The prominence of virtual reality has been one of the biggest stories of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and now Oculus itself is stepping into the fray to highlight the importance of storytelling in VR. The company has pulled back the curtain on Oculus Story Studio, an internal team focused on exploring the potential of what it calls "VR cinema" — and the group's first movie is debuting this week.
Called Lost, the project is a real-time computer generated VR experience for the Crescent Bay prototype, and is directed by Saschka Unseld, a former Pixar animator who created the 2013 short The Blue Umbrella. Lost runs roughly five minutes in length, but in what Unseld touts as one of the project’s innovations, it changes the pace of its storytelling based on the action taken by the viewer. "It could be three-and-a-half minutes and it could be 10," he says. "It all depends on you."
"We knew how to get started with games, but we didn't know how to get started with film."
The Story Studio initiative started because Oculus was showing off the Rift to Hollywood filmmakers who got excited about the potential of VR and wanted to make something — but the company didn’t know how to move forward. "We didn’t have an answer for them," says Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe. "We knew how to get started with games, but we didn’t know how to get started with film, with Hollywood, with cinema." With interactive storytelling holding obvious potential for VR, and other projects already making it out into the marketplace, Oculus wanted to get out ahead by tackling not just the logistical questions around creating VR narrative experiences, but the conceptual ones as well.
"How do you create content? What’s the tools, the pipeline? Is it even possible to make a cinema experience that is compelling and rich?" Iribe asks. "One of the goals of the Story Studio team was to prove that."
Lost concept art
For Unseld, joining the project was a matter of getting in on the ground floor of what he sees as a true turning point in media and entertainment. "We all heard these stories of how it was like to be there at the birth of computer animation, or see films on how it was to be there at the birth of cinema," he says. "And when I tried out VR the first time, and everyone here, they realized this is that moment. This is the moment of a birth of a completely new medium. … That made me just instantly jump on it."
The challenges the he and his team have been exploring are the same ones that artists like Chris Milk, Felix & Paul, and other VR creators have been tackling with their own projects: namely, how do VR experiences differ from traditional movies and games, and what can they do differently?
Film is a "dictatorship of the director"
"Initially we thought we needed to figure out how film language works in VR," explains Unseld, but trying to reproduce the conventions of movies was missing the point entirely. "Cinema is a sequential medium," he says. "It’s like a dictatorship of the director. Look at this, look at this face, look at this detail." VR, on the other hand, puts control back in the hands of the viewer, fundamentally changing the concept of storytelling itself.
The Oculus story team is small, currently just around 10 people. Iribe and Unseld say the goal is to stay nimble so they can shift as the medium evolves creatively in the months ahead. And while Oculus-produced projects are certainly notable in their own right — and yes, more are on the way — by introducing Lost at Sundance the company hopes to do the same thing the festival's New Frontier program is doing: inspiring new artists by showing them work on the bleeding edge. "Look at how we did it all, and look at how Saschka and the team put this together," says Iribe. "The more we can educate the community, the faster the community can get started and be successful." And with a games publishing arm already in place, Oculus is well positioned to help filmmakers distribute their VR projects if that community gets going.
The fact that the company behind the Rift is putting out its own VR movie certainly has the potential to lead new creators in a certain direction, but Unseld stresses that his team doesn’t believe that there’s one true VR movie experience to rule them all. "Often when I talk to people about VR storytelling it takes a while for everyone to understand there’s lots of parallel tracks," he says. "There’s things that can be more interactive, things that are less interactive. There’s things that are more exploratory, there’s things that are more linear." VR cinema is a medium, he says, not a single type of experience.
VR cinema is a medium, not a single type of experience
Sundance attendees will be able to sign up to see Lost for themselves throughout the week, and while the company obviously feels confident enough in the project to show it to the general public, Iribe cautions that it is still early days for Story Studio. "As excited as we are, I think it’s important that everybody remembers that this is just the beginning," he says. "The first time we made any kind of made-for-VR game, I wouldn’t say it was nearly as inspiring as what Saschka and his team have made, so it’s only going to get way way better from here going forward."