Gamers started it, and now filmmakers are exploring virtual reality as a way to make a story more powerful.
The idea is that immersion in a virtual reality (VR) experience makes the audience feel as if they are physically there, increasing any emotional sensation that makes a story come to life.
You can be transported into space, get close to the moon and be amazed at the stars around you, or you can have a realistic roller coaster experience to the point of feeling nauseous.
This is the second year the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has curated a program of films that require everyone to strap on a VR headset. Different styles are brewing as filmmakers jump from grappling with how to tell a story to harnessing the technology with confidence, says Al Cossar, who curated the Festival's VR program.
Planet immerses viewers in a range of strange environments.
"It's fascinating to watch both filmmakers and audiences developing together around it. There's a real sense of acceleration in the sophistication of these works this year, of watching the grammar and language of a new storytelling space develop rapidly."
An Australian film in the VR program, Rone's Empty, shows us Rone, a street artist painting large portraits of women in old abandoned buildings. VR works well here; I felt I was actually there looking at these beautiful images set against the crumbling space, from peeling paint to exposed wire.
By moving my head slightly I could see the full height of a mural, or look at the entire length of a room for context. In one scene, at an exhibition of Rone's works, turning my head revealed people behind me, which was a pleasant surprise. However, I would like to be able to point the handheld controller and move around the space to get a different perspective of the artwork.
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A VR experience called Planet immerses viewers in different environments, making them feel they are under mushroom-like vegetation, or among a school of fish. It's slightly disconcerting when one fish is looking at you, and out of the corner of your eye you see another one, then as you turn around you realise you are surrounded by them. Filmmakers can't create these experiences on a conventional screen.
Remember explores the relationship between memory and reality.
Another Australian film, Remember, explores the relationship between memory and reality. Set in the future, artificial intelligence software helps people access their memories. A woman wants the system to piece together memory fragments to help her remember someone special. However, the system persistently also offers to 'repair' unpleasant memories by rewriting them with happier versions.
While the film itself is fascinating, VR in this case doesn't add anything. You effectively get a wider screen by looking around, but I kept turning and making myself dizzy as thought I was missing out on something happening behind me.
A drawback of VR is the clunky headsets that distract from what is supposed to be an immersive experience. I look forward to the day when we can ditch the goggles and transform a room much like the virtual reality school bus in New York, where looking out the windows of the bus was like looking out through a VR headset. In this case, the kids were on Mars and that's what they saw out the bus windows.
It's still early days for VR filmmaking, and it still has an experimental feel to it, but it's worthwhile checking out the Festival's VR programjust to see what all the fuss is about.
Melbourne International Film Festival runs 3 – 20 August 2017.