Is VR film making dead?
Hey friends and welcome back to the Alex makes VR podcast. In today's episode, I thought we'd touch on a slightly hyperbolic and controversial topic. Is VR filmmaking dead? And y'all know what my opinion on that is before we even dive into the episode, but this topic has come to mind off the back of watching the recent Sundance Film Festival, New Frontier selection. It's a conversation that I've been having offline with a lot of creators, but I wanted to bring the conversation online, throw it out into a public forum so that we can start having an open and honest dialogue about the state of virtual reality in terms of an entertainment format.
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I have to be very, very honest and say that I've recorded three different versions of this episode and each one has been about half an hour long. Each one
I finished, I just thought it's just, I don't want to release that into the world. So this is actually the third attempt at me trying to get this episode, right. The reason I think it's so difficult to talk about this subject is because it is a very divisive subject within the the industry at large. This is the conclusion I've come to over the past 48 hours of attempting to record this episode, is that the definitions of what VR filmmaking is, are still so undefined. When I talk about VR filmmaking, I'm talking about actual film based content, I'm talking about 360 video, I'm talking about volumetric video, I'm talking about photo realistic, film based content. That is story driven, and character led, the kind of thing that you would put on Netflix, you know, fictional content, scripted content, the kind of content that dominates the entertainment space for the general population. But that is not necessarily the definition that everyone has for VR filmmaking, and everyone is absolutely entitled to their own definition. There is a lot of fighting in the VR industry, which is so counterproductive. What is 360 filmmaking VR? You know, where is the line? Does it have to be game based? Does it have to be live action? Does it have to be real time render? Does it have to be interactive? Does it have to be multi choice? Does it have to be you know, there's so many different variations, and there's so many different opinions on that subject and I've come to realise that, that is one of the biggest hurdles for us as an industry, is we can't decide what things are and what we call them and how we define them, which makes it really difficult then to go out and recruit new people to the industry or to give exposure in any particular niche, which will then encourage more people to get into it, because we ourselves don't really know what it is. That's quite important, I think, because this whole episode was inspired by an experience that I had with the Sundance Film Festival this year.
This topic came up after I watched the Sundance selection and I won't go into too in depth about that experience but overall, I thought that the fact that they had to take the physical Film Festival and create an online platform of all of these different interactive and XR works that could be as widely accessible as possible across multiple devices, whilst keeping everyone happy, it was an impossible task, essentially. And I would have liked maybe a bit more heads up about the fact that like, if you've only got a computer, these are the experiences that you'll be able to do. Or you know, this is how many you can access with a phone, a Quest, this is how many experience you can do. If you've got a tablet headset, you'll be able to do them all and I would have liked that up top because the thing that frustrated me was I only have a Quest at home at the moment, I can't access my tethered headset setup. Which, you know, candidly, isn't even mine. It's just a tethered headset that we use in a co working space and the reason for that is the majority of the work that I do doesn't require a tethered headset and the clients that I work with, they're not interested in paying 1000s of pounds to distribute the VR work that we do together. They want a portable, fairly cheap scalable solution. The quest is generally that, especially the Quest Two, but I'm not going to go down that rabbit hole, let me bring it back on topic.
So that would have been nice to have some transparency wrapped up but a regardless of the fact that and full disclosure, I didn't get to see all the pieces because quite a few of them were tethered and the content that was available, I was not necessarily enthralled by. I think the the main reason for that, and the reason why this kind of topic came up in my head was because as a fan of filmmaking, and as a fan of narrative, fictional, scripted content, like the kind of content that is part of the Sundance legacy, the main Film Festival, a film festival that has launched the careers of Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez, all of these iconic, independent filmmakers. I was really disappointed
that, that hadn't hasn't translated over to the the kind of XR selection as part of new frontiers and there's a number of reasons for that and I won't go into them in this, but I just want to say right up top that I am not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination, that I don't understand the challenges that would have been confronting the curators, and the facilitators of this year selection but this goes for all of the film festivals, even pre COVID times, they lean towards more of an arts based crowd for the for the XR arm to the film festivals, they lean towards experimental conceptual pieces, not necessarily story based, character driven content. And there could be a number of reasons for that, so so many reasons, including the fact that some people just flat out don't like film based VR content, there is always a lot of heated debate around whether or not 360 films can be considered true virtual reality, which is not a subject that I'm going to cover in this episode but all I'll say on the subject is, if it's consumed in a VR headset, it is VR, end of story.
