Interview Starts

"Virtual reality is not just a copy and paste of cinema"

from Washington (USA), to listen to Black Americans recount segregation. However, you are not on the spot but immersed in a virtual reality documentary, your head in an HTC Vive headset. Traveling While Black won the best documentary award at the last VR Arles Festival this summer. To the strength of the story is added a disturbing sensation of closeness. We literally feel shoulder to shoulder with the characters. The Canadian production studio Félix & amp; Paul, which manufactures and processes its own cameras and optics, has indeed succeeded in restoring almost unprecedented close-up effects in virtual reality, as the 360° vision disrupts the perspectives. This is precisely the objective of the Virtual Close Up project. Based at the Centquatre in Paris, as part of the European program STARTS (Science, Technology and Arts), it combines the director Laurent Bazin and the co-founder of the production company Gengiskhan Line Bruceña around a virtual reality camera project capable of producing effects hitherto neglected in 360° films : close-ups but also blurred, closing/opening the field of vision… Two immersive experiences, The cliffs of V. and The baptism (announced for January 2020), realized before this residency, testify to these ambitions. Explanation of technical constraints and creative challenges.

Science and the Future: What interests you in virtual reality ?

Laurent Bazin : I’m from the theater. What fascinated me in this tool was to do things that you could not do in the theater : create closeness, intimacy. In rehearsal, I can almost feel the breath of the actors, capture extremely tenuous things on a face. Unfortunately, the device of the stage and the audience prevents to reproduce this in a performance.

VR was finally going to be able to put us in this place which is for the moment only that of the director. However, paradoxically, I often felt a lack of presence in the helmet.


Laurent Bazin : Very quickly I bumped into dogmas, like not putting the actors less than a meter forty from the camera. In VR, we are immediately at an average or distant distance and we do not have this possibility of relief that would allow to prioritize the information and therefore the narration, to create from the point of view.

Line Bruceña : It’s even stipulated on some cameras. For real shots in any case, it is necessary to be able to paste the images to each other to obtain the 360°vision [le procédé du stitching, ndlr]. Now, parallax means that if we get too close, there will be no matter between two parts and we will not be able to stick them.

How did you solve the problem ?

Laurent Bazin : The first thing we did, with our first film The Cliffs of V., was not to respect these constraints and to assume the problems of stitching, because the expressive stake surpasses technical perfection.

Line Bruceña : When you go from 1.40 m to 80 cm, you have an absolutely crazy zoom impression. While the difference is not huge. But if cinema is what it is, it is that you can cut, zoom, change scale. This is forbidden to us in virtual reality. Or we have to find another way to do it.

Laurent Bazin : And it’s not just about close-up. For example, the problem with virtual reality cameras is that all their lenses often have the same settings.

Line Bruceña : We had the click when we saw the use of the half-windscreen in old Brian De Palma films. When he wanted both a very expressive character in the foreground and a very sharp precision of what was happening in the background, he cut his optics in two and the focal length was sharp in both the foreground and the background scene. Our idea, with this STARTS residence, is to have different settings according to the objectives.

Laurent Bazin : In virtual reality, we work on a single 360°field. But one can imagine a tool that allows to reveal this or that part of the image, to work on the expansion of certain areas.

Listening to you, it almost feels like virtual reality has impoverished the cinematic language.

Line Bruceña : It’s just that this medium is young. We’re on a blank page.

Laurent Bazin : We try things. Anyway, these tools are no longer the simple copy and paste of what is done in cinema. There are real subjects of disputes with technicians, including ours, who correct images without looking into the headset. Indeed, we can see the formal cleanliness of the flat image, but this image remains intended to be seen in a helmet so it is necessary to know how it appears there.

Line Bruceña : I remember a technician having spent days on the stitching of a comedian’s foot that no one among the spectators will ever see. Even to compromise on the rendering of the character’s face. While that face that is facing us and tells us something intense, is essential for the story. The foot, no [on peut effectivement repérer un personnage à trois pieds dans Les falaises de V. ndlr].

Lauren Bazin : Appropriating this new tool highlights arbitrary cinema that we no longer think about. Why do cinema films last between 1: 30 and 2: 10 ? In terms of sound, the GRM Tools spatialization tool allows you to move the sound away when characters are far away, and increase it when they get closer. But in the cinema, the sound of a conversation remains equal even when people are far away. It’s a convention. The most realistic approach, corresponding to the geographical reality of sound and which could be transcribed technically, seems artificial to us, accustomed to cinema.

Line Bruceña : Same with sitting down to see a movie. It makes sense in the cinema to be installed in a comfortable armchair, because the goal is to forget one’s body so that the eyes and head project into the story. On the other hand, putting on a virtual reality headset induces a great vulnerability. We talk directly to the guts, to the way people are wired into their inner ear and we have to take that into account. The bias of our first film was to lengthen people to immerse the body and the question must be asked in each work. The body is an integral part of the VR experience

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