Virtual reality filmmaking, while constantly gaining pace, is still a burgeoning and exploratory format—there's plenty to be learned and experimented with when it comes to crafting stories for the medium. One place where tomorrow's image-makers are making important discoveries is VR:LAB.
VR:LAB is the result of a collaboration between Danish filmmaking duo Mads Damsbo and Johan Knattrup (aka Makropol), who were behind the VR film installation The Doghouse, and Copenhagen film festival CPH:DOX.
The project has seen them handpick 10 artists and producers from Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark for a collaborative 10 day deep dive into VR filmmaking. The group will use specially designed camera equipment which films in stereoscopic 180 degree POV—or "Cinematic Reality"—rather than 360 which is traditionally used in VR.
The participants will emerge at the end with "10 new cinematic virtual reality experiences" which are to be shown to the public on the final day of the festival, and will also be available to view on a VR:LAB iOS and Android app.
Shooting The Doghouse
After making The Doghouse using a low-budget VR rig, Damsbo and Knattrup realized there wasn't quite a rulebook they could reference for guidance on making VR films. They had to invent their own, and the lab is a way for them to impart what they learned. They also want participants to create experiences that frame users within narratives. Unlike some VR films where you're a disconnected observer, Damsbo and Knattrup want viewers to be integral to the story, characters in their own right.
In this regards it seems to be merging an element of VR gaming which—like traditional gaming—places you as a protagonist within the action, but minus the interactivity.
The Creators Project emailed a few questions to Damsbo and Knattrup to find out more about the lab, their reasons for doing it, and any tips they have for VR filmmaking.
The Creators Project: There’s lots going on in the field of VR filmmaking—documentaries, CGI, narrative and art films—but do you feel it’s in a nascent stage at the moment with regards storytelling techniqtues? And will it need to develop its own language, like movies have?
Damsbo: We are most definitely in the very early stages of cinematic VR. But this is exactly what makes it important to have an experimental platform, like our lab, from where we can keep asking the necessary questions and keep the format in a liquid state, so we truly can evolve the potential experiences out there. It's a dark room of possibilities and we are holding a week but liable flashlight right now. We believe that there shouldn’t be a defined formal language, but rather a dynamic and exponential exploration of the idiosyncrasies of the medium.
Knattrup: First of all, I don’t think VR is a new medium in the line of books, theater, movies, and now VR. To me it’s just a new format, like CinemaScope and 4:3—only there’s not a square frame, VR is a sort of frameless movie. That being said, I think we, as filmmakers, need to view the format differently than we do with conventional formats. The ‘rules’ of filmmaking can’t be directly applied, because the experience is so much more intense. So I think we need to reinvent the cinematic language. But that’s the best thing—we can’t rely on old Hollywood rules of storytelling anymore (as well as we shouldn’t rely on new Hollywood rules), we have to keep the craft vibrant, alive, and new, for the benefit of the stories and the audience.
Briefly, what are some of the considerations for someone making a VR film compared to normal filmmaking?
Damsbo: Context, context, context. I can’t stress this enough. Remember that you are shooting a film from a perspective, a perspective that will take over the perceived reality of your audience, so the context of where and how your film will be seen is crucial, and can either fatally disrupt or ultimately enable the final experience.
Knattrup: The biggest difference is that you, as a filmmaker, have to think about the use of the camera in a completely different way. Because you allow your audience to look around, you have to think of the camera as a human being, someone, that will discover what you are putting in front of them. In that sense, when you move the camera you have to have a reason for doing that, an emotional or psychological reason to move the camera, otherwise the audience will feel detached. As a director, I find that truly amazing and groundbreaking.
Can you explain a little more about the camera rig you’re using and the visuals it produces. Firstly how are the visuals different, have you only got a limited field of vision?
Damsbo: Right now we’re doing limited POV VR, which is close to 180°. Basically as much as you as a human being can see when not moving. We put two cameras, one for each eye, on the head of the actors, as close to their eyes as possible, so it feels as if you are that person. You can also put the camera on other things, like a ball or an animal.
Knattrup: We are not fanatic about 360° video. For some films it may be just the right thing, but what tends to happen is that the camera is placed in the scene without a body underneath, and that disturbs me. I’d rather understand my relation to a person than to a place and experience the narrative from a defined character. I truly believe that a true establishing of empathy in the story, which some VR gurus have been raving about, is found this way.
And secondly, was the idea behind that purely a budgetary thing or is it aimed to foster creativity?
Damsbo: It was definitely our desire to experience not just to be somewhere, but to be someone. We wanted to have the being-in-another-body experience. Coming from Denmark has made us think cost effective as artist—how do we achieve the things we want with the means available? I think that is fostering a lot of creativity.
Knattrup: Things go hand in hand. We were brought up on the indie filmmaking scene, and on the shoulders of the Danish Dogma wave, that uses budgetary restrictions to stimulate creative solutions. So naturally we take what we can find to realize our vision. With the lab we are very conscious of the conditions, and believe that higher experiences will come from lower-fi and ultimately be more stimulating for the exploration of new cinematic narratives.
The aim of the festival is to nurture talent for this field, but how do you see training for this type of filmmaking developing?
Damsbo: This lab is just one of many ways to get started with VR. And hopefully formats of training and stimulating will be equally as diverse as there are different people in the field.
Knattrup: Well, actually the aim of the lab is to open the participants (and audiences) minds for other ways of seeing cinema. That cinema isn’t only happening within the frame, that the experience of the story and the film is equally important. We don’t care if they continue with VR or not, we just hope that the lab will expand their views on cinema and their future endeavours in the art.
How do you see VR filmmaking developing in the immediate future?
Damsbo: It’s hard to predict, especially about the future. So I won’t.
Knattrup: First of all it’s going to be very interesting to see, when cinematic VR finds its audience, how the audience will react, how they will respond. Up until now VR has only been for the selected in-house crowd—let’s see how the masses receive it, and how that’s going to change VR. Secondly, I hope we will see a lot of different formats, not just 360° or 180° POV. I hope filmmakers will experiment a lot, and see where VR can take us. At least, that’s what we’re doing with VR:LAB.
VR:LAB takes place at Space 10, Kødbyen, Copenhagen from 5 to 15 November. You can learn more about the project here.