Essays · Movies

I Was a Tree, And Other VR Experiences

On the latest in nonfiction virtual reality at the 2017 Camden International Film Festival.
By  · Published on September 16th, 2017

On the latest in nonfiction virtual reality in the Storyforms program at the 2017 Camden International Film Festival.

Roger Ebert said, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” That’s still true, though virtual reality is now competing for the title. But VR is not cinema, and it’s not an empathy machine. It’s maybe an empathy appliance, the microwave to cinema’s wood-burning oven. It doesn’t allow you to identify with characters and their experiences. It puts you right into the thick of it. And it’s becoming more effective in doing so.

One of the big VR hits of the year is Tree, a “film” that makes you feel like you’re a tree. Using the usual Oculus Rift headset and headphones and controllers combined with a vibrating SubPac vest and live sensory enhancements, you are given the experience of being at one with a rainforest from birth to death. You physically plant a seed beforehand to make it a wholly participatory thing.

With all the equipment on, you stand there as the scenery changes around you. You can rotate, and with the controllers your arms become branches that can be swung about at your discretion, yet this is primarily a stationary adventure. However, you do get the sense of growing taller and taller while enjoying the views of leopards and birds and jungle landscape. Then comes a forest fire, the experience of which is aided by your VR guide lighting a match nearby for the smell of it. And the fire catches you and you die.

What starts out as a fun gimmick turns into a sort of VR issue film about the rainforests. That element didn’t work for me so much. It’s not like you’re given a feeling that you’re on fire nor that you collapse. Tree, which is still highly recommended if you get the opportunity, can give you an experience but it doesn’t truly make you empathize with a plant. And that’s because empathy is not about trying to literally think you are that with which you empathize. You need to be apart from the subject of empathy.

That’s where Frontline and Emblematic Group come in very strongly this year with new walk-around VR experiences, including After Solitary. Produced as a tie-in with the Frontline documentary Last Days of Solitary, the experience puts you inside a solitary confinement cell with Kenny Moore, who spent five years of his 20-year sentence there. You can move about the cell, as small a space as it is, to really get a feeling of the enclosure. It’s not just a gimmick, because Moore is virtually there in 3D telling you about his life and limits at Maine State Prison’s segregated facilities.

After Solitary is not entirely about making you feel like a prisoner in solitary confinement, like Tree makes you feel like you’re a tree. We can’t possibly really understand that. We can’t really walk around in Moore’s shoes. Instead, we walk around the virtual space with him and empathize as much as we can. If it was just an experience of the cell, that would be one thing. If it was just a documentary of Moore talking to us from his cell, that’s another. Combined, they give a mixed if not complete picture that is helpful in our perception of the issue of this cruel and psychologically damaging punishment.

Also from Frontline and Emblematic, in partnership with Nova and NASA, is Greenland Melting, of which I got a sneak preview. This VR experience is also a walk-around project and also tied to an issue. Not only do you get to virtually explore glaciers in Greenland and elsewhere, on foot and from the insides of planes flying above, but you are constantly visited by two scientists in the 3D space talking about their studies of the glaciers and how climate change is causing the oceans to heat up and melt them.

There are a few ways in which Greenland Melting impressed me. One of them is how you can look out windows of a plane as if they are real and get different views through those windows depending on your position. Another is how at one point you’re in the ocean and can see above the water or below the water depending on your vertical position, standing to see the above-sea parts of the glaciers and scrunching down to see the larger submerged sections. I’ve actually been on a glacier and this was still an enlightening experience both because of the issue-driven context and because of the VR capabilities.

After trying Tree and the Frontline experiences, I went to the regular 360-degree videos that you watch with a headset and smartphone, and that stuff felt really simple in comparison. The Chasing Coral VR tie-in is cool for how it allows you to spin around and see the ocean floor all around, but it’s nothing like the experience of Greenland Melting‘s multi-perspective underwater component. Most of these VR experiences are still neat, but the next level is far better than just neat.

That’s not to dismiss those other VR projects, though some of them just didn’t work for me at all. They’re choppy, edited like a documentary so the space keeps changing, which is disorienting. And sometimes the positioning is awkward, whether it puts you on the stage of an event rather than down with the crowd, or among a group of people dancing, seemingly intending to make you feel a part of the scene, and not comfortable.

As expected, though, I did very much enjoy the experience of Marshall Curry’s Funeral for a 747, which puts you in an airplane graveyard in the desert and see the dismantling of a Boing 747 jet. There’s no cause, no issue, nothing really you have to empathize with, just a fascinating world and characters that you’re situated alongside to witness from the inside and outside and all over. This kind of virtual tourism still works with 360 video, though that next level of walk-around experiences would be an improvement here, as well.

The same goes for This is What the Future Looks Like, a 360 video VR project from Sam Green and Gary Hustwit (who is also a producer on Funeral for a 747). You get to look around geodesic dome structures as you learn about Buckminster Fuller and his architectural innovation. You don’t necessarily need the walk-around advancements here,  though, as there’s an adequate feeling of the 3D space, as is.

One could joke about the idea of nonfiction virtual reality in general. Just experience actual reality, why don’t you? But for those documentaries that can function as virtual tourism or virtual experiences anyway, VR can take you another step, especially with walk-around projects. But it’s the issue films that I’ve been skeptical of as VR fodder given their sensitivity and capability for exploitation and sensationalism. I’m glad to have encountered, through Frontline, examples of how VR can work with journalistic issue-driven documentary filmmaking. And I’m excited to see where it continues to evolve.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.