Since the Lumière brothers shot and showed the first film in Paris in 1895, cinema has allowed us to be transported back in time, explore unknown planets and even find out what our toys get up to when no one’s around. In recent years, technological innovation has meant cinema goers can become even more immersed in the stories they see on screen. One development in particular is virtual reality (VR) and now, for the first time, film-makers have at their disposal a range of revolutionary VR tools to help craft their movies.
Though we associate VR films right now with headgear and computer technology, past generations of filmmakers attempted to take the idea of VR as far as they could with what they had. IMAX launched several VR theaters in major US cities in 2017 and began developing high-end VR cameras with Google; a year later, IMAX has shuttered two VR theaters and Google halted its camera partnership to focus on augmented reality (AR) instead.
Disney’s VR startup, Jaunt XR, also chose to pivot to AR and was forced to lay off employees. Facebook also shut down its VR filmmaking wing Oculus Story Studio, though the Story Studio team then chose to found their own studio, Fable. Overall, the story of VR films thus far has been one of hype, optimism, and, sometimes, financial roadblocks.
The nascent boom in VR experimentation in the early 1990s was held back for decades by, among other issues, the technical limitations of creating media for this new form. In recent years, these have largely been overcome.
But what kind of cinema will emerge? Probably not traditional narrative productions: filmmakers must come up with new storytelling techniques to account for a technology that explodes the frame, placing the spectator inside the space of the film.
Marketers, broadcasters, engineers, artists and architects are already on to VR. But the multibillion pound question being contemplated by movie executives is whether the VR revolution will catch the imagination of the public – or will a future where we strap boxes to our faces in the cinema aisles be too embarrassing?
Disney’s Lion King is the future of cinema
If you’ve seen the trailer, there’s one other obvious fact: The new Lion King rides an atomically thin line between CGI animation and live action. The Lion King was filmed entirely in virtual reality.
A decade ago, James Cameron’s Avatar pioneered a technique in which actors wearing motion-capture suits could be filmed inside digital backgrounds in real time. Later, on films like Ready Player One and Solo: A Star Wars Story, filmmakers started using VR headsets to examine the virtual world and even plan shots. What Jon Favreau has cooked up for The Lion King transforms VR from a handy filmmaking accessory into a high-powered, improvisational medium in itself.
With 360-degree video placing viewers inside the movie, some predicted that “VR cinema” would be so transformative that audiences might never again be satisfied with watching a flat theater screen. Alas, a century of filmmaking conventions wasn’t undone so easily. When VR cinema failed to sweep away standard Hollywood blockbusters, the iceberg effect kicked in again: Guess VR won’t spark a film revolution after all!
The set of The Lion King, though, makes very clear that the VR revolution did happen. It just didn’t look at all like the soothsayers thought it would.