There's a number of reasons including personal taste by the creators, curators, and by the fact that they're limited in space usually, and the way that they curate has to very much align with the budget that they've got to showcase on a certain amount of headsets. And, you know, I'm not going to discount all of those arguments for why we are seeing more arts based content, but this got me thinking about what it is about this space that is preventing more filmmakers from wanting to jump in. Because I know for me personally, as a filmmaker, the first time I put on a VR headset, I was blown away and it wasn't even really that the piece I was watching was a narrative it was I mean, one of the first pieces that I saw within a while of knowing what VR was was was scripted. It was the Mr. Robots piece. I've talked about that several times on this podcast, but the very first piece I saw, I believe was a Felix and Paul’s piece which is just a performance piece, but even just watching it blew me away. And it blew me away to the kind of possibilities that we would have in this medium, and I can't say that, ’m not surprised. Hang on, that was a double negative. Let me reword that. I'm very surprised that more filmmakers haven't had that same experience as me.
Now, it could be that they've just not had the experience full stop. It could be that they've actually never put on a VR headset and seen a piece of film based virtual reality. It could be that the main exposure that they'd they've had to VR is in a gaming capacity, or in a social VR capacity or in a I don't know, a horror experience or something, all of which all really brilliant ways of bringing people into VR, obviously and the way that you have your first experience in VR, I guess very much sets the tone for the kind of work that you want to pursue. But I can't help but feel like a film festival should absolutely be the kind of place that opens the door to filmmakers and say is this medium is for you? You, Carol, who's been working on that feature film that you've shot on an iPhone and scrapped together the budget for but you're so, so desperate to tell the story of your relationship with your mother and her struggle with addiction or whatever it is, you know, the classic kind of indie filmmakers stuff like, why isn't that person seeing VR and saying, this is really interesting? How can I tell stories with this medium? And, to me, I think it is because these film festivals are not giving the exposure to that kind of work and of course, just like with anything in life, if you don't see it, you wouldn't know it was possible. And I have to say, from my point of view, and again, all of this is, totally subjective and this isn't just my personal opinion, but I can't help but think that, if and when I have gone to these arts based exhibitions for VR, and the UK festivals are not exempt from this, they do it too. It's all set up in a very artsy way, and it's all very much…you've kind of got to have the nice aesthetic to show your exhibition of VR so that the people that are waiting to do the VR experience are still entertained. And it looks visually pretty rather than just, you know, a room full of random headsets dangling from a ceiling or a room of people in chairs watching VR. I understand that there is, to some extent, there is a bit of that going on, that you need to kind of make it appealing for the people that are standing around waiting. But in that scenario, like I've been really intimidated, because I am not from an arts background, I find the world candidly a little bit pretentious and I find it really difficult to feel welcome in a space like that now. Luckily, I have the privilege now of being someone where I know quite a few people in the industry. So now it's a little bit less intimidating because I can go into those spaces and usually I'll know someone, and it makes it all a little bit less cringy. But I can't help but feel like the average filmmaker who wants to explore immersive storytelling, might not feel welcome in these spaces that we're creating. We are supposed to be the showing the world and leading the showcases of immersive storytelling. I have to say that as the average filmmaker, as one person's opinion as an average filmmaker, you know, speaking on behalf of filmmakers, some of the work that I see in VR, I'm left thinking…I don't get it. Am I supposed to get it? And it's the exact same feeling that I have when I walk around art galleries, and obviously, I can totally appreciate art and what it is and I have a tremendous amount of respect for artists but I can't help but feel it's that same thing of like…oh I didn’t get it. So therefore, I don't feel like I can play in that space.
