Immersive Cinema: The Philosophy Behind VR

VR is reshaping how we think of gaming. Will it do the same for filmmaking?
Lawnmower Man
By  · Published on October 18th, 2018

I’ve wanted virtual reality as far back as I can remember. It could have been that one Friday afternoon hanging out at Tilt, the local arcade at the Richland Mall in Waco, Texas where an early concept virtual reality system was being demoed. The rig was huge with a headset that didn’t look quite as different from today’s modern setups like Oculus and Playstation VR, but it was all enough to intrigue a 7-year-old hopped up on Wendy’s and Sbarro.

But most likely my affinity was birthed with Brett Leonard’s sci-fi/horror film The Lawnmower Man. Based on a Stephen King short story in title alone, the film follows a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) who Flowers for Algernon’s an intellectually disabled landscaper (Jeff Fahey) through the power of VR. In the early 90s film virtual reality looked quite a lot like The Mind’s Eye, a 40-minute compilation of computer-generated imagery from 1990 created by Jan Nickman. In The Lawnmower Man we are plunged into a cyber world where you could fly around virtual tunnels, race other users through a digital obstacle course, all while being hooked into a haptic suit so the experience can be as lived-in as possible. And as a five-year-old: the SNES video game was just not cutting it.

Smash cut to 2018! We now live in a world where virtual reality doesn’t just exist, it’s far better than we ever predicted, and it’s finally becoming consumer friendly. More so, VR isn’t just the most expensive video game system you’ll ever buy. Directors like Kathryn Bigelow, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolas Pesce, Robert Rodriguez, and Alexandre Aja have all begun making short and long-form immersive narrative VR that, in my own personal experience, is changing the game in how we tell stories. Why? Because we are finally narrowing the gap of what author John Gardner calls “psychic distance”, which is further discussed in Wisecrack’s new video The Philosophy of VR.

In it “psychic distance” is described as how emotionally engaged we are with the characters we are reading or watching. We can lose ourselves into a book or a play, but we will always know the artifice keeping us from becoming fully immersed, be it the pages of a book or the proscenium of a stage. Ultimately: we consciously know that we are not the characters we are meant to inhabit. Their perspectives are not our own. Our psychic distance from the stories will never be zero, and that’s thanks to a little philosophical concept called qualia.

Qualia is the idea that mental states like perception, sensation, thoughts, and emotions all have a subjective, unique quality to them. It’s as simply put as to how some people may find a sunset to be breathtaking and emotional, while others will feel nothing at the sight. One person’s invigorating camping trip is another’s uncomfortably long weekend. But what’s important is that we can never adequately express what those differences are. As philosopher Thomas Nagel stated’, we may know everything there is to know about bats, but that doesn’t mean we fully understand the experience of being an adorable creature of the night. And that’s because of the explanatory gap between knowledge and experience. You may be the world’s foremost scholar in marine life, but if we’ve never been in the ocean, the explanatory gap exists. And that’s where VR becomes so narratively innovative

It’s hard to try virtual reality and not immediately feel the practical application of this technology to filmmaking. It was my first time trying VR when I experienced The Eyes Of My Mother director Nicolas Pesce’s debut, The Caretaker. Set in a Lynchian hotel you act as a ghostly visitor accompanying a couple checking into the hotel. While watching a film, your physical body is always static, but in VR you have the entire environment to get lost in. The couple may be talking in front of you, but you can turn around and stare down that long dark hallway that you are sure will have a monster bounding towards you in no time. The choices of how to experience the story are limitless. Alexandre Aja’s Campfire Creepers literally makes you the campfire a group of children gathers around to tell spooky stories. Later, Robert Englund monologues to you as you wait for your slow approaching death-by-killer-ants, seeing your lovers eaten away face if you just look to your right. Gabriela Arp’sMeeting A Monster puts you into the shoes of why someone becomes a white supremacist, and how they escaped that life. And while the explanatory gap is still wide in the early days of modern VR, it will gradually decrease as the rigs become more lightweight and unobtrusive.

As the essay details, virtual reality allows us to blur the lines of our own perceptions turning our experience into the most wholly immersive form of storytelling we’ve ever had, all by narrowing the explanatory gap. Think of it like ‘Immersive Cinema’, or experiential theatre for the film set. And in terms of qualia? Well, you may not be able to fully explain why the Paranormal Activity films scared you quite so much, but through the advent of VR, you can definitely make sure your friends experience a similar quality of terror.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)