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VR movie pioneer on the challenges and future of virtual reality filmmaking

Hayden Dingman | April 10, 2014
There isn't even a consumer-ready virtual reality headset on the market yet, but that isn't stopping a few filmmakers from thinking it's the future. One of the pioneers in the area is Condition One's Zero Point--a film that's as much a discussion of VR's potential as it is a showcase for new technology.

You're a cinematographer normally?

Dennis: I worked as a photographer first. This was like 2005, I started working for the AP and The New York Times and Newsweek. Went to Iraq and Afghanistan, worked there from about 2006-2010, was embedded with the military there. And it was around that time I found that still images weren't really able to convey that experience. It was just this glimpse.

Moved into video, built a camera system on large sensor DSLRs, shot a film called Hell and Back Again — a 90-minute documentary about a Marine — and again, wasn't able to convey that experience with existing technology and existing mediums. That's when I started thinking about immersion and how do I place people into the story. I was coming out of that film and wanting to pull people further into the experience, so I started Condition One and assembled a team of engineers to look at how we could create an experience where you felt like you were inside the video.

We started on mobile, developed on the iPhone and the iPad using the accelerometer and the gyroscope. That was the perfect stepping stone for when the Rift came out — all that technology applied perfectly to this headset, which is essentially a mobile device.

Now we're trying to grapple with all these new challenges. Once you get the video in there, there's all these other things to think about. There's a lot of work ahead of us, but all we really know is none of the traditional rules really work anymore and we're going to have to invent this new language. It's a new medium, there's going to be syntax and grammar that has to be developed. We're at this really early stage — we have some of the basic technology working, now how do we use it to tell a story?

Obviously when you have a film crew you have people standing around, you have lights, you have a boom op — all these things you can't have when you have a 360 degree panoramic view. What do you do?

Dennis: Even basic elements of production — where do you put the crew? It's so basic, but we had to have everyone melt away. We could fit three people under the camera in that black blind spot, but even then my head was getting in the frame all the time. You can't have lights. Anything you put in the frame is going to show up, so basic elements of production need to be rethought. Who's essential? You need the [camera] operator, the director, and sound. Everyone else melt away.

We're thinking light, small crews are going to work best. Preplanned shots will be the best ones at first. Here we're just kind of shooting different things we thought would work well, but we really had to think about where the attention of the user is going to be. You don't know where they're going to be looking most of the time, but you can guide them — give them visual or audio cues to pull them in a certain way, to get them to look over here. We're starting to figure out what those are, how we can have a transition to a new scene and have them land in the right place. Everything from production to how you create the scenes to how you draw the attention of the user — all of that is being rethought for VR.


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