In the filmmaking community and the artists community, they are two very different kind of breeds of people. And yes, there is crossover and yes, and artists can be a filmmaker, because, you know, because visual artists do use film for their art but also, a filmmaker can make art. There's, you know, countless amount of filmmakers, whose visual style and aesthetic, the way that they go about producing films is absolutely more in line with what you would consider visual art than film, so this is where it gets a bit messy. But just you kind of know what I'm getting at filmmakers. On when I'm saying filmmakers, I'm saying like the kind of people that want a story, they want the hero's journey, they want to follow a character, they want to be sucked in. They want an emotional connection with the thing that they're watching, they don't want to always anyway, be confronted by a conceptual abstract piece that is supposed to represent a big theme or idea, and don't get me wrong, I can throw down with the best of my own philosophy and what a lot of art says about the world and us as a species and all of the problems that we have and social issues and injustice, totally understand that. It's very important, I'm not saying that it's not important that we have artists work, I'm just saying that we're not necessarily allowing a space to showcase the best of VR filmmaking, so that the average filmmaker feels welcome in this industry.
I'm already 15 minutes in, and I'm like, nowhere near finished on this subject but I'm going to try and be as concise as possible.
So those are like, my thoughts on the subject. My thoughts are, people aren't seeing the work, so therefore they don't feel included and they feel intimidated. But there are also obviously much bigger challenges. If you said to the average filmmaker - hey, you know how it's really difficult already to sustain a living with filmmaking, you know, how about feature film that you've spent, like your life savings on and you got your Mum to act in it, and you've used all of your mates, locations, with the hope that it would premiere a festival, get picked up by a distributor, and then maybe you would make your money back?But mostly, it would just be cool to get it on Netflix and say that you had a film on Netflix, cool. Now go tell that same filmmaker that you want them to create that same story, that same piece, that same passion project. nnot that they're always passion projects, but go tell them that they're going to do the same thing in a medium that costs five times as much at a minimum that is harder to grapple with that has its own cinematic language that they don't know yet, and no one knows. And then tell them that it's going to be really difficult to get it to an audience that there is no built in distribution channel, there is no Netflix to try and send it to you, there is no channel that you can easily get it in front of 1000s millions of people like you would do if you uploaded it to YouTube and put a bit of ad spend behind it. What about that seems appealing to a filmmaker? And that is the truth. That is where we're at right now. Maybe the artist is more inclined to experiment, because that is the nature of arts, that is the nature of artists, they want to experiment more, they are more willing, that they're not expecting, often to make a killing off of the back of the work. A lot of the artists that I know, you know, the whole starving artist is a meme at this point, but it's a cliche for a reason. And it's because artists generally, and again, I am generalising here, or they have so much conviction around the idea that they want to portray through their work that they will use whatever medium fits the purpose. Whereas filmmakers they know they want to tell their stories through their specific medium with the hope of getting it to more people, right? And also we're going with the likes of YouTube and influencer culture, we are seeing that video and filmmaking is on a pedestal right now. I mean, it kind of always has been, but it's never been more accessible to be a traditional 2D filmmaker.
Like I said, there have been films that have been nominated for awards of Sundance and other iconic film festivals that have been made literally on iPhones. The technology that you need to make a film that 100 years ago or even even 10 years ago, would have been tremendously expensive, required a lot of skill, a lot of equipment. Now you can do that on such a low budget, that we're having a bit of a boom in people that want to pursue filmmaking, in loads of different arenas, which is super exciting. But now tell those people to kind of to come into a space where there aren't as many people doing it, there aren't as many opportunities for getting paid, there aren't as many opportunities to showcase their work because even film festivals don't programme film based content. Again, none of that would seem appealing on the surface, but I believe genuinely, that if more filmmakers were aware of the potential of this medium, if more filmmakers knew that where we are right now in VR is very similar to where we were in cinema 100 years ago and if they got in now, they could be part of the pioneers to define the medium to discover the language to experiment and everything is up for grabs, and it's a hardcore community of passionate people that work together, have loads and loads of opinions on stuff, and you might not be able to get your work to a wide audience, but you will be able to impact a small amount of people much more than maybe with your short film that you've put on Vimeo?
The fact that I've been filmmaking and working in and around filmmakers, like in television and in advertising and in short films, etc, for years now, like I was literally making my first short films with my brother, when, you know, I was like 11 or 12 and some of those are still cring-ly on YouTube and will not be telling you where you can see them, but nothing compared to the first time I showed my parents the VR piece that I'd created. Nothing compared to the impact that that had, compared to, you know, a little kind of short film that you can watch on a TV or phone…like nothing compares to putting someone in a headset and letting them live the story. If more filmmakers knew that, if more filmmakers heard that, and saw this space as an opportunity, yes, you're not going to get rich. Yeah, right now, yes, It's going to be hard. Yes, the odds are all stacked against us.
