Michel Reilhac designs innovative story-based experiences, using digital platforms (cinema, tv, mobile, tablets) and real life events. His creative approach to storytelling ambitions to offer viewers/participants a unique opportunity for an immersive, participatory and interactive experience. We sat down with him to talk about his first virtual reality short film to be screened at Sundance New Frontier 2016 and the perspectives of VR storytelling.
How did you come to VR? What drove you to experiment with this new medium?
After I resigned from Arte, 3 years ago, I fully dedicated myself to interactive storytelling, in all kinds of ways. When Facebook acquired Oculus in March 2014, it came as big news in the overall field of interactive storytelling and from that moment on, I started following what was happening. I had done an installation in virtual reality in 1992 at Le Fresnoy (a French creative center for contemporary arts) where I invited several artists including Matt Mullican, an American artist who was already working with VR at the time.
Since March 2014, I’ve been looking into the potential of VR to write stories in a different way. There was no equipment available at the time in Paris, so I bought 14 GoPro cameras and partnered with London-based creative technologist Carl Guyenette. We had to start making in order to learn. We shot “Viens !” in May 2015, then in June, I made another short called “Rooftop” with dancers at the Centre National de Danse, and then a third one which works as a teaser for my next project “Wait for Me” that I shot in Berlin. It’s really a day-by-day learning process, and I am lucky that my first piece “Viens !” has been invited to Sundance.
Tell us more about “Viens !”, your first short piece shot in VR
When I started watching stuff in VR, I wanted to experience with intimacy and empathy, and push the limits with nudity. Inviting viewers to watch people naked, having sex, and conveying the idea that sexuality can be a vehicle to a spiritual journey, a way of becoming whole, of becoming one. I wanted a modern take on sexuality, exploring the fluidity between genders and sexual preferences as a way of freeing oneself from the strict limitations of what is being accepted as the norm. I just wanted to see how far I could take intimacy and empathy from a subjective point of view, without doing a sex piece.
And also experiment with special effects, shifting the spherical space around the performers. From day one, “Viens !” was designed as an exercise, a visual poem, a metaphor about becoming one. I find that sex and nudity carry this potential to really set ourselves free. When we’re naked and having sex with someone, we really break free from a lot of things. More than chemistry, there’s an aura that is generated that fascinates me. Some kind of spiritual awakening.
You have been involved in film and television for many years. Is VR really a new platform for storytelling or is it another iteration of film?
I find it’s really both, because the knowledge one has in traditional filmmaking totally applies to making virtual reality, in terms of timing, pace, or editing. But it is also a big disruption, mostly for the viewer, because unlike any representation of a story on a screen or in a frame, virtual reality is a change of paradigm. All of a sudden, you are not watching a framed representation of the world, you are experiencing the full scale of another reality, and breaking the fourth wall. That makes a huge difference.
There are new rules we need to find for writing in VR, because of the immersive nature of the experience. We also need to find out more about the effect on the viewer, the neurological nature of the impact of being immersed in a fake reality, and having our brains take it for granted.
Does that change the role of the filmmaker, his responsibility?
I don’t believe the responsibility is any different in VR than in traditional filmmaking. Although the illusion conveyed by virtual reality is very strong, the power of imagination in 2D movies is also paramount. Although we know that what we are watching on a screen is fake, our imagination is capable of accepting it and embracing it in a very powerful way. We cry, we laugh, we’re moved by films, books or paintings.
Whatever the medium, creators have an emotional and aesthetical impact on the audience. If you’re good, it’s strong. If you’re bad, it’s not so strong. The fact that we’re working on fully immersive environments does not make it any different. Back in the end of the 19th century, the first moviegoers were terrified by the reality projected on a screen. The immersive factor of VR is a new thing, but eventually we’ll learn that what we’re watching is not real, and we’ll deal with it as a representation.
What challenges did you have to overcome when writing and shooting in VR? What would you do differently today?
Preparation is key. Much more than in traditional filmmaking, where only part of the environment is visible. In 360°, you need to make sure that every little detail has been carefully taken care of. Once the preparation is done, things like lighting can become very tricky. If you’re shooting in daylight, it’s mostly about finding the right location and the right spot to place the camera. If you’re shooting in low light and need additional lighting, the setup can become quite complex.
