“Presence in the experience is the thing that separates VR from cinema.” Choice words from writer, filmmaker, and all around revolutionary for the true independent model – James Kaelan, the director and co-writer for the Virtual Reality experience ‘The Visitor’. The VR experience takes you to the Acido Dorado house in Joshua tree, where a man and woman share a tense encounter on the edge of existence.
‘The Visitor’ holds a haunting but intriguing tone throughout, pulling you in through careful staging and camera placement. Walls and ceilings both covered in mirrors, the architecture around you adding to confounding dreamlike atmosphere. The main exchange between the lead actor and actress felt like a conversation between the anima and animus, like the story on one level was about the viewer meeting the reflection of their identity within the new medium of VR.
Kaelan is an editor to the fantastic independent film magazine, Bright Ideas. Yes, you read correctly, a magazine – one founded on the ideals of using the criticism and celebration of cinema as a platform for that community to come together and collaborate. On top of that, Kaelan is a co-founder of Seed & Spark
Cinema Without Borders recently sat down with James Kaelan to pick his brain on his experience in the burgeoning VR field. What follows is part 1 of the interview, a journey through memories and ether to James’ Moment of Clarity in VR. This is part one of a two-part interview.
Wyatt Phillips: Have you ever had moment of clarity with a camera? One where you felt your ideas for story could be envisioned perfectly within the medium.
James Kaelan: I come from a fiction background actually, kind of felt I always come from essentially a text first perspective, although I respond to visually strong and visually simple narratives, but I wasn’t supposed to be in film even though, like I didn’t earn my master’s degree in it, the thing is, it was always my passion even when I was running that small publishing company. It was, like on Friday nights, what I was doing was seeing new films, and that’s where I would obsess consuming, where as contemporary fiction felt a little bit stilted and stale and academic to me. Of course, the films that are published from that now, American cinema for the last, it has, it’s going through a crazy revival right now, but like, the way people are eating cereal in bed and breaking up movies that sort of dominated that platform the last decade are going away. They are being, they’re finding themselves programed along with really bold new, like, ‘Heaven Knows What’ or ‘Stinking Heaven’ – the emotionally progressive, both thematically and stylistically ambitious work, they offer a socially relevant work, like film has, even those things supplanted by other media, it still has the potential to be politically valuable and people are reclaiming that in this country.
WP: How about with VR? Have you ever really had a moment of clarity?
WP: Tell me about that moment.
JK: Having worked on- having wrote and directed one, produced another and then beginning to work on Memory Slave, essentially applying what I already known, which is to say, a fairly confined and limited knowledge. I felt like I have a constrained perspective about VR, still sort of tied into cinema. I had done some writing on VR, talking about ways in which virtual reality didn’t need to be constrained by a conventional cinematic language or, in fact, attempting to port over a cinematic language to VR was going to be limiting, and I knew that intellectually but I really didn’t understand what that meant until I was in San Francisco at the international film festival where ‘The Visitor’ was… and I finally got to see two works that helped break me out of my preconceptions.
WP: One of them was the blindness one, wasn’t it?
JK: Yeah, ‘Notes On Blindness’ and also… ‘Giant,’ by Milica Zec, both of these were at Sundance along with ‘Hard World For Small Things’ which is Janicza Bravo ‘s VR film that I was a producer on, in seeing those, I began to understand the ways in which presence in the experience is the thing that separates VR from cinema. Even in long takes and static cinema like Jacques Tati or Bela Tarr or Roy Anderson, you, there’s an intellectual space or a cerebral space in the construction of the scene where the viewer has time to think inside the scene, and there is a sort of proto emersion that happens, in-
WP: You’re assigning your identity by what you’re choosing to look at.
JK: Yeah, and you’re, yeah, exactly- the thoughts you have time to have become part of your experience of it, and that functions sort of like a tensional agency inside the self, but that’s still an approximation at best; where as VR, by virtue of the fact there’s no edge to the screen, that implies, by basic nature, that you’re there. The filmmaker is either enhancing that or playing against that, and the most literal way to play into that is to give the viewer a body… There are a number of experiences where people are placing, there- there is a physical body that you look down and see, and there’s sort of an argument of whether that brings you into the experience further or kicks you out of it. In the game engine pieces like ‘Old Friend’, which is an animated Future Islands video that is amazing, but you have, you do it on the HTC Vive and on the Vive you have hand controls, and when you move your arms you have these spaghetti arms and spaghetti legs, and so you can walk around the experience and you have a body that’s reactive to that experience. Where as, something like ‘Defrosted’, it’s a story about a woman who’s brought out of a cryogenic freeze and is re-meeting her family.
