One of Lord Puttnam’s final lectures focused on technology and, in particular, the importance of innovation in the history of cinema. After looking extensively at innovations of the past such as animation, surround sound and computer-generated imagery, he moved on to some of the possible advancements in our future. One of those advancements was “Virtual Reality”, a relatively new area of technology that seems to be improving exponentially year after year. Lord Puttnam remarked on the many ways in which this technology could change the face of cinematic storytelling as we know it, but he returned to his previous, and seemingly most important point about how, “cinema, at its heart, is all about identity”.
If virtual reality cannot make us identify with what we are seeing on anything more than an immediate, visceral level, then it will be forever seen as a theme park attraction instead of an artistic one. Lord Puttnam mentioned both Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) as examples of immersive filmmaking. Not only were these films physically immersive, with the use of 3-D technology, but also emotionally immersive with sympathetic protagonists and stories of human struggle and survival. Virtual Reality can achieve a sense of physical immersivity that goes far beyond what was shown to us by Ang Lee or Alfonso Cuarón. The technology can allow you to feel like you are swimming with sharks or flying through the clouds or even floating out in space. However, the question that surrounds virtual reality is whether or not it can replicate the emotional connection that an audience has when the lights go down in a cinema and the screen comes to life.
One way to cultivate this much needed emotional connection between an audience and the content they are consuming is to have them guided by creative voice that is able to highlight the human in something so modern and technological. A lot of the current crop of “VR” practitioners come from a technical background and their output tends to reflect that. I believe, as the technology becomes more user-friendly and gets employed by a more natural set of storytellers, virtual reality will become much more than just physically immersive.
At a visual effects summit in Beverly Hills, Oscar-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister remarked on virtual reality, “When somebody like Danny Boyle cracks it with emotional content, it will be cool.” (Indiewire). Danny Boyle, in many ways, would be the perfect pioneer for virtual reality. I’d have faith that he wouldn’t get bogged down in the endless cycle of technical innovation like James Cameron did with his efforts promoting 3-D technology for his 2009 film, Avatar. Boyle is the type of director who uses technology, first and foremost, as a tool to tell a story. You see this daring, innovative use of technology on 28 Days Later (2002), where he chose to film on cheap, handheld digital cameras to achieve a post-apocalyptic naturalism that, so far, has never been bettered. Boyle possesses an ability to connect an audience with characters from all walks of life, whether they be the slums of Mumbai or the streets of Edinburgh. I believe this ability, coupled with his comfort in collaboration, makes him an ideal candidate to bring identity to virtual reality.