June 3, 2016
—Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
It's tempting to think of virtual reality as an extension of cinema. After all, it seems to bubble from the same fount. In the live-action evocation of both disciplines, you use cameras to capture subjects—either in native or artificial environments. In the computer-generated expressions of both forms, where a digital landscape is rendered in three dimensions from which any perspective may be selected by the animator at any moment, the similarities seem even more apparent.
Furthermore, if you choose to apply them, the fundamental compositional and editorial principles of film appear to transpose directly into VR. Nick Bicanic, by separating VR's 360-degree frame into degrees, discovered that, given our 120-year, collective conditioning to the rules of cinematic aesthetics, you can shoot and edit a virtual reality experience the way you might a 2-D movie. (He even proved his hypothesis by producing a short scene, and editing it according to his rules.)
Though the logic of Bicanic's supposition is unassailable (you can shoot and edit VR like you might traditionally-covered, flat film without disorienting the audience) I want to argue respectfully that this perspective disregards what may be virtual reality's essential nature: the viewer's presence in space. In VR, the observer, by virtue of being surrounded on all sides by the world, loses sense of the screen—because the screen has no visible limit. More on this, shortly.
We've established, previously, that cinema and live-action VR share some common basic elements (e.g. cameras, actors). Now let's attempt to define, through the lens of agency, where cinema and VR diverge.
VR cedes attentional (and sometimes, locomotive) agency to the viewer. VR cedes attentional and (sometimes) locomotive agency (the viewer's ability to move through a virtual space) to the viewer. You can look anywhere in the 360-degree environment you wish. Bicanic argues that the spectator's field of view is actually only 100 degrees. But even if you choose not to explore the other 260 degrees of space, you are nonetheless empowered—if not incentivized—to do so. Cinema, conversely, controls the viewer's attention by constraining what portion of the world she can see at any given moment.
How much agency VR affords the viewer, and how little cinema does, of course, depends on the work in question. For our purposes, let's consider film and VR as twin, overlapping spectra defined by presence, as described in the diagram below. Let's lay out film and VR along a single axis denoting the level of presence of the viewer. At the low-presence extreme are films featuring the most highly-mediated cinematic editing style (e.g. The Bourne Ultimatum). On the high-presence extreme are static-camera VR experiences, comprised of a single shot (e.g. "The Visitor"). In the center, where the two continua overlap, are deliberately-paced films relying more on mise-en-scene than montage (Mon oncle), and VR narratives that make use of inter-scene, and even some in-scene, editing ("Collisions").
Without over-constraining creativity with delimiting jargon, I do think it's helpful to establish (flexible) definitions. VR, by dint of the viewer's sense of presence, is as different from film as film is from theatre: you can tell the same general story in either space (see, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but you approach even the identical text differently—depending on the medium.
When converting a play to a film, you could of course frame up the proscenium and record the action in a manner commensurate with the theatre-goer's experience of the performance from the third row. When converting a play to a film, you could of course record the action from the static perspective of a theater-goer in the third row. Similarly, in porting a cinematic story to VR, you could, as Bicanic confirmed, unfold a story by cutting amongst wides and mediums, tights and reverse-shots.
The question remains—and it may be as much philosophical as practical—if VR is characterized by presence, and rapid editing dislodges the viewer's sense of presence in space, does VR that features conventional cinematic editing qualify as virtual reality? I would argue that it doesn't.
Earlier in this essay I alluded to locomotive agency, by which I mean the viewer's—or experiencer's—ability to move through a virtual space. On the HTC Vive (and soon through other platforms), certain experiences (e.g. "theBlu: Whale Encounter"), employing laser tracking, afford the user to explore, or interact with, the space of an experience. In "theBlu," the experiencer has the freedom to walk around the deck of a sunken ship, looking at, though not yet influencing the behavior of, the marine life around her (other experiences, like Tyler Hurd's "Old Friend," and Ben Vance's "Irrational Exuberance," support both locomotive agency and interactivity).
In experiences that enable locomotive agency and interactivity, one quickly begins to see how cinematic editing, that seeks to control the viewer's perspective, begins to lose utility. Or more pointedly, if you try to "edit" a viewer's experience by force-mediating her perspective, you expunge any sense of presence. (As a storyteller, you may want to play with the effects of disorienting your audience intentionally. But that is a specialized tool, not a general aesthetic principle.)
It may be enticing, in these early days of live-action virtual reality, when we can't yet capture 360-degree, explorable environments, to approach this early instantiation as a mature medium. It isn't. But it is a distinct medium, and thus deserves a set of discrete and innovative methodologies. Just because you can approximate the logic of flat cinema in VR, doesn't mean you should. Then again, it also doesn't mean you shouldn't.