There is a question mark hanging over the whole format as to whether or not it will survive in the years to come but part of the fun is being part of the group of people that tested that theory and that got to tell their stories in this medium and be the people that defined it. Then VR filmmaking wouldn't be dead. It would be thriving and yes, of course, we need to solve these distribution problems, we need to solve, you know, we need more audiences in it, we need more time and it's catch 22, right? Because we need more audiences to want to consume this kind of work, but those audiences won't come until this kind of work exists. So it's a self fulfilling prophecy, but the kind of content that I've always wanted to work since I jumped into this industry five or so years ago, is the kind of content that the general population would like.
In fact, let me tell you this anecdote I remember so vividly at the last VR cinema that I put on. It was for a group of executives and employees at the BFI, the British Film Institute, this is the body that is funding my next VR piece. This was after I'd secured that funding, just FYI and I put it on as a way of like…showcasing the potential. So I showed them a couple of pieces of work that were film based work, story led work and one of the pieces of feedback I had…I mean… don't get me wrong, everyone really enjoyed it but one of the pieces of feedback that one of the executives gave was - well, this is great, but I don't see much content that is just like light hearted, just light hearted, nice stories, like everything I see in VR is so intense and dark and conceptual and thematic and it's so highbrow, there's nothing for the average cinema goer, there's nothing that would be you know, a top 10 trending on Netflix, there's nothing that’s really, really accessible. Then I showed them Keyed Alike, which was the first project that I ever made in VR and they were like, you know, this is this is an example of a piece that is exactly that. It is a super low key, down pad, character focused story focused film based project that any cinema goer could get into and even even that piece, obviously it has its problems and it's my own, so of course I'm biassed with that but she was like… where's the rest of it? I'm like - yeah, that is a problem, because there aren't many filmmakers working in this space. So therefore, and let's be real, even the select people that are working in this industry, we all have different tastes. We all have different ideas of what we want to make. It's not right for a lot of people to make a character, you know, a female led dystopian drama like I want to make. I want to make that because that's the kind of content that I want to see, that I want to make the stories that I want to know. But that's not necessarily the same as what you're going to do, that’s not the same as someone else wants to do. They want to tell a documentary story about a jazz musician, they want to you know, follow an astronaut. They want Tell a story about addiction. They want to tell a story about, you know, nightmares. Like, there's obviously so many different things, but because there's such a small group of filmmakers working in the industry, and there isn't enough of like a cross section of genres to even entice different audiences in, does that make sense?
Okay, I've gone on such a ramble, I want to just finish off by saying, when I recorded the first two versions of this podcast, like I said, I got in my head a bit and I just kind of wanted to gut check with the rest of my fellow creatives, how they were feeling about this subject? I wanted to kind of get out of my own head and get out of my own bias, because absolutely this topic and this conversation comes from a place of the fact that I selfishly, selfishly want VR filmmaking to succeed, to thrive, because that's what I want to do. But I wanted to go and check against the rest of the industry, I wanted to go check against a group of other creative professionals. So instead of just having private conversations, I put it to a public forum, and asked a load of questions in a Facebook group with a with a load of professional VR creators, and wanted to share with you something that I thought was quite interesting. I put a poll out to say, basically, in a nutshell, why does VR attract more artists than filmmakers? And the number one reason that people voted for in the poll was the lack of distribution for VR films. So it makes people less interested to jump in, which I've already touched on this episode. Absolutely, it makes sense. What kind of sadomasochists like me, wants to create work that essentially no one figuratively saying, no one will see? The second one was that grants and festivals tend to focus on arts based VR work, so it's a self fulfilling prophecy. Again, we've touched on this, that idea of if you can't see it, you won't believe that you can do it. If you don't see more VR film based work being shown, you won't see that there is a space for you in this industry, you will see it as - oh, you've got to be like, a no cap, live performer theatre designer to get into VR you know, or you've got to be an incredible Pixar level animator to get into VR, or you've got to have some like, abstract, conceptual acid trip like visions of a VR project to get into VR.
