Documentary Film in an Age of Virtual Reality
Stories & Ideas

Fri 03 Jun 2016

Documentary Film in an Age of Virtual Reality

Factual media Immersive technologies Internet culture
ACMI X colourful wall

Dominika Ostoja-Stobiecka


During the Australian International Documentary Conference, filmmakers discussed the impact of how Virtual Reality will shape storytelling in new and unexpected ways. As part of our Intermix Future Critics program, Dominika Ostoja-Stobiecka interviewed filmmakers to talk about the transformative viewer experience that VR affords.

When in 1896 the Lumière brothers for the first time screened their silent black-and-white film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, people ran out of the cinema in absolute terror and panic. Despite being widely disputed as the “cinema’s founding myth”, this anecdote highlights the tremendous ability film has in reaching out to the viewer. Today, that physical and emotional audience response prompted by instinct and guided by cognitive processes is in the spotlight again. The development of virtual reality and its expanding accessibility changes the landscape of documentary filmmaking by exploring new frontiers of creative potential in the well-established form creating new platforms for immersive storytelling.

Despite being still in its early days, VR shows an immense imaginative aptitude for telling powerful stories. The lack of technical norms and stylistic rules is attracting an increasing number of filmmakers who are not afraid to be at the forefront of free experimentation and to figure out the possibilities at a time when the technology itself is just on the cusp of mainstream adoption.

In this interview about his piece Stuck in the Middle with You, director Matthew Bate explains the opportunities VR gives filmmakers.

VR is innovating the language of documentary film by making it more immersive than ever. The viewer is stripped off from the experience of collective film watching and instead is put at the centre of the story. It is no longer about passive observation, but rather about active participation. By making a decision where to look and when to turn around, the viewer has the ability to control their presence in the scene. In traditional documentary films the essence of the story is most often character transformation, and it is not different in VR experiences. Called “the ultimate empathy machine” by the filmmaker Chris Milk, virtual reality has the power to transform the viewer. It can literally put the viewer in someone else’s shoes.

In 2013, Melbourne-based studio VRTOV worked on their first immersive experience ASSENT that explores the father-son relationship through the dramatic experiences of 1973 Chilean coup d'état. It was a small scale project aimed at limited film festival showings. The audience for VR films was almost non-existent at that time, and kept low by the restrained availability of viewing technology. Since then, thanks to a combination of a growing number of interactive experiences and hardware options, like the Facebook-backed Oculus Rift (with a price tag of $599), Gear VR headset made by Samsung (priced at AUD $150) or Google Cardboard (available for AUD $20), audience interest in of VR experiences is exploding.

From the filmmakers’ perspective, there is still a large room for improvement in regard to the quality of 360° cameras and their prices, as well as to a number of software solutions used for creating and editing the projects. Easier access to professional tools most certainly will further increase the quantity of creators and will push down the production costs, which in turn can foster a VR revolution similar to the one seen in photography as a result of mainstream adoption of smartphones. Virtual reality has the potential to change the way we experience the world. Its greatest power is not the technical potential, but the storytelling one.

It can make you a victim, like in Project Syria created by the Nonny de la Peña’s Los Angeles-based Emblematic Group, in which the viewer experiences an explosion on the street of Aleppo and life in the refugee camp from a perspective of a child. The work was commissioned by The World Economic Forum and shown in Davos to stimulate debate on the solutions to the ongoing refugee crisis. It seems beautifully ironic and yet undeniably sad that world leaders experience the streets of Aleppo and overcrowded refugee camp on the Syrian border when in the luxurious Swiss ski-resort. Sometimes you are a perpetrator, like in Chris Milk’s The Party in which you are Brian who comes across a pretty, but slightly sad-looking and lonely Gina at a college frat party. Long story short, with more than one drink too much, Gina passes out on the bedroom floor, where Brian and his friend take advantage of her. You know you are not Brian, you know you would not do it and yet, it takes a while after taking the headset off to get rid of cramps in your stomach and even longer than that to beat the feeling of shame and disgust in your head. 

Virtual reality is a powerful medium. Its inherent ability to evoke instinctive physical and visceral audience response pushes the established boundaries of storytelling. It is also dangerous – it can change one’s perspective, so when you will have a chance to put on a headset, it is at your own risk. Who knows what you might see, or do.

– Dominika Ostoja-Stobiecka