What Happens to Cinema in the Age of VR?

Still from Waves
Still from Waves directed by Benjamin DickinsonCredit: Wevr
A diverse industry panel took on the possibilities of cinematic storytelling in what is increasingly becoming the age of VR.

What is the future of cinematic storytelling when virtual reality starts to take center stage? Industry professionals and indie makers alike have been pondering this question for the past several years. No one seems to have an answer quite yet, but IFP Film Week set up a panel of  directors, animators and creative producers who are working in the space, to offer their thoughts and experience to fellow makers. 

Moderated by Michael Deathless, who runs the Bowery NY Jump Into The Light VR gallery, the panelists included Kane Lee, the Head of Production for VR-focused animation firm Baobab Studios; Yelena Rachitsky, Creative Producer for Oculus; and two directors with recent experiences directing immersive projects, Lily Baldwin and Benjamin Dickinson.

 The single form of storytelling that has been locked down by the decision-makers at traditional film studios just doesn't work in VR.

Still from Baobab Studios Invasion VR project.Credit: Baobab

New rules mean new voices

One major ongoing theme of the panel was that VR represents a major shift in storytelling. This shift is so dramatic that many of the traditional elements of what would be considered a good story are thrown out the window, but not entirely for the reasons we might think. Rachitsky discussed how part of the revolution isn't just that the technology is so different, it's that the single form of storytelling that has been locked down by the decision-makers at traditional film studios just doesn't work in VR. Because the technology changes storytelling so much and the old rules don't apply, there is the opportunity for all the established rules to be drafted anew. A positive effect of that process is that new voices, new stories, and new experiences get a voice at the table.

It's time for testing

In terms of the specifics of what is changing with VR, the folks at Baobab are all about testing testing testing. We can generally assume with a "flattie" (a traditional, 2-D motion picture) that we know roughly where the audience is looking, but that just isn't true with VR. Where the audience chooses to put their attention is much less controllable than Baobob thought, and they had to do extensive testing and revision until they felt like they could be consistently be sure where the audience was looking. It's a relearning process for creators accustomed to traditional work, but one that Baobab embraces.

Through You Still
Still from Through You, directed by Lily BaldwinCredit: Lily Baldwin

Lily Baldwin's VR film Through You was made as part of the Sundance Institute New Frontier's Jaunt VR Residency Program. In working on the project, she discovered that many of the VR "rules" don't matter if you have a point of attention to orient the audience around. While early VR practitioners said you should not move the camera, or you shouldn't edit, for fear of inducing nausea or headaches in your audience, Baldwin has found that you can indeed do so without negative consequences for your viewers, if you are careful about being conscious of their point of attention.

A significant transition will happen with performances, as people realize how little you need to do to come across as authentic in a VR cinema experience.

Performance is shrinking

For Dickinson, who directed the Reggie Watts VR experience Waves, one of the biggest discoveries of his VR work has been the changing nature of performance that it inspires. "Cinematic" acting, which itself is much smaller than a stage performance, still reads as too artificial or too large in the VR space. Dickinson's testing and experiences have convinced him that a significant transition will happen with performances, as people realize how little you need to do to come across as authentic in a VR cinema experience, and how artificial certain "acting" techniques feel. This circled back to the discussion of new storytelling models: since a viewer's feeling of "presence" within a VR space is so engaging in and of itself, artificially created story tension isn't as necessary for a rewarding experience.


  • The first set of "rules" for VR is already ripe to broken.
  • The audience's sense of presence within a story changes everything about what kinds of stories are told and how.
  • Testing with as many viewers as possible is the best way to evaluate the success or failure of your work.
  • VR isn't the future; it's here now. The medium will continue to evolve, you can start creating in it today.

See all of our coverage of IFP Film Week 2016.

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Your Comment


September 23, 2016 at 12:06AM, Edited September 23, 12:06AM


Got to see a VR short film at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks back. The content wasn't great, but I don't know if I would have enjoyed the experience any better if it was. It's distracting. More spectacle than substance. Contrast that against some concert footage I viewed in VR. You're dropped in the action. Different thing. Interested to see how it all develops, but currently not for me.

September 23, 2016 at 12:25PM


This is an idiotic discussion. VR is fun for some things sometimes, just like 3D or CircleVision - nothing more. Anyone who thinks it will replace 2D cinema reminds me of the cretins who thought that inter-active CD roms would fully replace linear storytelling back in 1990s, or that online dating would completely replace dating, or that.... The list goes on. A significant chunk of the audience can't tolerate Vr because it gives them motion sickness - even the latest and greatest high frame rate devices. I would say a vast majority only enjoy it in small doses.

I think it's cool, just like I think roller coasters are cool. It will have its place in media culture - but a limited place.

September 24, 2016 at 5:15PM

Robert Ruffo

VR is good for other mediums, and great for social media marketing, but for film and television storytelling not so much, since the director wants you to focus on whatever action is important in the scene. So this is kind of pointless. But still good read

September 25, 2016 at 2:55AM


Single point VR has inherent flaws that make it a complete mess for narrative work. It makes story telling so POV centric (the viewer is nearly required to be the center of the action) that it negates many of tools used in traditional narrative filmmaking to create engagement and illicit emotion in viewers. In addition, 90% of your possible frame is a distraction from the narrative focus. Without that focus it may as well just be a sight-seeing video or a Disney ride. I've seen some very exciting topics turned into distant, emotionless nonsense via VR. VR presents an environment of assumed interactivity that narrative can't deliver on without simply becoming a video game. It's misleading and starts the whole viewer experience off on a bad note. I'm not saying it can't ever be done but until those things can be overcome, it's just a parlor trick.

September 27, 2016 at 10:58AM

Production Manager / Producer