What is supposed to represent the best of the best in immersive storytelling? That’s the story that those pieces are telling. The next one is that it works better as an artistic platform than a traditional film approach, and I know, I am not oblivious to the fact that, that could definitely be the case. That all the the 360 filmmaking to VR is like 3D filmmaking is to traditional feature films, like maybe it's not enough to be in a headset, maybe. Maybe having that kind of full body experiential, artist artistic experience is more appealing than that passive, film based approach, that could absolutely be something that we see going forward in this industry that prevails is that maybe, maybe not.
I'd still fundamentally believe regardless of what happens with VR filmmaking, that VR will be huge and VR will essentially change all of our lives in so many different ways that we can't fathom now. But maybe the way that we consume films in VR will be that we all sit in a virtual cinema together because we can't be assed or there's no such thing as a physical. Well, there will still be physical cinemas, I'm sure even in like 20/30 years, but let's say we just don't want to leave the sofa but we want to go to the cinema with our mates and see the latest release movie. Like maybe we enter a virtual cinema to do that, because we're still consuming it in a space with our friends, but it's just like a normal film.
Like, I'll never forget, one of the times I was working on a VR project for a hospital. and this kid was running around with his parents, and he was like - hey, I've got one of those (pointing to my headset) and I said - oh, yeah, what app do you like to use? And he was like - oh, sometimes I like to watch Netflix on it because I can't be bothered to hold my iPad in bed and I thought that in a nutshell says everything about…well about everything really doesn't it? About digital, the age of digital and also Generation Z, no shade to Generation Z, of course, but isn't that interesting? Oh, I wanted to watch Netflix because I can in VR, I can sit in this like mansion with a screen the size of a cinema screen to watch my VR shows rather than just holding an iPad or watching on a laptop or watching it on a TV. Now I can have as big a screen as I like and watch it in comfort, as long as my head can withstand the VR headset, I thought that was really interesting.
Also, the financials don't add up in this space and currently, just like the festivals focus on more arts based projects, a lot of public funding focuses on arts based projects too. Here in the UK, up until really, really recently, aka, my project is one of the first ever VR project funded by the BFI network here in England, which is a film based Institute. Before that, for the last however many years, the only grant body that will commission or fund VR work has been Arts Council England which is an artistic medium, because it is experimental, because it is new. And so because the grants are focused to artists, that's the kind of work that gets funded. That's the kind of work that gets showcased, it makes sense. It's a self fulfilling prophecy.
So I'm going to end this episode there, because I've already talked for quite a while it's interesting that no matter which version of the episode I did, it always ended at around the half an hour mark. Clearly, that's my end. That's my ceiling for rumbling tea guys, I'm sure you'll be pleased to know. Let me know what you thought this episode. It's a really hard topic to cover without getting really emotional about it one way or another, because you might be listening to this and you might be an artist. So you might have very strong opinions or you might think it's a great thing that there’s more experimental full body kind of work being showcased on these big platforms, because usually, it's reserved for, you know, smaller art exhibitions.
But let me hear your thoughts. I would love for this to open a dialogue, because one of the things that I really loved about posting about this on Facebook, in the group was that it opened up this really engaging, honest conversation. I've not seen that many VR creatives jump in on a conversation and start debating back and forth in a really civil way, just coming from their own kind of opinions and standpoints. I've never seen I haven't seen that happen in the VR industry for a long, long time. And it's important, it's important that we open these conversations, we open these channels to have these hard dialogues, because I'm very okay with 90% of you saying, nope, it's dead, Alex, let it go.
Now, I'll make Bad News and I'll be on my way for sure. I'll just carry on soldiering on in the background and I'll learn I won't, you know, mutter another word on the subject but it's important that we do kind of chat and pulse check where everyone's at and what everyone else is feeling, especially if you yourself, are a filmmaker, know that you're not alone in feeling that. So reach out to me on Instagram and Twitter, it’s @alexmakesvr and if you want to join in on that conversation, the Facebook group that I've been alluding to is the 360 and VR professionals group on Facebook and that's it for this episode.
I cannot wait to hear your thoughts if you like this episode would mean the world to me if you screen shotted the podcast that you're listening to right now and share it on your social medias and tag me it just helps get the word out podcast on innately very shareable especially because people listen on different platforms. But if you could just if you could share a screenshot let me know what you thought this episode tag me that would do wonders in terms of helping other people discover the podcast which in turn helps me so that would be lovely. Have a great day wherever you are in the world. And I will speak to you again very soon.
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