As the sun set over the Olympic Mountains on a warm and muggy Sunday, I trekked from the manicured suburbia of Sammamish, Wash., to Seattle’s historic Fort Lawton district, where an eclectic home, known as the Bird House, sits among low-hanging branches at the end of a quiet street.
The Bird House belongs to musician Perry Emge, and on this day, he and his home were playing host to the SIXR Festival’s Summer 2016 Cinematic VR Challenge.
Unlike VR hackathons where coders sit at screens encouraging their routines and algorithms to execute in alignment with their concepts and expectations, the Cinematic VR Challenge teams primarily consist of creatives coaxing a new form of video to tell their stories.
But there is a problem. As mentor David Feuillatre explained, “VR is the first real digital medium. Digital film was just a change in technology; it didn’t change the way people told stories, just how they edited them. With VR, we don’t know any more how to tell stories. We are reinventing everything.”
And that is the crux of the issue those participating in the challenge must explore: what does Cinematic VR mean?
VR Changes Everything About Linear Storytelling
Much of the content available to VR enthusiasts comes in the form of immersive videos. But most would be hard pressed to call these videos “cinematic,” and VR purists wouldn’t label them as virtual reality. Most current “VR” video consist of often random clips of places or experiences haphazardly edited together. You are on the ocean. You are on a boat. You are swimming. You are looking down from a crow’s nest. You are under water with fish. You are surfing. There is no story, just a jumble of loosely connected 360 videos.
But that, to some degree, is to be expected, because much of what exists on YouTube is poorly edited, haphazard and story-challenged. Cinema implies telling a story, or at least creating a consistent tone that moves an audience.
While a linear approach to filmmaking can be applied to VR, it underserves the technology’s capabilities. The canvas is too large for even a director skilled in IMAX. In VR, what happens behind a participant, or in their peripheral vision, may be as important to the story as what happens in front of their eyes.