The original virtual reality pioneers were 19th-century filmmakers

Cinema-goers were once this excited about Technicolor.
Cinema-goers were once this excited about Technicolor.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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“I would like to make a theater that would be a huge sphere, as big as Radio City Music Hall or larger, and seat the audience around one side of it… The audience would become part of the sphere. The picture comes around as far as you can see and beneath you too. What I see is a theater with so great an area that you no longer think in terms of a screen…  You’re no longer working with a flat surface, but rather an infinite volume.”

Sounds like a pretty accurate description of virtual reality, right?

It certainly describes the experience of VR, but that’s not what Academy Award-winning filmmaker Francis Thompson called it when he wrote the above in 1970. From its very inception, the history of cinema is rife with descriptions of what the form was destined to become. One of the qualities that many of these accounts share is the idea of bringing us as close as possible to manufactured reality.

In 1930, author Stanley G. Weinbaum was the first to describe what VR goggles would look like in his short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles.” In 1946, theorist Andre Bazin wrote an article titled “Myth of Total Cinema,” in which he describes cinema as a dream progressing towards “a total and complete representation of reality.” In the 1960 film Le Petit Soldat, director Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “Photography is truth; the cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.” In 1968, filmmaker Carolee Schneemann outlined a new kind of cinema she called “eye-journeys” or “empathy-drawings” in which stories are not passively told, but an experience is created instead. And critic Gene Youngblood laid out his vision for cinema in his 1970 book, Expanded Cinema, as an “orchestrated, harmonic” coming together that creates an entirely unique experience.

The current discourse surrounding VR would have us believe that a new medium has just been invented. Oculus Story Studio, an offshoot of the well-regarded Pixar Brain Trust, posits an ideology in which VR is a new vehicle for storytelling, and that “presence” is a feeling unique to this medium. Similarly, filmmaker Chris Milk has called VR a fundamentally new technology platform , and has gone as far as to refer to it as “the last medium.”

But VR is less a new technology—never mind the last—and more the most recent extension of filmmakers’ quest for true reality. It is the natural evolution of a medium that is in the process of coming full circle. Many of the qualities that we are coming to associate with VR productions are extensions of devices that filmmakers have employed for over a century to replicate reality. One of the best examples of this is the single-take film.

If there were a way to portray truth in commercial cinema, it would be one long shot, unfolding in real time. Directors as disparate as Josef von Sternberg and Alfred Hitchcock experimented with it, and the early history of cinema is largely one-shot films. All those Lumiere and Edison films in the late 1800s of workers streaming out of factories and trains arriving at stations were single-reel experiments grappling with the form and what it was capable of.

2010 study found that the average shot length has steadily decreased since 1930. The French New Wave’s popularization of the jump cut in the 1960s saw cinema appropriate faster cutting, montage, and shaky-cam techniques that reached a frenetic peak in the 2000s with films such as Saving Private Ryan, Cloverfield, and The Bourne Ultimatum. These films convey a fragmented vision of the world, and a film industry struggling to appeal to an increasingly international and disinterested audience.

But since 2013 we’ve seen an uptick in single-take feature films. Gravity, Birdman, Victoria, the forthcoming Irani Immortality, and Thunder Road, which was the breakaway Sundance hit this year, all push the boundaries of telling complex stories within the confines of one camera move. This could be connected to the resurgence of longform storytelling across media, and will be further egged on as VR becomes more accessible.

The use of point of view (POV) is another filmmaking technique that VR has heavily borrowed from. Classic films such as Peeping Tom and Psycho rely on the gaze of first-person viewer identification. But what is new are films calling attention to the constructedness of the gaze through the use of a truly embodied camera. In April 2016, Hardcore Henry was both panned by critics and hailed as an experimental technical achievement. The film is told in the form of a first-person shooter–style series of events as a cyborg searches for his kidnapped wife. We never see Henry, the protagonist, because the audience is Henry. The entire film is locked in point of view, relying on GoPro cameras and the kind of stunt work online viewers of extreme sports videos are now familiar with.

The inner gaze, consciousness, and immersion are all techniques established in the early and classical periods of cinema that have also become the foundation of VR. Film theorists like James Zborowski and Elena Drago have written extensively on how literary conventions such as stream-of-consciousness were very quickly adapted to the cinema to invoke what we now  commonly experience in VR. The ability to invoke a character’s—and by extension, the viewer’s—state of mind has been closely linked to camera movement itself. When, for example, Kim Novak’s character Judy first transforms into Madeline in Vertigo, the film achieves a kind of immersion that is integral to our understanding of a typical VR experience.

Single-take and first-person POV films harken back to strategies established long ago in films such as Lumiere’s 1896 Train Arriving at a Station and Méliès’s 1902 Trip to the Moon. But those films were striving to express a desire for the human eye and camera to be one, which could only be approximated in the most rudimentary way at that time. Now, of course, we have VR to do that.

Lumiere and Méliès’s films were not so much the crude experiments of early cinema as the template for what cinema was always meant to be: truth told by one person with a movie camera. In the century and half since the invention of the form, we’ve gotten pretty far away from that. Movies now require a crew of a thousand or more, prolonged schedules, and millions of dollars to make. Perhaps this is simply the culmination of progress, but perhaps we’ve also lost sight about what we meant to originally achieve.

So it’s not so much that VR techniques are taking filmmaking back to an older form, but that it’s rapidly evolving toward what cinema was always meant to be. In which case, the golden age of cinema is neither behind us or upon us, but, as so many filmmakers have predicted, yet to come.