In a fancy room in an even fancier hotel during January’s Sundance Film Festival, Saschka Unseld is doing something he’s not used to doing: playing pitchman. But when you’re trying to change the way people watch movies, you do what you have to. The room today is full of the usual festival types—filmmakers, press, Adrian Grenier—and Unseld is here to sell them on the promise of virtual reality as the future of cinema.
Unseld readily admits that the first time he experienced VR it was “crappy.” But then, while walking home, he realized that he was remembering the experience not like it had happened within a headset, but like it had actually happened. And with that, a new career was born; after six years at Pixar, Unseld jumped ship to Oculus to head up its new filmmaking venture, Story Studio.
Since becoming creative director last year, he and his team have enjoyed carte blanche. “The mission was to go out and explore,” says Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, who charged Unseld with figuring out what the company needed to know. That turned out to be pretty much everything. For all its decades of hey-it’s-coming-any-day potential, VR is still an entirely new medium for cinema, and while directors and studios are curious about the possibilities, they’re relying on people like Unseld to show them what this brave new world looks like.
Unseld is the person for the job; originally a technical artist at Pixar, he pioneered new visual techniques for his dazzling 2013 short, The Blue Umbrella. Now he’s working with his team in San Francisco on an ambitious slate of five animated films. Each bite-size movie is intended to evoke a different mood, from joy (Henry, a comedy about a hedgehog in love with balloons) to tension (Bullfighter, the tale of a toreador in the ring). Along the way, the Story Studio group hopes to glean insight both artistic and procedural, not only on what triggers emotional responses in VR but even on how people watch a movie when they’re surrounded by it. They will then share their findings with other VR filmmakers to extend the cinematic landscape.
Unseld is serious about VR filmmaking outside of Oculus as well. Life in the VR filmmaking world, he laments, is currently “the loneliest place ever.” There are only a handful of movies to watch and virtually (sorry) no one to watch them with. To remedy that, this spring he held what he hopes will be the first of many salons; by bringing together filmmakers, artists, and VR pioneers, the goal is to jump-start a broader movement to bring more stories to VR headsets—especially outside of the Bay Area tech scene. “I love the stuff we’re doing at Story Studio,” he says, “but in New York there’s the chance of having more independent, artistic voices do projects in VR.”
5 | The number of VR film experiences Oculus Story Studio is working on.
But while there are seemingly innumerable mysteries about the new platform, it turns out that inducing empathy is surprisingly easy in VR—a fact that might demand restraint from filmmakers. It’s something Unseld learned while making Lost, a short VR film that drops viewers in the middle of the woods at night to witness a robot searching for its misplaced hand. While creating the Pixar-esque visuals, Unseld and his team repeatedly had to evaluate not how immersive the experience was, but how scary. A shadowy forest, it turns out, can be far more frightening when it envelops you than it would be on even an IMAX screen. “Some people are very emotionally sensitive to these experiences,” Unseld says. “There’s a big responsibility on your shoulders to not overstep a boundary. You could traumatize people if you overdo it.”
We’re glad he’s thinking that way; it’s a lot harder to cover your eyes with your hands when you’ve got a headset on.
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