The film frame has remained relatively unchanged since the invention of the camera. Aside from a few changes in common aspect ratios, films have remained contained in a static frame. Filmmakers have worked around this limitation through creative camera motion and editing. Despite those efforts, cinema has remained trapped within the confines of a rectangle.
In recent years, the frame has been getting slowly expanded and even been erased by the advent of virtual reality. The first notable company to unveil virtual reality was Oculus VR with its Kickstarter campaign in 2012. After that, a “space race” of sorts developed as virtual reality research and development took off. With large companies like Google and Facebook (with eventually purchased Oculus VR in 2014) envisioning virtual reality as the one and only future for media consumption, their gusto for development is making this vision a reality.
Filmmakers have been noticeably slower to utilize virtual reality as a storytelling tool. Initially, the production of virtual reality involved the use of multiple cameras and the painstaking stitching of the frames to make a single visual experience. This production process is unfamiliar and daunting for filmmakers. And with the often lower budgets for nonfiction filmmakers in the current media environment, this technology has also been incredibly expensive and inaccessible.
However, much like traditional film production equipment, the costs of virtual reality production are decreasing dramatically. With many different camera arrays and 360-degree cameras available on the market, emerging virtual reality filmmakers have a choice of equipment. The company Go Pro recently announced its take on a VR camera called the Fusion, available for only $699. The cameras began shipping in November.
Accessibility to equipment is proving to be a driving factor in the creation of content for nonfiction filmmakers. First, it was with the creation of mass market DSLR that allowed many young nonfiction filmmakers to pursue their cinematic interests. Now, the tech industry is getting to another point where there are starting to be large drops in pricing. Soon, one can suppose, more and more 360 cameras will become affordable to nonfiction film productions.
Though the number of virtual reality nonfiction films are increasing and will continue to increase, the film industry has yet to recognize their value as cinema. Right now, most film festivals have virtual reality lounges wear audiences can enjoy virtual reality media, however there are no VR cinemas and no wider categories for competition.
Virtual reality cinema is a valid new venture in filmmaking that will expand the horizons (and frames) of audiences. With virtual reality, audiences are put into the physical world of the film, in a way that isn’t possible with fixed frame cinema. With nonfiction filmmaking, where generating empathy with characters and situations is typically a goal, virtual reality can greatly increase the emotions felt by a viewer. At first, many people thought VR was a fad, and that traditional camera and cinema technology would remain the same, however it has proven itself as the valid future of media consumption. It’s here to stay.