When James Cameron released his blockbuster 3D fantasy Avatar in 2009, many of the people who loved it (I wasn’t one of them) praised it as a feat of “immersive storytelling”—as if that were a particularly good thing. Suddenly, just watching a movie wasn’t enough; the goal was to be inside it, to be a participant instead of a bystander. The suggestion was that the traditional mode of 2D moviemaking—not to mention other old-school storytelling tools, like live theater and books—was somehow exclusive and elitist, intended to shut us out rather than invite us in. Now technology, of the proto-VR sort Cameron used to make Avatar, could make us feel like invited guests rather than outliers, a sort of “Everyone gets a prize” mode of thinking applied to art and entertainment.
I was thinking about this again after I watched a handful of short animated films released by Oculus Story Studio, an internal team created by Oculus to make its own specially tailored VR films. Former Pixar animator, Saschka Unseld, director of the much-loved Pixar short “Blue Umbrella,” is the unit’s creative director. I wasn’t particularly excited about the idea of watching anything with a weighty ocular apparatus like the Oculus Rift strapped to my head—the unforgivingly rigid, surely only semi-sanitized 3D glasses handed out in movie theaters are bad enough—but I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to the feel of the thing. And the first image I saw, a test image—that of a lizardy, possibly unfriendly alien being blinking right at me, as I stood on the surface of some surely unforgiving planet, surrounded by nothing but space and stars—was kind of awesome, as if I’d stepped inside the ViewMaster one of my older sisters got in 1963. Even back then, kids clearly had a yearning to creep inside a world outside their own.
But as I watched the Story Studio short “Henry“—a simple vignette about a hedgehog who loves hugs but who, sadly, hurts everyone and everything he squeezes—my first thought was, “Wow!” followed closely by “Why?” I was momentarily intrigued by the idea that I could see everything in this adorable little guy’s toadstool (or whatever it was) cottage: I could gaze around—up, down, and behind—and see Henry’s cozy little hedgehog bed, or the doorway to his kitchen, from which he eventually emerged, looking right at me.
That connection is key to the VR experience: The story “Henry” tells is supersimple, rendered in visual language that seems geared to preschoolers (a bit odd considering that the current official age rating for Oculus Rift is 13+, and the idea of strapping one of these things onto a tiny child’s head is more than a little horrifying—to me, at least). The chief draw, it seems, is that when you look directly at Henry, he will look right back at you. He’s aware of you watching him—you’re a voyeur, caught in the act. I guess that’s supposed to be a good thing, though frankly, it made me a little embarrassed. I had an “Oh, don’t mind me, just act like I’m not even here” sort of feeling. Which is, perhaps, defeating the purpose. And the idea that by looking at one character or another, I could control, to a degree, the shape of the story, isn’t a draw for me. I’m kind of lazy; I like filmmakers and actors to tell me where I should be looking, so I can pick up the baton from there and do my own thinking and feeling.
Using Oculus Rift for applications outside of gaming—which isn’t my world, I freely admit—is one way to make you rethink your relationship to movie images. I was certainly aware, through every minute of “Henry,” that a team of very smart people had thought this thing through very carefully, and if I was ultimately underwhelmed by the experience, I was definitely curious to know more about how something like this gets made.
But in the end, I’m not sure being present within the image is so desirable, or even such a novelty. You’re still inside yourself, looking out. And until evolution turns us back into fishlike creatures, with eyes on either side of our heads, we can look in only one direction at a time, anyway. It’s cool to be able to look around and see hedgehog beds, hedgehog windows, a little hedgehog sewing machine up in a loft, a little piece of hedgehog cloth lodged under the pressurefoot—but in the end, so what? Even the vision of Henry dancing with a polychrome array of balloon animals, as cheery music cued me to feel delight, had me feeling sort of left out of the party—even though this was a party that desperately wanted me as a participant.
In the trailer for “Henry,” Unseld and several members of his team use the word “empathy” repeatedly: The idea is that, because Henry can look right at us, we’ll feel a deeper connection to him. In that trailer, Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey says, “The bar in VR is higher.” Now, the aim is to make it seem as if a character is “actually in the same space with you, not a prerecorded character in a game, or a prerecorded actress doing a fifth take in some movie.” Yet people who love movies—and that includes, presumably, the people who make them—know that sometimes the fifth take is the one with the most feeling, the one that draws us closer to a character than we might ever have thought possible. Do we really need James Stewart’s Scottie, in Vertigo, or Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to look straight at us before we can feel something? What’s so bad about just being an observer, anyway? There’s something to be said for the immersive-enough experience of just being a fly on the wall.