WP: And you’re the woman?
JK: Yes, you’re the woman, but you’re also paralyzed, so that, in a sense, plays into the idea that you don’t have the ability to move your arms, that you are just frozen, frozen into this position. And then there is, like ‘The Visitor’ is the opposite side of that. You’re not the character in it, but you are also, I wouldn’t say the opposite, you are at the- your not, say, above it. If our vantage point was above or below that would perhaps suggest psychologically that you weren’t yourself in that scene, but at the same time ‘The Visitor’ doesn’t imply that you’re there, but it is- it does imply you’re sort of a ghost and have that sense of being… Right now, especially at this early stage of VR, it really requires active and engaged viewers to help shape the language and the rules of the medium, right? Because if you don’t- And you also have to meet creators halfway in VR right now because of the limitations of the technology. So, you know, it’s really good to think big [laughs]as a viewer and as a creator because there is no shorthand in VR.
WP: Not the same kind of close-up, wide shot, basically you have to allow them the space to move in-between [things in frame].
JK: Not only that, there are no preconceptions, the viewer has no preconceptions, so a cross fade doesn’t mean time has elapsed in VR, I mean, maybe it does, but you know what I mean?
WP: Yeah, we haven’t tested it yet. We haven’t seen the reaction.
JK: Exactly. We haven’t agreed upon a language, so the viewer is critical in helping define what that language is; because what ever your experience, like, we set the camera here at this height and this seems like … way these things happen, but what ever you’re interpretation of it, especially how it relates to your agency, is, you know, it’s like, it’s discovery.
WP: In fact, yeah, this is the point, it’s what cinema has been trying to invoke in people in the first place, and this is just putting them more in the frame, being like, now you kind of have no choice. If you want to enjoy it, you’re going to have to be a part of it.
JK: So, all of that goes to say, you had asked me if I had ever had a break through-
WP: [laughs]I love it, yeah, get there! You always need to preface for what ever is a good moment of clarity.
JK: Correct—well, the moment of clarity was that in watching ‘Giant’… ‘Giant’ is built in a game engine that is also live action volume metric capture, and they combine the two. So you have actual people, actual characters performing in a scene, and then the environment is digital, it actually runs on a game engine, and I mean- it’s about a bombing in a city and like, the bombs are coming closer and this family’s living in the basement and the parents of the six year old girl are making up a story that the bombs are a giant walking through the city, and that she’s- that they’re going to be safe, it [the giant]doesn’t mean them any harm. But as the bombs come close, the basement is- the ceiling eventually falls in and, so it’s- the game engine actually powers a new version, according to it’s physics, but the ceiling falls in a different way every time, because it’s actually happening in this engine.
WP: Was Unity the game engine?
JK: It was built in Unreal, but it could have very well been Unity. But that, when I realized, because I come from a filmmaking background… and I don’t come from a VFX background at all, I’ve never shot anything on a green screen before, literally. I’ve helped people shoot things on green screen, but I’ve never shot anything… And because my attitude has all these kinds of faults, we go, if you want this location, or you want these elements, you find or build that location, and so I was bringing that over to VR and what I realized is that to be constrained by that purist attitude, that we’re going work in actual spaces, VR, to work, I think that’s a fault to potentially to great VR because until we can actually do- until we have full processing power to capture… we’re still limited by resolution, we’re still limited by processing power, certainly anything that’s running on a phone, like Samsung Gear or Google daydream. Vive and Oculus run on powerful PC’s with crazy graphics cards, the phone can’t do that heavy lifting, even with these new codec that Oculus released, which breaks the sphere into triangles, and most of it’s not rendering until you actually start moving your head toward it, so it’s like selective rendering, which makes it a much lighter weight file and it can process it much faster, but still, in terms of getting to something that works for use for seeing on, you know… 4K or 6K, it’s going to be a while. So, right now, the way I sort of think about it is, VR is sort of like 8mm right now and, which is to say, you have to work within the constraints of the medium if you want to do it, something that would be great in ten years. If you attempt to, like, you can’t shoot ‘The Searchers’ on 8mm, right? You need 65mm film. But you can do incredible things with 8mm if you understand the constraints, if you know that a high concept simplified environment produces the best result—focus on building your story and telling your story that way.