Sngmoo Lee experiences haptic glove technology during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where his VR film was selected to be screened. Courtesy of Sngmoo Lee
Sngmoo Lee, 56, a filmmaker and professor at the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul, is a pioneer in the cinematic potential of virtual reality (VR) technology.
He is the first Korean film director to have a VR film selected for screening at a major international film festival ― his short film "Eyes in the Red Wind" featured in the "New Frontier" category at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in the United States.
During an interview with The Korea Times on Tuesday, Lee said films based on VR technology are still in the research and development phase and he expects it will take about a few more years for it to develop its own visual grammar.
Sngmoo Lee, filmmaker and professor at the Korea National University of Arts, is one of the most active VR filmmakers in Korea. Courtesy of Sngmoo Lee
"VR technology in general is not yet very commercial as of now," Lee said.
"It is very similar to the beginning period of film. People did not have a clear idea on how to apply the newly invented image technology. As it took some 20 years for film to develop its own image grammar, I think it will also take some time for VR technology to be widely used for films or other content," he added.
"The concept of virtual reality, VR, has been around since the 1950s; it is the ultimate dream of humankind to create a new universe of their own. Yet people generally consider that the year 2016 is the beginning of VR technology, as it was the year when consumers could begin to easily purchase a commercialized virtual reality headset."
Lee stressed that the technology is still in its infancy but had so much potential for various sectors, including the entertainment industry and medicine.
"There are so many terms like XR, VR and AR. Simply put, XR, or extended reality, is a general term encompassing both VR and AR. VR is about a separate world from reality, while AR, or augmented reality, embraces elements of the real world," he said.
"I foresee that a massive new content genre will be created in the next couple of decades, integrating the strengths of game, films and theaters all together. Now it is still in its beginning period."
The official poster image of interactive VR film "Nine VR: Come See Me," jointly produced by a consortium of academics and business entities.The director's representative commercial film is "The Warrior's Way," a 2010 New Zealand-South Korea fantasy action film starring Jang Dong-gun and Kate Bosworth.
"As a film director, I have long been favoring tech-based films," Lee said.
"I regarded it as an extension of filmmakers' expressions. Most of the scenes of the 'Warrior's Way' were shot in front of a blue screen."
"When I first encountered a prototype of VR technology in 2014, I thought it could be the ultimate medium that every storyteller has dreamt of. I was enthralled by the fact that it not only could invite audiences into a created world, but also let them participate in creating the world together."
The latest VR film Lee produced is the 13-minute interactive "Nine VR: Come See Me." The film is being showcased at the Kaohsiung Film Festival in Taiwan until Oct. 27.
The project was a joint effort among the Korea National University of Arts, startup company Maniamind and big conglomerate CJ Entertainment.
Based on the CJ-owned tvN show "Nine: 9 Times Time Travel," this spinoff film project is shown at an arcade space where the audience can experience entering the story themselves.
Lee's 2017 VR film "Eyes in the Red Wind" ― which he directed and wrote ― is a 360-degree sequence-shot film.
Unlike a so-called "active" VR film that requires a separate compartment for each audience member, this "passive" 360-degree three-axis film requires one space with about 20 to 30 swivel chairs for the audience.
Most major international film festivals, including Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin and Cannes, run VR film sections.
Usually about 10-12 arcade spaces, each set up for one person, are prepared for interactive VR films, as well as a bigger space with about 20 swivel chairs for 360-degree VR films.
Lee and students at the Korea National University of Arts work on scenes for Korea's first VR immersive theater show "First Crisis" in January 2019. Courtesy of Sngmoo Lee
"First Crisis" was another of Lee's VR projects ― immersive theater that was Korea's first attempt.
It used VR technology embracing elements of theater, animation, film and performance.
For each audience member to enjoy the show, they entered a space wearing a headset, with about 10 staff members participating in the performance.
"Currently, these innovative attempts constitute an initial phase of learning how VR technology could be used for cinematic and theatrical media," Lee said.
"As I said, in the next 10 or 20 years, I expect a new sort of VR content, unlike any previous genres like film or theater, will face their boom period."
Lee presents his VR film "Eyes in the Red Wind" during the 24th Geneva International Film Festival in Switzerland in November 2018. Courtesy of Sngmoo Lee
However, he also acknowledged that as the traditional film genre has very strong advantages, it will also remain, even after VR technology matures.
In the end, it's all about creativity and makers can choose their own medium to best represent what they wish to say.
"When compared to traditional films and VR content, creators can choose between the two, according to their own subject matter: what directors want to talk about. If directors want to invite audiences to their world, then they would employ VR technology, while when they want to present intricately woven plot stories with far-reaching influence, they can choose a traditional film genre," Lee said.
The film maker and professor also talked about his dream: "Creating an authentic universe would be every filmmaker's dream, including mine. As a VR maker, I hope that I could be one of the first visual storytellers who can create such an authentic world in the virtual space. As a filmmaker, I will continue to work on scenarios and potentially good films, as I always did."
"I'd like to give a piece of advice to the general public to expose themselves to good-quality VR content; then they will realize that this could be the true medium of the future. For those who are studying film or the media industry, they absolutely need to have knowledge of VR technology."