Text: Pedro Aibéo 1.11.2015
Pictures: Synes Elischka
The film starts, but in this one, you can turn your head in any direction and look around. You decide where the camera is pointing! Welcome to the screening of films done in Synes Elischka’s workshop, a show held at Aalto University. The host showed us on the 16th of October 2015, 16 films made by more than 20 film-makers. The results of a hands on, two-week workshop on Virtual Reality (VR) filmmaking; a medium none of the participants had worked with before .
Synes Elischka wrote on the workshop description: ”VR is currently being hyped as being “the next big thing.” Countless companies are pouring millions of dollars to develop their own R&D projects. And because it’s a new medium there are very few conventions to follow. This gives freedom to rethink everything. We don’t know how to properly guide viewers’ attention if they can look around freely wherever they want? And what are our visual storytelling tools now?” 
The show held at Kino Sheryl hall, Arabia Campus, was attended by 150 people, all watching the auditorium’s large screen while volunteers from the audience could go on stage and watch the movies using an oculus rift headset . The audience would see on the big screen, what the volunteers saw on the Oculus at the same time.
The films presented a wide variety of trials from experimental, to interactive and to technical, with some exploiting the new narrative possibilities. Some films made storytelling more complex than we have used to in traditional cinema. Yet the new technology introduced new possibilities. A more democratic and/or immersive approach can be said to have arisen: with VR technology one is not limited to one direction of a shooting camera. The new technology serves also better contextualizing, especially in the interactive movies seen in the screening. For documentaries and journalism, this could provide a breakthrough. Chris Milk, a film producer, claims to have created the ultimate empathy machine: he has filmed refugee camps for the UN with this immersive technology.
”It’s just a different kind of composition. Rather than trying to contain something in a frame, it’s about where you are placing the viewer’s consciousness in space, and how they relate to that space, and the choreography of people moving around them”, says Milk .
There was a short documentary film presented at Kino Sheryl: Koti, directed by Iris Olsson and Eero Tiainen. As she introduced her film, she explained the audience that, ”we had 6 go pros mounted on a especially 3D printed camera mount: monitoring while filming is not possible, one just starts the cameras and hopes for the best! Also, one cannot be present while filming takes place, as the camera is filming in all directions, except for two small black holes on the top and the bottom. Post editing is very demanding, involving stitching videos together, and trying our best to make them sync.”
The short five or so minute documentary opens with an outdoors shot in a forest, with a background voice narrating the life of one elderly person. No one is to be seen. The viewer can look around at the forest or straight at the building where they all live. The second scene takes place indoors showing how the elderly moves around, trapped in their wheelchairs, the narrators describes their daily tasks, watching TV… we see several rooms with people narrating accordingly. The user of the oculus can look around inside the room; choose details of individual interest or something he cares for the most and not the details the filmmaker might traditionally point towards. The elderly narrates how in their dreams they are able to walk, only to wake up for the reality of immobility. The movie ends where it started, in the woods, just in front of the building.
Writing about an immersive experience is a challenging process. ”VR is a medium that has the capacity to completely change how viewers relate to the space and the people they see “on screen”, Synes writes. The visual experience seems to have a feel of more “present” than when watching a conventional movie, but that might also simply be the novelty of the medium. We are curiosity driven animals, hungry for new experiences and all this, on an ever-evolving daily basis!
One of the first films presented was entitled aren’t you supposed to smile?. “The first time I tried the oculus I felt I was being carried away, and as you can look in any direction we had to think of the movie as having something interesting in all directions”, said the directors Maria Lappalainen and Hanna Arvela-Sarén. The film takes place at a party in an office space, and it can be described as a baby simulator! The camera shows the subjective point of view of the baby, who is being carried around throughout the film. The film has different scenes with people interacting straight at the camera saying cute comments or giving kisses to the camera, mixed with half drunken comments and signs of adoration: ”Don’t believe in the binary definition of the gender”, so goes one Finnish guy while pointing his finger to the baby’s eyes! ”Hey baby bay, high five, high five…, come on, smile! Come on…, come on.”
While slightly amusing, most of the films lacked a real narrative. Most of the workshop participants were adapting themselves to the technological challenges. Among these were the recurring 360 degrees bicycle ride experience by Tero Pänkäläinen: a bicycle ride across Helsinki parks with a soundtrack of Queen’s Bicycle race. The designer’s golden rule of never having a picture of an apple with apple written underneath was broken!
Italo Moncada explored time lapse: a rig of 4 GoPros in a 360 mount, filmed a park and a sunset in Kaivopuisto. He explained that every GoPro does different aperture and exposure levels which made it difficult to link all the pictures smoothly. The synching of them was surprisingly hard as some of the GoPros recorded less frames than others: 75 k frames were shot in one hour and one of the GoPros recorded 2 k frames less. One would expect to have perfect repeatable results based on Fordian mass production. Random mistakes do bring to mind the markets’ old formula known by every butcher, cobbler, and corner grocer that every customer is unique. The nostalgia in this case sucks!