The second big challenge is directing the actors. Actors are sometimes confused because they don’t know where the eye is. The fact there’s a bunch of cameras creates a sense of loss for them, as they are being filmed from many different angles. The notion of focus has to be clearly stated and designed for them. If you want them to establish a connection with the viewer, you really have to train them to look at the right camera.
The last challenge is backup. When you’re shooting with 14 cameras, there’s always one that’s going to let you down at some point, or not be synchronized. You need to be prepared for something like this. It mainly comes down to technical challenges.
What about post-production and sound issues in VR?
Post-production has already been mapped out pretty well. The main issue in post-production is stitching. If you want a seamless experience, you still need to spend time toying around manually with stitching software. Automated stitching will get a lot better soon, but right now I’d still recommend working with technicians who master the software.
All in all, post-production is just tedious, but I don’t find it to be such a big challenge. Special effects are a lot more complex. Sound is already the most traditional way used by filmmakers to attract the viewer’s attention to a particular spot. But there is another way we can use sound cues in VR, which I find very interesting: using software, we can force the environment to shift at certain moments, centering the experience on a chosen point of view depending on the sound.
The collective experience of VR is based on sharing the individual experiences.
How do you see immersive filmmaking evolve in the overall storytelling landscape?
Over the past 10 years, television and cinema have been reluctant to embrace interactivity & transmedia, mostly using it for marketing purposes. It will take time before interactive storytelling develops into a full-fledged artform. Whereas cinematic VR, which started happening a couple of years ago, has really driven the entertainment industry to invest. Hardware and software companies, platforms, content production companies are all getting involved. There is not a single studio in the US that isn’t experimenting with VR in some way.
Even here in France, the film industry is starting to take notice. Filmmakers are looking into it, producers too, as there is potentially a lot of money to be made. Advertisers are looking into VR, and festivals too. And of course, the gaming industry, that is leading the way. 2016 will be a very interesting year for the VR medium.
The experience of virtual reality is still an individual one. How do you see that factor play out versus the social experience of moviegoing?
VR has been criticized as being a solitary experience, as opposed to cinema, which is a collective one. But my feeling is that when you’re reading a book, it is a very solitary experience, and the pleasure of reading a book comes from being alone with it. There’s this incredible feeling of connection with the story. One of the great pleasures of book reading is when you start sharing your impressions of the book, which are utterly subjective and singular, with someone else who has read it – the same way you do with a movie. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the solitary dimension of reading.
Watching a VR movie is no different. I have noticed that people discussing a VR piece have much more intense discussions than after watching a movie in the theatre, because they might not have had the exact same experience, and seen things others may not have seen. The collective experience of VR is based on sharing the individual experiences. I find this very interesting, especially since the collective experience of going to the movies has become less and less enjoyable.
Are there any pieces of VR content you have been enthusiastic about recently?
There is a very interesting piece called “LOVR” by Aaron Bradbury where you experience the few seconds when a man falls in love with a woman. This abstract piece is built around the neural activity happening in his brain, breaking down the whole ‘love-at-first-sight’ process.
There’s also “Simon” by British director James Hedley, which was screened at the BFI London Film Festival, where you step into the world of a young man with cerebral palsy. It taught me a lot about the subjective point of view. Being in the center of the world makes you think that the best way to tell a story in VR is from a subjective point of view. I think it has its limitations. In “Simon”, the director manages to make us empathize with this young man who’s fighting to be seen. What he wants is to be seen, to exist and have a life that’s as normal as possible. It’s an incredibly moving piece.
Sometimes, I find that the most simple setups, with no artifacts, no special effects, but with the right camera placement and distance from the viewer make it very effective in terms of empathy.
What comes next for you after “Viens !”?
Next is “Wait for Me”, a 10-episode 2D series for web and TV that comes with a free companion app. The app turns your phone into a replica of one of the characters’ phone, delivering messages, photos and videos real-time as the story unfolds.
Then there’s a VR film, which will be 20 minutes in its short version, and later a feature length film, which gives a fully subjective point of view on the story, with lots of visual effects. I’m really interested in VR visual effects, as they can add that layer of magic, a little like Méliès was doing when he was experimenting in the early days of cinema.