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Jon Favreau Leaps into Virtual Reality

The man behind The Jungle Book and Iron Man is among the first Hollywood directors to explore the unique storytelling tools of VR.
March 8, 2017

Jon Favreau is the rare traditional filmmaker to push into virtual reality. After becoming one of the most successful directors in Hollywood with Elf and Iron Man, Favreau pushed the envelope of motion-capture digital filmmaking with last year's hit The Jungle Book. Now one of his latest projects is a brief, interactive 360-degree scene called "Gnomes & Goblins," currently available on the HTC Vive and soon for Oculus Rift. He shared his thoughts on storytelling in VR with Ty Burr.

How does a Hollywood moviemaker create a VR experience?

Every medium has an optimal way to tell a story. With film, you have a set of expectations developed around 100 years of people consuming that medium. You're using tools like the huge scale of the screen, the communal viewing experience. And you have lensing and editing to help guide and focus the attention of the audience on exactly what you want them to see.

None of which are available in VR.

No. Where people find themselves getting frustrated is when they try to impose those qualities on the new medium. They try to cut and paste a movie or television or a video game into VR. I think the best version of VR is immersive and takes full advantage of the presence that VR brings you. 

How do you create emotionally engaging experiences in virtual reality?

When film is at its best, you feel subjectively engaged; you feel like you're experiencing the story through the eyes of some proxy. If the movie is scary, your palms sweat. If it's sad, you cry. All of that comes from feeling that you're represented in the narrative. We get pulled into it; we lose ourselves in good storytelling. With VR, you have the same set of challenges, in that you want the audience to subjectively experience what you're presenting them. But if we can create an experiential progression, not necessarily using traditional narrative, we can engage the audience and have them feel that something's happening, something's changing, there's an arc to the experience.

Is the time right to explore this technology? Are audiences ready? Is Hollywood?

I know that as a storyteller this set of tools and the feelings I get from this medium are unique, and it's compelling for me even in the absence of any kind of model for success. It's very early days. We’re still figuring out where the camera goes, laying out the set and understanding where the light's coming from. If somebody tells the right story in the right way, it's going to create a tectonic shift. That's the way the film business has worked: people began to learn to tell stories using film, and then cinematic techniques and special effects and editing techniques all developed to help solve problems as people grew more ambitious in the stories they were trying to present to their audience.

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