The first screening of a film in which you’ve performed, no matter how small the role or modest the budget, is always a special occasion. Filmmaking is always a leap of faith for the actor, given the sheer number of other collaborators and technical considerations involved; no matter how confident you are in your own performance, you have no idea how things have turned out until those images first start flickering in the dark of that first screening. And so, perhaps in recognition of these artistic risks, the circumstances of that first viewing room have become wreathed in glamour. Whether it’s a dingy, smoke-filled projection room where the day’s rushes are being viewed, or the glitz and high fashion of a red carpet premiere, we do everything we can to make sure that movie magic is present, no matter what becomes of the specific movie in question. We make that fateful first viewing an event.
So there I was, in a Washington Heights two-bedroom apartment, sitting on a swivel chair with a big helmet on my head.
As I mentioned a few months ago, I recently had a chance to film a project that was designed for virtual reality. Since a virtual reality participant can turn their attention wherever they like, the footage was all shot with a 360 degree camera, a strange little orb in the center of the room picking up everything happening around it. Although the film winds up taking place in real time as a result – while you can dissolve from one different location to another, you can’t cut from scene to scene – it still required several months of editing to make sure all the different angles from that camera were properly stitched together and synced up with one another. And in order to view the final cut, now that all that stitching and syncing had taken place, a viewer would need to put on a special visor, completely covering one’s own field of vision and allowing the viewer to see action wherever they happened to look.
And so, a few days ago, I was invited to a “screening” at the producer’s apartment, to view the finished product. Of necessity, this screening could only be for an audience of one – each guest went, one at a time, into a room which had been specially repurposed for the evening. We sat in the chair, a bit nervously, as the visor was fastened on to us, along with gloves with digital relays for pressing “play,” as it were – a menu of options floating in front of us. A few unseen keystrokes and switch flipping from our producer, and, hey presto, there we were, in a digital recreation of the room where we’d filmed a few months ago. And there we were, as well, the actors we were at the time, interacting with the spectator. With ourselves, potentially.
We haven’t yet developed the technology to beam images directly into our cerebral cortex; you know full well you’re looking at a screen when watching a VR image, even if that screen is a personal video display completely surrounding you. Even if you turn your head and twist about to examine every angle of the 360 display, the part of your brain that knows this is a projected image allows you to sit back, passively observing and processing. Until, of course, a “character” starts interacting with you, effectively becoming your scene partner. Now a different part of your brain is telling you that there’s a person there you need to talk to, or at least be aware of. Except, of course, it isn’t, and there you are, in the chair with a helmet on your head, trying to process two contradictory impulses generated by images that you alone can see.
And, again, that word alone is crucial. We could only view this piece one at a time; even if a big crowd were assembled, each member given the necessary equipment, it can only ever play to an audience of one. The social component of an audience isn’t there – indeed, it can’t be there.
So does this mean an end to movie magic?
I doubt it. I had a fun night with friends, after all. Regardless of whether this technology takes off, becomes commercially viable, or what have you, the technology now exists. The magicians now have a new trick they can spring upon us, should they so choose.