There was also a piece about a concert: Suvi Parrilla directed an accordion player and a singer (who played also a difficult but in tune air guitar) in front of Lasipalatsi to save a tree from being knocked down.
Another “film” for example, used photogrammetry and unity to allow the oculus user to walk around a 3D model with the keyboard. As he walked, footsteps could be heard.
There were also those who tried to make a short narrative by taking advantage of features such as 3D sound (where you look at a particular point, the sound from it gets louder or even triggered). There was a piece with a robber’s runaway car, a short comedy / thriller scene where out of the excitement, a woman’s period is mistaken for a wound. The Elo-nightmare, a scary short film with an intensive soundtrack played by bass, was shot in a recording room, where you, the viewer, are placed trapped in a wheelchair and between a person and the corner of a room, oblivious to the screams of someone else at the other end of the corridor, while bumping into a glass wall in despair. ”I had great desire to walk towards the door and do something!”, said Pia Tikka, the oculus volunteer of this film.
Among the most interactive films were Akin Alaka’s Mrs Jand the Heaven and Hell by Eero Tiainen. Mrs J is a good attempt towards interactive form and strong narrative at the same time. Being a producer, Akin came into the workshop worried about how to commercialize VR pieces. The film is set at a doctor’s office. On the left side of the camera’s point of view there was what seemed to be Mrs. J’s husband (as one looked down, he could see that his hands were firmly clasped together). The person wearing the oculus was the central character who was having memory problems. She never replied to the questions asked from her. She just nod on a yes or no basis.
”Mary-Jane, How do you feel, what can you remember?”
”I can’t feel my face”, was her only reply at the end.?
The short film Heaven and Hell, my favorite, was a piece where three people talked constantly, directing good, positive comments to the person wearing the oculus: ”you are so talented”, ”you have this field of positive of energy”, ”I want pictures of you and put them in my living room”. … But when the oculus user turned into the other side, the same people, made despicable, negative and pessimistic comments about the user!
Another film combined video and game. The sound was recorded in 360. A narrator introduced the user to the acting. The screen was divided into a real video and a game zone. The user could change the boring life of someone by affecting one of the objects at the table. ”Welcome dear viewer, the man you are viewing is our character, a hard worker on a Sunday morning, trying to keep focused on the task he finds most important. Look closer, does he seem happy? Put yourself in his position. What if you could change his life, look at his table, a smartphone and a cup of coffee. Look at these objects and choose one of them.” The oculus user chose the cup of coffee and the actor in the film drinks the coffee and begins tripping from drugs! ?Unity 3D was used in this case, however, as it is not designed for movie purposes it’s not (yet) really good for movie textures.
Another unity project was shown by workshop’s lone wolf, Lauri-Matti Parppei. Going around through a digitally created forest environment with sounds of wind and a female voice proclaiming a poem of Goethe in German (the girlfriend insisted in having Erlkoenig on it to be more artistic and not so geeky, so the author explained). White balls appeared floating in the forest. While looking at the balls, these would be triggered and make both noises and glow. No further explanation was given. The poem, Erlkoenig, depicts the death of a child by some supernatural being, in a forest in the presence of his father.
The new type of technology generates questions for both film-makers and consumers. More levels of freedom of choice are at our disposal. What does this mean for the audience?
Film history is a history of technology – from sound to color, to HD, to 3D and now to VR. Storytelling is deeply imbedded in our culture and it is the primordial tool of knowledge exchange, affecting our development as species. We are increasingly expanding the choice of medium and the intensity in which we generate and propagate more stories and more information. As individuals, confronted with physiological cognitive limitations, our dilemma is to select the information which to assimilate in favor of the previously learned as well as new information. The challenge in our history of storytelling, is not the access to, but the choice of information.
The discussion on freedom is thus still a hot topic, one that has been around for thousands of years, from Thucydides, through to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Rousseau, Sartre, Camus… the concept of freedom has continually been dealt for instance in political thought. Sartre once claimed we were never freer than during the Nazi occupation as once your freedoms are taken away you exercise them more consciously . But the reverse can create the same process. Technology is opening new doorways of choice and once you step back into older gadgets, these older devices become not only obsolete but ridiculed by their limitations. We are free when our consciousness acknowledges that something is lacking, when we make a purpose for ourselves, and when we commit to it, as in Sartre’s words, this is when we transcend ourselves.
Pedro Aibéo is a University Professor & Researcher at UNAM (Mexico), Wuhan (China) and at Aalto (Finland) on the topic of ”Architectural Democracy”. He is also a Senior Design Architect and Civil Engineer in Finland, the Art Director of “Cidadania” theatre+games group in Germany and an Associated Artist at Crucible Studios. In Portugal, his latest published work, Isto Nao É Só Matemática, was a bestseller comic novel about Mathematics.
 Elischka, Synes, VR Cinema Workshop Screening.
 Milk, Chris, VR could change human consciousness – if we get there.
 Elischka,Synes, VR Cinema Workshop Screening.
 Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2007, Existentialism and humanism, New ed. London: Methuen.