Imagine sitting back in a chair, sliding a headset over your eyes and headphones over your ears. Suddenly, you’re sitting on a rock in a sun-dappled clearing, surrounded by tall trees, alone with the noises of the forest. Alone, that is, until you turn your head and spot Reese Witherspoon walking toward you, looking like a haggard camper with a giant pack on her back.
This is what it’s like to watch the opening bit of Wild—The Experience, a short virtual-reality film made as a promotion for the Witherspoon-led movie Wild, which is based on Cheryl Strayed’s book about her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Despite the clunky feeling of a headset on your face, for a few moments you feel transported to someone else’s reality. You sense the calming stillness of nature and see it all around you—a contrast with the weirdness of watching Witherspoon stopping to rest on your left without acknowledging your presence.
This is just one immersive experience that Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël are creating at Felix & Paul Studios, their Montreal-based film production company that focuses on live-action 3-D and virtual-reality films. Their studio and a few others are exploring ways to take virtual reality beyond video games. “We like to think of virtual reality not as a medium to actually create horror stories and heavy adrenaline-driven emotions, but rather to use it as a way to enhance the human experience,” Lajeunesse says.
The world of virtual-reality films is still small—it’s not much more than a collection of experiments, and to check any of them out you’ll need a headset of some sort. But the continued development of headsets such as Oculus Rift, the Samsung-Oculus Gear VR, and Sony’s Project Morpheus signal that immersive display technologies may finally be about to go mainstream.
And as demand for virtual-reality devices heats up, Lajeunesse and Raphaël believe a desire for new forms of cinematic experiences will come along with it. “We believe it’s going to grow into a new, totally distinct art form,” Lajeunesse says. Hollywood seems intrigued: Wild–The Experience was commissioned by Fox Searchlight Pictures, which released Wild. Fox Searchlight did not respond to requests for comment, but Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox’s home entertainment business, has said he expects to start selling virtual-reality clips related to Fox movies this year.
Making VR movies is much different from making a regular movie—for one thing, it’s much harder to control where the viewer is focusing attention. And there are still many challenges to overcome in figuring out how to enable users to really explore a live-action virtual world the way you can an animated one or a virtual-reality game. Still, the early results hint at how entrancing the results can be, suggesting how virtual reality might be used for things like education and work collaboration as well as entertainment.
Lajeunesse and Raphaël have backgrounds in traditional filmmaking, and so far they’ve focused their virtual-reality work exclusively on short, live-action pieces. Their first film, Strangers, with Montreal singer-songwriter Patrick Watson, seats you on an ottoman inside Watson’s studio so you can hang out while he plays music. It debuted at SXSW in Austin, Texas, in 2014. Since then, the duo has made several more, including Herders, which brings you into the world of Mongolia’s nomadic yak herders, and a scene from the Cirque du Soleil show Zarkana.
To make films that look and sound real, Lajeunesse and Raphaël built a 360°, stereoscopic 3-D camera system and an audio system that can record sound from all around. They had to build their own postproduction software, too, and essentially edit while wearing a Gear VR headset, Lajeunesse says. In editing, they add in a virtual spot where the viewer is meant to be sitting while taking in the virtual world.
The Wild film is the first that Felix & Paul made as a reactive experience. That is, your behavior while watching the film (such as where you look) determines whether or not a second character appears: Strayed’s mother (played by Laura Dern), who in this scene would be a figment of Strayed’s imagination.
“We like that notion of reactivity because it also enhances the sense of presence,” Lajeunesse says. Even the basics of VR filmmaking have been challenging. Early on, the most difficult task Felix & Paul faced was figuring out how to film scenes so that scale of the virtual world didn’t seem off to some viewers. And the studio’s films thus far haven’t incorporated any computer-generated effects to give the viewer a body, so you feel a bit like a ghost while watching—if you lift your real-world arm in front of your face, you won’t see anything.
There’s also the problem of standing up or even leaning over. While it’s possible to make virtual-reality games and films with computer-generated 3-D models that keep track of a user’s changing position and adjust to that shifting perspective, thus far this isn’t the case with live-action films made for VR. Right now, for instance, you can turn around while watching a Felix & Paul piece, since it’s filmed in 360 degrees, but if you get out of your chair while watching one, the whole universe will rise with you.
Despite the issues, Jeremy Bailenson, an associate professor at Stanford and the founding director of the school’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, thinks virtual reality is an exciting medium for short live-action films. With such pieces, he says, “you get to leverage what I call the paradox of virtual reality: the brain treats it as real, yet anything is possible.”