VR and the early days of cinema

As a filmmaker and media scholar, I continue to be surprised about the parallels between the first years of film and the first years of 360 degree video. When film first emerged, it wasn’t used to create high-minded, narrative stories. Instead, it’s first use was as an attraction at viewing parlors, novelty shows and exhibitions. In this article, I outline some of the major parallels I’ve noticed between early cinema and early VR.

New technology wows people

The phenakistoscope. CC by-sa 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

One of the first recorded short films was Le Repas de bébé (Baby’s Lunch). It features Auguste Lumière, his wife and their baby. As Lumière feeds the child, his wife pours some tea. The film caused quite a stir, but not so much because of the action on screen. People had seen moving images well before this, for instance through devices like the zoetrope, phenakistoscope (pictured right), and puppet shows through magic lanterns. No, people were mostly fascinated by the moving leaves on the background. Up until that time, moving images were restricted to certain parts of the action, such as the characters. Backgrounds remained static. Film was magical to people because everything was in motion, not just a small part of the frame.

When I show people a 360 video (especially when they’re wearing a headset), I get a very similar reaction. ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahs’ abound. Forget narratives and content, people are just overwhelmed by the fact that they can look around them, see another place in such detail and freedom. Often, people have already seen 360 pictures before. That the images move, however, is perceived as very special.

Which brings me to the next similarity:

Animation first, film second

Émile Reynaud projecting Pauvre Pierrot in a theatre in France.

It’s easier to draw/render things than capturing reality. I’ve mentioned some animation devices in the previous paragraph, but with those durations were short and mostly looped. It was difficult to tell a story through a phenakistoscope. True, projected and linear animation emerged by the hands of Émile Reynaud. His Projecting Praxinoscope (see image on the right) was capable of projecting animated films such as Pauvre Pierrot (Poor Pierrot). His animations were painted onto frames of celluloid and played back by hand. The technology was invented 1892, a few years before the first moving pictures appeared.

We’ve seen a similar development with 360 VR. The first time I saw a 360 image (with a Google Cardboard), it was the infamous Tuscany Drive, an app that takes you around a Tuscan villa. It’s not a real villa, but a digital rendering of one. Again, it seems animated reality beat recorded reality to the punch. Even now, digital, animated VR is way ahead of 360 video. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, as well as Google’s Daydream, offer interactive, animated environments that can encompass huge areas and feature interactive content. 360 video is lagging behind. Only now, the first experiments with 3DDon’t forget that regular 360 videos are not 3D, i.e. there is no depth in the image. Stereoscopic 360 give the viewer’s left eye a slightly different image than the right eye, as it is in the real word., interactive 360One of the most promising early prototypes is Google’s video for the Olympics of Rio de Janeiro. narratives are emerging.

Scenics

To the right is one of the first of a large number of so-called scenics, or short travelogues. Scenics were a popular genre in early film. Major film companies sent their camera operators across the globe to capture exotic locales. It was an opportunity for the common people to gape at the beauty of far-flung countries, which they would never visit in their lifetime. More than anything, they were fancy moving postcards. There was no narrative content to speak of. This particular scenic, Panorama des Rives du Nil (Panorama of the Banks of the Nile River), was immensely popular, because the inventive cameraman put the camera on a boat, creating one of the first known examples of the lateral tracking shot.

Scenics were a hallmark of early cinema, and for good reason. First and foremost, they were relatively easy to film. Don’t forget, early cameras were not as easy to operate as contemporary consumer cameras. They had a very primitive viewfinder (if they had one at all), so shots tended be based on more guesswork than today. Secondly, early cameras came with a fixed focus lens, which were not very good for anything closer than 6m/19.5ft. Even when lenses with manual focus were introduced, a camera operator still had to use a measuring tape to make sure his subjects were in focus. Shooting landscapes was easy and quick, with minimal set-up time. Finally, we mustn’t forget that some of the most important cinematic conventions were not in place yet. The simple cutAs in: cutting between two scenes hadn’t really been invented yet. Early films were recorded on celluloid, so cutting meant litterally cutting a piece of film and sticking them together with tape strong enough not to be pulled apart by the projector. Moreover, the cinematic convention of cutting was considered jarring at the time, making it hard for the audience to follow what was happening. Other well-known narrative devices, such as the Kuleshov effectExplained wonderfully by Alfred Hitchcock, wouldn’t come into play until much later.

Sound familiar? Not unlike the scenics of early film, many 360 videos today aren’t more than locations. Look, we’re at the Trevi Fountains in Rome! And now we’re at Times Square in New York! How about the top of the Burj Khalifa? Like the scenics, these are easy to film, and because the viewer is transfixed by the moving 360 image, they don’t need much else beside a beautiful, interesting visual.

Experimentation & the future

I’m picking up on change in the virtual world, however. 360 video is maturing as a cinematic device, and viewers are soon going to demand more. As with early cinema, we’re seeing entrepeneurial souls starting to experiment with this interesting new technology. Just like George Méliès, D. W. Griffith, Edwin Porter, and W. F. Murnau developed early cinematic techniques, YouTubersNGOs and artists are taking to 360. It’s these experiments that will help us to find out what works, and what doesn’t.

The birth of a new technology leads to giddyness. For some reason, people seem naturally attracted to gadgets, whether it’s the birth of film or 360 video. As the technology matures, it loses its novelty. We’re entering that age now for 360 video. VR is hitting the mainstream: there are several affordable 360 cameras, video platforms like YouTube are pushing the technology, and most modern smartphones are VR-ready. Someone told me to stop focussing on 360 video, because it’s “so 2016”. That person is right. 360 is losing its novelty. Many people have seen 360 in one form or another.We would do well to remember that this is a very Western perspective. Many countries haven’t even got the internet speed to properly play 360 videos, and for the majority of the world’s population, VR technology is far out of reach. That’s why it’s such an exciting time for us filmmakers. The world of 360 is wide open. Time to explore it.

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