There are plenty of amusing virtual reality video games available for download. But there still hasn’t been a truly remarkable virtual reality film, despite the best efforts of the New York Times and others.
"What’s the Serial of VR documentary series?" Gary Hustwit asks. "That’s kind of what we’re thinking about."
Hustwit, the documentarian behind Objectified, Helvetica, and Urbanized, has launched the Brooklyn-based production company Scenic. Scenic’s focus is producing short, documentary content in 360 degrees for virtual reality headsets. A lot of it, fast. In its first year, Scenic will release 40 different projects, which is the sort of pace only made possible by the collective of documentarian all-stars he’s assembled to take part: Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story), Marshall Curry (Street Fight), Jessica Edwards (MAVIS!), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), Sam Green (The Weather Underground), Dawn Porter (Trapped), and Lucy Raven (China Town).
Here's what Hustwit has to say about his new venture and the future of VR.
Co.Design: I was pretty shocked by the news that you were getting into VR!
Gary Hustwit: Scenic is about documentary still, at its core—VR is just a new way to make them. It’s been totally stealth. We haven't told anyone as we’ve been developing. But we started playing around with shooting 360-degree video last year, and the more we looked around at what’s being put out, the more content we thought we needed out there.
Just last year, watching some of the stuff that the New York Times had initially done, I was getting a little sense of the possibilities. But also at the same time, I was thinking that there’s so much more that this could do. There’s been a lot of obsession with the technology, both on the capture and playback side, but I still feel like the people who've been making the early 360 docs—there have been great efforts, but there’s so much room to do more from people who are master storytellers like great doc filmmakers.
It’s been really technologists and commercial directors—obviously the money has been on commercial and branded content side, not on the documentary side. But I thought I’m just lucky to have a group of friends who are the most incredible documentary filmmakers around, and they weren't being invited to try this tech and experiment with it.
How are you paying for it? Are you getting some of that branded content money that’s currently funding most VR production?
I don’t think the public is ready to buy VR film content, but that can change. And I think it will change as the space gets more crowded.
In the next year we’re going see a switch to more original, exclusive VR content. As the big players like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple get into this space, there’s going to be a demand for exclusive original content that’s only available through their player or platform. So in the same way you have Netflix Original and Orange Is the New Black, I think there will be VR documentary series that are exclusive to these places.
We’re looking to develop those series and programs and partner up with exclusive distribution as that starts to unfold. It’s such a chicken and egg thing. There has to be great content out there for these big players to get involved, and there has to be more of an installed user base for big content players to make content. But it’s heading in that direction.
I’m more interested in that side of it. Branded stuff is there—I think a lot of people are getting into it because they don't want to be left behind, and they see their competitors do it, and so they want to do it, too. That’s nice for a lot of people who get to try shooting VR. They get to experiment that way. But there needs to be more than that. Apple’s not going to launch a VR device and have a bunch of branded, bundled content with it when it comes out.
Have you signed with a commercial distribution partner, then? Or are you in talks?
We’re just launching, and we’ve already been in talks, and shooting things with a lot of different partners. It’s been six months of just kind of doing a lot of experimenting, and there are several shorts we’re in production with. We’ll just kind of roll those out and keep releasing a few a month.
But I’ve been shocked at how much interest there is in the branded VR stuff, and just how little most people know about VR. I feel like we’re all still kind of in a bubble, because a lot of people I’d assumed had at least tried the NYT cardboard and watched some of those films really haven’t even done that. We’re very early in the game.
You’re making 40 films in a year—so that’s obviously not feature films.
I don’t think anybody’s thinking really seriously about feature-length documentaries at this point, but we are talking about serialized long form. Short standalone pieces. And series that are thematically connected.
Does the audience just not have the attention span in VR yet?
Yeah, I don't think the headset technology is at that point yet. Maybe if you’re gaming for hours, but I still don't think the resolution is good enough. But while I can’t watch an 80-minute film in VR, I could watch 10 eight-minute films over the course of a season. What’s the Serial of VR documentary series? That’s kind of what we’re thinking about.
Are you getting out of 2-D film? Is VR it now?
Gosh no! We’re busy editing this Workplace for the Venice Biennial.
I don’t think VR replaces traditional film. I just think it’s one more tool that we can use to try to tell stories. And I’ll still make feature films, or short traditionally shot films. A lot of my issues thus far have been, sometimes you’re watching a 360 film, and the first thing you ask is, ‘Why is this 360? It would have been better as a well-shot, traditional film!' Unless it’s going to be 10 times better in VR, you shouldn't even do it.
Does anything look better in 360 than a well-shot documentary? I don’t mean that rudely! If it does I just haven’t seen it yet!
Laughs. There’s that idea of sense of place that, as filmmakers, we spend a lot of time trying to convey with different angles, or a closeup on a detail, or a wide shot— just trying to let the viewer get a feeling of what it’s like to be physically in a space. And that’s the one thing, the most basic VR film does. It puts you there. I can look around. I can look down. So if that element of being there, of feeling what it’s like to be in that space with someone or at an event, if that is something that amplifies the viewer’s experience, or empathy, or their processing of the story, then I think it’s a great use.
You’re saying 360-degree video can do something new for film, even if it hasn’t yet.
I don’t know if this can do something that a traditional documentary can’t. But that’s what I want to find out. And that's what the industry needs, for a bunch of people like us to try to find out. Because that’s when you’re going to get the killer app for the medium.