Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking techniques are just as relevant today in the age of Virtual Reality as they were prior to these technological advances. Although he was wrong when he guessed that the virtual reality elements wouldn’t be possible until the year 3000, he believed that eventually audiences could be transformed into characters and experiencing entertainment for themselves as if they were there, which is exactly what is developing in the VR filmmaking industry today. His progressive style combined with respect for the audience’s experience meant that he was ahead of his time and using the beginning elements that would develop into the 360 video viewing experiences that filmmakers have access to now.
He first dipped his toe into the VR filmmaking experience with his 3D adapted stage play called “Dial M for Murder” in 1954 but without falling prey to the artificiality of having items “leap” out to the audience. Instead he used the technology to draw in the audience and make them feel present in the moment and more committed to it, therefore enhancing the experience. Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaking legend with a long and adaptive career and some of his filmmaking tips that you should consider when adapting to VR filmmaking include:
Develop the Story
Hitchcock was a firm believer in making a situation realistic and preserving the experience rather than compromising it just to do something specific with technology. For example, don’t create elements for the sake of having something floating out of the screen and if something doesn’t make sense don’t create a “rollercoaster sequence” or jump scare when the subject turns around in the 360 viewing if it doesn’t make sense. While you want to look for opportunities to enhance your filmmaking through virtual reality, first work with the story and develop it organically, you should be able to integrate it into the medium you are using rather than change it to suit.
Follow Real Time
The 360 views of virtual reality can ground the audience and create an atmosphere of suspense or drama in the moment so it is important to savour it. The difference with virtual reality is the tone and depth you can get across rather than short, quick shots you use in traditional filmmaking so you should use your time wisely, aiming to use real-time speed in scenes and adapting the long take, something that Alfred Hitchcock was very fond of.
Virtual reality viewing can be ruined with unrealistic music with no source as it can pull the audience away from the moment, so you might want to avoid this. Hitchcock noted this in his own filmmaking and instead looked for ways to incorporate realistic sounds from the scene or use the silence itself for impact and effect to avoid the subconscious questions of the audience that are raised by artificial sounds placed unnecessarily.
Use the Subjective Camera
Everyone’s first response for using virtual reality effectively is: turn the audience into a character and shoot everything from their point of view but this creates the opposite effect and creates a detachment between this character and the rest. By not exploring this character you are creating this third-party detachment that usually doesn’t succeed and Hitchcock believed that mastering subjective shooting can allow you to turn the audience into a voyeur instead. Doing this makes characters more relatable and only enhances the virtual reality by adding extra depth and layers.
Although virtual reality is far from the “mass hypnotism” that Hitchcock dreamed of, his enjoyment of the viewing experience and skill in creating films should not be ignored, particularly when working with virtual reality that so closely works with these ideals.
In case you were unaware, the first virtual reality films have already arrived on our shores. Jesus VR: The Story of Christ (2016) was recently lacerated in The Guardian. “The acting? Dire. The direction? Awful. The adaptation? Conservative and pedestrian.” But the critic, Peter Bradshaw, admits that the technology is a different story. “It’s the first feature film to be presented in complete wraparound 360-degree virtual reality. And it’s a startling, bizarre, often weirdly hilarious experience.”
The recent wave of technology advancements that brought us the likes of Netflix, Snapchat, and the on going onslaught of social media growth all driven by the consumer. The people want these things and the things keep coming but do they want VR? No one seems to be sure. The technology requires a fast computer. Oculus recommends a high-end graphics card and an expensive Intel i5 processor and this is before their 600 dollar headset. As Tom Brannister writes for Video Ink, “Virtual reality is a top down technology […] It is being pushed by technology giants and venture capitalists, without much consumer traction as yet.”
A lot of the current uses of VR do not need writers. The construction industry is using it to create project models – it’s helping them to woo clients and impress investors. Small subsections of the real estate market are testing to see whether it works as a means to offer remote home viewings. In the military industry VR has been used to train soldiers and doctors. Crane operators are even being trained with it. None of these listed so far require creative writing. These virtual scenarios need to be setup, yes, but that’s not writing in the tradition sense.
This changes when we approach the medical industry, where VR has been used for important therapies and pain management. Bannister tells us “There is a unique opportunity for emotional storytelling here.” And he’s right. Crafting a story to reduce the pain of others is what writing is about. Empathy is rich in novels and studies have proven that voracious reading helps one to relate to their fellow humans. VR is inherently absorbing. Firsthand Technology describes their creation like this:
SnowWorld transports the patient through an icy canyon filled with snowball hurling snowmen, flocks of squawking penguins, woolly mammoths and other surprises. Patients are drawn in, throwing their own snowballs as they fly through the gently falling snow. Often they become so engaged, they don’t realize their procedure is already over!
Clinical trials have shown dramatic reductions in pain for patients. This may be the first ‘children’s game’ to have a rave review from the New York Times. Virtual reality games and movies will need writers just as much as regular games and movies do but the exciting frontier is on the edge of research, among the snowy worlds, and retail brands such as North Face, who are experimenting with VR to add emotion to shopper’s experiences. Visual writing has been evolving ever since cavemen started painting. VR has proven that there are still new frontiers to explore.