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Virtual is the new reality

Virtual reality technology offers a whole new immersive experience for audiences and exciting possibilities for filmmakers.

Collisions

In a noisy Newtown café, Screen NSW CEO Courtney Gibson was sitting with Lynette Wallworth when the filmmaker handed her a headset and earphones to watch her Virtual Reality documentary Collisions.

In an instant Gibson was transported to Western Australia’s remote Pilbara desert as she watched Indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan relate his first contact with the West when he witnessed the atomic tests at Maralinga in the 1950s.

“When you see high quality 360° VR with a really strong piece of storytelling it is a completely life-changing, mind-altering experience for a practitioner who works in this business,” Gibson says.

“I was transported from noisy King Street to the Pilbara. I was there while Nyarri was telling me his story. It’s all around you, everywhere you look. Collisions is an immaculate piece of work on every level.”

Screen NSW and the ABC are pushing forward into this new frontier of storytelling with the 360 Vision VR development initiative that kicked off on June 7 with a one-day lab at Carriageworks.

The lab was also partnered by Screen Australia, AFTRS and Event Cinemas.

Screen Australia Senior Development Executive Nerida Moore says it’s extraordinary because VR is still evolving.

“It’s not just filmmakers, but audiences who are experimenting and playing with this technology as they learn how to interact with it,” she says, adding its impact is profound because it’s “not only emotional, but physical”.

“Audiences are hungry for it and the possibilities are mind-blowing. It’s a space that is going to be fabulous for storytellers.”

Moore says the lab was a great example of different companies coming together to support filmmakers as they test the waters in VR.

At Screen Australia, VR projects can apply for funding through the story development fund and multiplatform drama program.

To date, three VR projects have been funded through multiplatform – two which are in pre-production and a third completed; the horror short Madeleine, which is part of the Sydney Film Festival ‘Spotlight on VR’ selection.

“It’s our role to ensure Australia has skilled filmmakers well placed to ride the first wave of this new form of storytelling. Madeleine was the first project to come to us seeking support,” Investment Manager Mike Cowap says.

Madeleine

“With Madeleine, Jumpgate VR had made a proof-of-concept that demonstrated how the scares were really amplified in VR. The complete immersion in the experience seems to magnify the resonance of the story, and this has implications for all genres. I’m thrilled that next up we have an indigenous-themed experience that highlights the importance of sacred sites.”

For Screen NSW and ABC, the aim of 360 Vision is to support the development of up to six VR works. Applications close on July 19 and the projects will be selected at the end of August, after which other partners including distributors will be invited to come on board.

“We feel there is a great opportunity for creators of entertainment programming – drama, children’s, comedy- as well as factual and Indigenous content to start thinking about this space as an exercise in industry and audience development,” Gibson says.

“Research shows that when you watch VR your brain understands and processes that as memory, as a lived experience. There is much more research to be done to establish the short, medium and long-term impacts of watching this material.”

Rebecca Heap, ABC-TV’s Head of Audience & Digital, says, “At the ABC we are still very much in an experimentation, innovation and learning phase. I don’t think VR will be a mass medium in five years’ time but it will be on a path to being more common. We are really fascinated by how it is changing the opportunities for the way we tell stories, telling stories that could not have been told before, and transporting audiences to somewhere they would never go to themselves.”

A recent study by Newzoo found 12% of the US online adult population and 11% of those in Europe intend to buy VR products in the next six months. Given Australia’s penchant as early adopters, the figure may be similar here.

On May 31 Screen NSW released the VR app 360 Vision, developed by Triggar VR, which is compatible initially with Apple and Android devices and soon, Oculus Rift headsets.

Wallworth funded her 17-minute documentary for the World Economic Forum in Davos with a combination of US philanthropic support, the Adelaide Film Festival, the Australia Council and the Sundance Institute, using a camera with 16 GoPro lenses and two cameraman provided by Palo Alto, California-based Jaunt VR.

The filmmaker can’t precisely say how much the cost of shooting in VR would have added to the budget of a conventional film but observes, “The technology was so brand spanking new and the post production pathway was not clear so it was a time-heavy pressure situation. The costs will become clearer as many more works are made.  There will be lots of opportunities for creative partnerships with people who are developing the hardware.”

SBS is a pioneer in the field as the first Australian broadcaster to launch a VR app, SBS On Demand VR, tying in with the broadcast premiere of  Inside Heston’s World, as chef Heston Blumenthal gave viewers a 360º video tour of  his Melbourne restaurant The Fat Duck.

Later this year SBS will release an app for the second season of Untold Australia,  a series of factual VR films which explore the diversity of Australia’s people, cultures and lifestyles. Up to four films will be commissioned, co-funded by Screen Queensland.

“We are constantly exploring options and opportunities using cutting edge technology and different forms of storytelling, such as VR, to deliver distinctive content to Australian audiences,” says John-Paul Marin, Manager, SBS Digital Creative Labs.  “It’s about finding the formats that best suit the content and intended audience, allowing for a greater depth in our overall content offer.”

Wallworth is confident VR will have a long life, stating, “It will never replace film. It is a different experience which is why it is tremendously exciting to work in it.   What people feel when they are watching it is closer to an experience than to observing.”