Imagine gliding through Avatar's lush, alien world of Pandora or experiencing a moment of history, seen from a completely fresh vantage point — those are some of the scenarios filmmakers could create as they bring virtual reality technology into the cinema.
But is VR the future of movie-making or a gimmick movie fans will ultimately give the thumbs down?
The still-burgeoning technology is one of the topics being tackled at the Toronto International Film Festival during its final weekend. Organizers, who have dipped into the VR world with different events (including public VR-viewing "cubes"), are showcasing a few "compelling, high-calibre" virtual reality projects from Sept. 16-18.
Picture above : As part of free programming during the Toronto International Film Festival's opening weekend, organizers screened virtual reality programming for the public in viewing 'cubes.' (Bruce Reeve/CBC)
Jody Sugrue, digital studio director at TIFF, said it might seem funny to recall "ginormous" phones attached to massive battery packs, "but you were mobile and it felt so cool [at the time]. I think that's where we are at with virtual reality."
There's "an element of wonder and delight of suddenly being someplace you've never been before or being transported in a heartbeat. It's almost like a time-travel machine or a teleporter. There's something really powerful to that."
Early stage of development
Hollywood and the wider filmmaking community are dabbling in VR productions, from indie directors showing off projects at festivals like TIFF or Sundance to A-listers like Steven Spielberg, who is adapting Ernest Cline's VR-centred dystopian novel Ready Player One. Cinema giant IMAX, for instance, announced this spring plans to explore and develop "immersive, multi-dimensional" VR experiences, with up to six test sites slated to open in 2016.
But the scene is still in early stages, with fledgling projects yet to inspire an early-adopter fan base — which would need to grow to influence cinema owners and device creators (such as TV or cellphone manufacturers) to add VR capabilities and eventually permit a wider audience to access this content, according to Ran Mo, who co-founded a pop-up VR cinema called Vivid in Toronto this summer.
"We are still a few years away from a feature [film] in virtual reality," said Mo.
"Everyone is trying to discover the way we tell stories in VR and no one has really figured it out — not even the major studios at this point — so everyone is at a learning stage."
A brand-new world?
It's simply a matter of time, however, before the technology will catch up to whatever storytelling needs filmmakers have or can imagine, according to Robert Stromberg, an Oscar-winning American special effects artist, art director, designer and filmmaker whose credits include Maleficent, Avatar,Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland.
VR is not simply a film, or a videogame, said Stromberg, who also directed a VR experience that accompanied Ridley Scott's The Martian.
"It's this new thing and a form of entertainment at the level of Hollywood's biggest films," he said. "It's a new way for people to experience anything they want to experience and also a new way to tell stories. It's this sort of frontier, this brand-new world on its own."
Picture above: Vivid VR, touted as the first virtual reality cinema in North America, opened in Toronto for several weeks this summer.
In the meantime, fans of movie-making can check out how filmmakers are testing out this new toy in the cinematic sandbox, "playing around with narrative, trying to figure out how to guide the viewer through a story when [he or she] can look and sometimes move in any direction," said TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey.
"We don't really know where this technology or where the art of VR is going," he added, acknowledging that he's old enough to remember rudimentary VR efforts from the 1990s. "In terms of storytelling, I think it's hard and it may end up hitting something similar to what 3D did … but who knows."