Rama Allen, ECD at The Mill in NY, took the stage at the 2015 Cannes Lions Festival to talk ‘Frontiers of Visual Narrative’, a presentation on how the dynamic between filmmaker and audience is changing with the arrival of new technologies and platforms for immersive and interactive film.
The moving image is changing in very big and exciting ways. The Mill is investigating new possibilities in filmmaking through tool creation, experimental projects, and prototyping concepts, techniques, hardware and software to fuel the future of cinematic experience. Categories like immersive and interactive films, mixed reality and the intersection between architecture and content are of particular focus. The mission is to discover new ways to tell big stories. This is particularly timely because, as an industry, we’re at the tipping point of technological capabilities to craft deeply engaging and truly interactive and immersive film.
Rama, along with many others, believes that, “2015 is year one for VR and this new convergence of technology is going to be revolutionary.” The exponential growth and fervor for the medium is being described as “the space race in immersive and interactive film.” In filmmaking, that makes it very confusing and hectic, but also very exciting.
There is a dizzying array of software and hardware options, no real official standards and loads of opportunities. It is essentially the Wild West and that is what makes it so exciting. While the landscape is a fractured collection of quickly evolving form factors, software platforms and abilities, Rama believes that the software and hardware issues will be solved for quickly because of the passionate and talented people around it.
However, with improved VR experiences on the horizon through headsets like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift Crescent Bay, there needs to be a lot of fearless experimentation working towards figuring out this new language of film to catch up with the hardware and software innovation.
While content creators work to figure out the medium’s basic principles and new rules of filmmaking, hardware and software innovation is outpacing content development. "We’re all reengineering our creative development, direction and post production processes to meet the challenges and opportunities of this new medium, which takes a great deal of thought and experimentation."
Rama likens this reinvention of content to being in a dark room, “There are no exact models to point to, no glimmer of light to say that this is a success, all we have are a bunch of rough prototypes that say this is pretty good, that is not too bad, or that kind of works. As content creators, we have to be super sensitive to the tiny glimmers of light and these changes of temperature in the room, so we can start to find the walls without tripping over ourselves. We need to find the light switch.”
Rama pointed out that VR technology is going to require mass early adoption to succeed, and for that to happen, there will need to be successful content ready for the audience. The content creators that are first to fill this void will likely have the most influence over the medium, culture and style of immersive storytelling for a long time forward.
He emphasized the importance of quality content by saying, “We need to have a critical mass of engaging and beautiful work that is genre defying, because this is effectively a new genre, so I implore all of you that are working in this category to think very carefully about what you are making because our false moves now endanger the possibility of an enormously revolutionary medium.”
Future film mediums like VR, AR and new interactive films are breaking the most basic principles of film narrative. What this mean for content creators and directors like Rama? He has a few thoughts.
The project was created in collaboration with Google ATAP, who commissioned The Mill and director Justin Lin to create a new kind of film for the Google Spotlight Stories platform. They wanted to create a window into a world, executed on a mobile device in 360 degrees and a cinema-level immersive experience.
What does it take to actually make a film of this kind of fidelity, this amount of CG, this amount of explosions and monsters? The Mill invented an array of tools and techniques, including Mill Stitch, our own piece of software that does real time stitching on set.
Rama spoke about The Dictatorship of Attention, his own term for describing the century old relationship between filmmaker and audience. Editorially aligning specific compositions across a linear timeline to communicate exacting story points, emotions, metaphors and dynamics is changing significantly, breaking the filmmaker’s previous monopoly on attention control. What this means is that the viewer now has the opportunity to steer and explore, shifting from passive viewership to a unique viewer experience.
"In effect, every film is now a collaboration between the director and her audience."
While this may be terrifying to many directors, Rama believes that it actually gives the filmmaker a greater ability to elicit powerful feelings from the audience through phantom memory, transport, and the ability to induce wonder and play.
Phantom Memory & Emerging Presence
When we reflect back on really strong VR experiences, they feel like memories of a “real” experience. It’s different than “I watched this.” but more like “I did this."
Phantom Memory is Rama’s term to explain the effect where “hardware and software, and powerful content meet the physiological, emotional and neurological requirements to feel real enough to become memory.” Filmmakers now have to reach beyond storytelling and consider themselves architects of memory and location.
Rama explains: “There is a delay between what the heart feels and what the mind knows, and that is what makes good VR. The rational part of you understands that you have a piece of technology attached to you and you are experiencing something that is virtual and digital, but regardless you still feel presence in a place that does not exist. That is fucking magic!
“At the heart of good VR is transport, and if it transports, it creates a presence. If it creates a presence, which is the Holy Grail, it actually affects the viewer in a deeply, deeply moving way.
When full presence is achieved, you have an emotional resonance, the effect of having truly experienced it. This is a whole new kind of connection that I am excited to share with my audience.”
Wonder & Play
Rama discussed how viewer agency and control within a world triggers something enormously empowering within all of us. “We induce wonder by giving over power."
This solidifies the co-creation experience between the creator and the viewer, so now filmmakers do not simply make something and show, they make something and share. People can then do what they wish with the story, creating a deeper sense of wonder, a sense of play, and the opportunity to get lost in the story, and because of that, it’s now the viewer’s story.
Rama ended the presentation with a vision of filmmaking in our not-too-distant future, ”The fact of the matter is the idea is always first. Developing ideas in a collaborative multidisciplinary spirit is what is going to get us really fascinating results. I think when we all start to work together hand-in-hand, storyteller, writer, illustrator, creative coder, hardware engineer, and hardware hacker, and bring our ideas together, you are going to create something that is relevant to the medium and that is relevant to the audience.
The good content is going to be developed by the people that understand this. I hope that everyone is willing to participate in the prototyping of the future of film. It is an exciting, scary place to be but I think it is a great place to be.”