Gaming may have been the gateway, but virtual reality (VR) storytelling is now entering an arena of its own. Affordable tech such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Cardboard can now easily convert a smartphone into a VR viewing headset, lowering the barrier of entry to this cool medium for entertainment and all kinds of content.
What’s even more exciting is that the avenue is new and open to discovery and development, giving filmmakers and innovators anywhere in the world the opportunity to excavate the possible potential of a world in 360 degree view.
South African producer Steven Markovitz of Big World Cinema had the idea to bring together African creatives and experts in the field of VR to explore this emerging form of storytelling and the technology which enables it. In October 2015 Markovitz’ production company, Big World Cinema, together with the Goethe-Institut South Africa and with support from Blue Ice Docs and SDK Digital Lab hosted a VR exhibition ‘New Dimensions’ and various workshops involving Jessica Brillhart, the principal filmmaker for VR at Google; as well as director Oscar Raby and producer Katy Morrison from Australian VR focussed digital production company VRTOV.
According to Markovitz, the time is ripe for open minded content creators to play in this space: “We are now at a point in filmmaking where there is an oversaturation of film and images in the world. There are too many films to find a theatrical release and even less so in the US and China. In the documentary world budgets are generally not going up and it’s very difficult to find a stable way to survive in the industry. VR creates an opportunity for a new audience and a new market for storytelling.”
A new form of expression
VR is already being used in other industries such as the health, corporate and mining sectors because of its ability to change the way people experience different types of content. And the experience in itself is unique to each person, as they play a role in how the content is received.
“VR requires the audience to be active in the way they consume the content. They literally can’t sit like a couch potato – they have to move, they have to look around in order to experience the story. I think that simple factor will have a tremendous effect on the way that storytellers craft narratives for VR, and for audiences,” says Morrison. “No-one else will see the story exactly that way, because no-one else will look at exactly the same points they did, in the same order, for exactly the same amount of time. It’s a very personal medium.”
Though essentially still in its infancy, VR as a storytelling platform is already being explored by a number of creatives across the African continent. The ‘New Dimensions’ exhibition featured work from Ghanian duo Jonathan Dotse and Kabiru Seidu, co-founders of NubianVR who built their own VR rig and viewing system to show their content. “These are the kind of people we need to encourage and start working with. There is some VR being produced but very little around storytelling and narrative – that’s what we are really interested in and there is huge potential to do it,” says Markovitz.
“There is nothing like being at the forefront,” remarks Paul Sika, a software engineer and photographer, who was invited to attend ‘New Dimensions’. “Being introduced to such new technology which is going to profoundly change human experience, feels like being in a transition from one era to another. The kind of transformation that amazing technology can create. A paradigm shift is coming and it is coming fast.”
The multidisciplinary group invited to attend the workshops was handpicked by Markovitz along with guest curator and senior consultant for the Tribeca Film Institute Ingrid Kopp and Lien Heidenreich, head of cultural programmes at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg, with the idea that by bringing together people from different artistic and technological backgrounds a cross-pollination of ideas and skills could be fostered, encouraging participants to think outside the box of their normal world. “Filmmakers are not always the best people to make VR because they think in a frame not a 360 degree space,” comments Markovitz. “We wanted people who are innovating within their fields, who are accomplished to some degree already and have an open enough mind to want to try a new format in the artistic realm.”
The technology behind virtual reality, much like modern filmmaking, ranges in price and capability. Just as filmmakers across the globe and the African continent are now able to produce a film using DSLR cameras or even smartphones, a VR content creator could set up a 3D scanner with an iPad and with a good enough computer, start producing work in a 360 degree CGI space for as little as $1 000.
“I think Africa is a big place – every country has its own dynamic and within every country there are different levels of economy and infrastructure skill so I think within all the countries of Africa there will be pockets of people who have the aptitude and access to resources,” Markovitz remarks.
But while VR has the ability to transcend both the creator and audience experience, it may run the risk of being perceived as limiting in other terms. Kopp comments: “Nnedi Okorafor made a great comment during a panel at African Futures (which ‘New Dimensions’ was part of) about how you need a plurality of stories to get the truth and I absolutely agree with her. I don’t want VR to become an exclusive, techy space that discourages participation and part of the reason for this workshop and exhibition was to make sure this doesn’t happen in Africa.”
There are a few ways to create VR content. One way is the full 3D method – using a 3D scanner objects can be imported and placed into a game engine such as Unity. The viewer is then able to inhabit that 3D space in the VR experience. Another method is to take footage from an array of cameras positioned in all directions and stitch it together into a sphere which the audience member stands in the centre of.
Many people assume that VR has the ability to generate empathy purely because of its nature but Kopp believes this perception needs to be challenged. “Just because you put someone in a VR environment it does not mean they will automatically feel empathy. I’d like to see more critical discourse around craft and ethics in VR.” Morrison adds that VR instils in viewers a sense of themselves within a story or a narrative and believes that it’s less about an ability to empathise with other characters but rather about imagining yourself there with them in a particular situation.
VR could potentially mean a revolution of experiences – viewing devices could become household necessities and we could soon be sitting beside our favourite characters while the action unfolds around us in a film. The possibilities are quite limitless and as the rules are formed there will be creative frontrunners working out ways to break them.
Sika concludes, “What I love about VR is the great proximity we can create for the user and the capacity to represent universes that are interesting in many ways rather than having one single point of view and path like in 2D filmmaking. This is the closest we have to the ‘immersiveness’ of dreams and it can evoke very strong emotions.”