one of the most experience-killing results of amateur VR filmmaking: audience nausea.
Putting the Audience First
“If you’re using experimental techniques or shooting VR, you have to make sure you’re not making people sick,” says Raynai. Put a VR viewer in someone else’s point-of-view, and if the film’s camera movements don’t feel natural to the viewer, you’re in trouble. “Alex was really considerate of that,” says Raynai. “He said, ‘You know we can’t make an experience of whatever we want. We have to also make sure that people don’t get ill, and that it’s really comfortable and they can handle it.” It’s a major consideration VR filmmakers need to factor in (and many beginners don’t). Cinematic filmmakers may only have to worry about the emotional or intellectual effect their work has on an audience, but VR filmmakers have to worry about their audiences’ actual well-being. In other words, VR success comes with some restrictions. “If we just make whatever we want and we move around and we don’t take those things into consideration, it’s just going to be a failure,’” Raynai says.
In that way, Raynai’s work illustrates how VR filmmaking has to factor in the unique qualities, and current limitations, of the medium. Story and technology have to serve each other. That’s, of course, not new to filmmaking. But it’s hard to imagine a RED digital camera being as capable of sabotaging a final product in the same way. In many ways, VR is the opposite of what filmmakers like James Cameron and Alfonso Cuaron — with Avatar and Gravity, respectively — faced, where their ambitious stories required technology to catch up. With VR, stories have to catch up with the technology. That’s why Raynai believes it’s vital to not just experiment, but elicit feedback from those VR is meant for: audiences.
“If you’re working with experimental things involving technology, I think it’s important to get a feeling of whether it’s working, and sharing is a really key part of that,” he says. It’s something he’s continually doing, including with “I Am You.” “I would shoot some stuff, and then I wouldn’t just keep it to myself. I would show it to people. I would see how they reacted,” he explains. That enabled them to finesse and perfect the project so it could be watched without a problem.
There’s a lot of tweaking ahead for VR. It will most likely be sometime before the rules for cinematic storytelling in the medium are set in stone — if they ever will be. “With how closely the medium is tied to the technology, I think there’s always going to be this experimentation,” Raynai says. But, like many, that’s what Raynai feels is so thrilling about diving into VR now. It’s why he’s excited for the future of VR and Cinehackers. “It’s a totally open field,” he says, “and I think there’s so much opportunity to experiment in terms of storytelling and immersion to push the medium.”