Virtual reality on show at Cannes film festival, putting viewers in the frame

The technology isn’t ready yet to make a feature-length movie, but dozens of short animated films are screening at the festival, and VR is being compared to the pioneering days of film

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2016, 12:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2016, 12:13pm

What if you could both watch a film and be a character in it: perhaps an animated bunny fighting off inept aliens or a humanoid robot struggling with its identity?

Virtual reality (VR) – which is revolutionising everything from gaming to surgery to pornography – is doing this so successfully that it secured a special slot at the world’s premier film festival in Cannes this year, where dozens of VR movies are being shown.

Filmmakers say the technology is moving so fast they can barely keep up. They are having to fashion home-made cameras and figure out how to make their work accessible to a wider public.

“It is like right at the beginning of film, but it is going to move very, very quickly,” says Vincent Leclercq of France’s National Centre for Cinema.

The technology has drawn big names like Madagascar director Eric Darnell and actor Ethan Hawke, who teamed up for the six-minute VR animated film Invasion!, which was screened in Cannes this week.

Viewers find themselves standing in the animated universe of a white fluffy rabbit that manages to outwit two incompetent aliens who have come to take over the world.

Darnell says the idea came from the alien invasion classic War of the Worlds, where the extraterrestrials struck him as “bumbling and not that scary”.

“The thing that makes it really different from cinema is that … it really makes for a completely different experience for the viewer to have that bunny come up and look you in the eye and acknowledge your presence,” he says.

As he speaks, laughter breaks out as a woman nearby testing the film with a headset on lifts up her arms and tries to walk off while connected to a laptop.

When the viewers look down they see they have a rabbit’s body, and Darnell says the reaction is common.

“It is really kind of magical,” he says.

Animation is the perfect match for VR, he adds.

“We all have pretty high expectations for reality, so you start to see pixels and all the things that make it not real. But with animation you just suspend your disbelief,” Darnell says.

Another film screened in Cannes was the French production I, Philip, based on a true story concerning science fiction author Philip K. Dick, whose work inspired Blade Runner and Minority Report.

In homage to the author, who died in 1982, scientists in 2005 used his face on an Artificial Intelligence robot who was programmed with past interviews with the author and could hold a conversation as him.

But in a sci-fi twist that Dick could have written, the robot head disappeared after being left on an aircraft in 2006, never to be seen again.

Because you are working in 360 degrees, the real difficulty when it comes to writing is making the viewer look where you want him to look
Antoine Cayrol

In the 14-minute VR film, the viewer is the robot trying to making sense of its reality as it is switched on to endure interviews with awed humans.

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There are also flashbacks to human memories and in one disturbing scene the viewer is Philip, lying in a hospital bed while a woman holds his hand crying.

Producer Antoine Cayrol says one of the biggest challenges in VR films is scriptwriting, which requires “a little manipulation”.

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“Because you are working in 360 degrees, the real difficulty when it comes to writing is making the viewer look where you want him to look.”

This is done with simple tricks, like a slamming door in the background making you turn around, or an arm movement directing the viewer’s eye.

He says the team at his Okio film studio had dancers help them with movement choreography and sound engineers to help with writing.

“The other challenge is that … we must build the camera. It is very artisanal, we take cameras and stick them back to back,” he says.

Filming I, Philip, he says, they had a bag of ice on the camera the entire time to prevent it from overheating.

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These short VR films are available in application stores, but Cayrol says access to the films is “the biggest challenge we face right now”.

High-end VR headsets like the Oculus Rift or HTC Hive still cost hundreds of dollars.

And Cayrol admits that the cheaper models like the Samsung Gear, which he used to show his film in Cannes, do not have an ideal image quality.

The world’s first specialised VR cinema opened in Amsterdam last month and Leclerq of the French cinematic body says plans are under way to build one in Paris.

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“We are in this rather particular phase where creation is moving faster than distribution,” Leclerq says.

VR films are around 10 minutes long, and Darnell says it is too soon to do a feature-length movie.

“VR is really hard, we don’t know the language yet, we are all learning,” he says. “I am sure in a few years we will look back at these times when we have these big boxes on our faces and we will laugh at those funny old days of VR.

“I am sure you won’t have to wear a headset at all. Maybe it will just be a pair of glasses – the new technology is moving so quickly.”