As I mentioned in my last post, Constant Reader, I got to leave the confines of my apartment-slash-zoom studio this past Tuesday for an acting gig. No more sets and props improvised from household items lying about, no more scripts opened up as a window on my laptop, no more zoom theater for me! It was like being back in the Before Times – I was a regular old actor once again, heading off to set to shoot a film
Of course, it wasn’t exactly a set, and we weren’t exactly a film.
The day’s filming took place at South Oxford Space, near the Atlantic Avenue terminal hub (so at least the commute was easy). The building is familiar to New York theater artists, as its mission is to make low-cost space available to theater companies and arts organizations. Several companies have offices there; most of us have had auditions or rehearsals in the building at one time or another. Our filming location was the Great Hall on the second floor, where I’ve seen a number of productions put up by small Brooklyn companies; it took a moment for my brain to adjust to the fact that I was there as a performer rather than an audience member.
It took another moment for my brain to adjust to the fact that this was a film set with no film crew or equipment. At least, none that I recognized.
The project I was shooting is a virtual reality cabaret; the actors there that day were performing in the interstitial pieces as the cabaret’s audience. (That sounds like we were extras, but we had dialogue and plotlines and characters and everything. Promise.). Since the scene is meant to be viewed in a virtual reality format – a three hundred sixty degree panorama, in which you can choose which part of the scene to focus your attention – the film “set” had to be a completely immersive environment. All “crew” members were performers in the scene, in some capacity or another. The set was completely clear – there was no bank of chairs for the production staff, no cables or equipment, even the craft services table had been hauled to an adjoining room. And instead of the usual cameras, and their operators, there was a single strange object in the center of the room.
A small black orb, perhaps half the size of a basketball, mounted on a stand and suspended about four feet off the ground.
It looked like a child’s model of the Death Star.
This was my first encounter with a virtual reality camera. Paradoxically, this cutting-edge new piece of filmmaking technology brings the actual performance back to the realm of theater – you have to play the scene in continuous takes, with no real way to play to the camera or adjust what it’s seeing. Which is fine, if you have experience in the theater – and can ignore the fact that a miniature Death Star is floating in the center of the room. If virtual reality is the storytelling medium of the future, then this is the device that will be used to tell those stories. Of course, I have no way of knowing if this actually is the storytelling medium of the future. Our technology is advancing faster than we can imagine, and certainly faster than we can evolve a visual storytelling grammar. There’s no way of knowing what will be the embryonic form of some new medium that we’ll take for granted in a few years’ time, and what’s a weird little glitch we won’t remember in a few months. But then again, you never know how a filmmaking project will turn out, or if it will connect the way you want it to – so essentially this was the same sort of gamble you always take on an independent film set. Regardless of whether or not you’re orbiting a tiny facsimile of the Death Star.