(Virtually) Regarding Henry: Henry, a new project from the Oculus Story Studios team, nicely illustrates how VR movies will differ from conventional projects.
Henry is actually the studio’s second creation, Oculus having laid out its plans to establish the Rift VR headset as a viable platform for cinematic VR earlier this year when it made a splash at the Sundance Festival with the help of debut project Lost. Henry offers a potentially winning blend of Pixar-esque whimsy and VR interaction - not so surprising given that the short is directed by a Pixar alumni, namely Brave and Monster’s University animator, Ramiro Lopes Dau.
Saschka Unseld, director of Lost and creative director of Oculus Story Studio (and another Pixar veteran), admitted that he wasn’t entirely happy with that first short, believing it wasn’t quite immersive or engaging enough. Henry looks to be a more ambitious and assured attempt, amping up both the cartoonishness and the interplay between characters and viewer.
Slipping on the Oculus headset and entering Henry’s world doesn’t simply place the viewer closer to the unfolding narrative, it also breaks down the fourth wall, with the lead character actively making eye contact and engaging with the viewer. “Empathy in VR is the most important field in VR that we need to explore,” explains Unseld.
Oculus is expected to debut Henry later this year, and then release it for free to owners of the commercial Oculus Rift headset, which is due for launch in 2016. In the meantime, 2015 will see the release of two further animated projects from Oculus: high-tension actioneer Bullfighter and surreal stepping-into-an-illustration experience Dear Angelica. A fifth, Kabloom, is also in the works.
Significantly, Oculus has also signed up Montreal-based Felix & Paul Studios to develop third-party cinematic VR experiences. In contrast to the Story Studios’ computer animated fare, Felix & Paul focuses on live action and CG-enhanced film content - its VR projects to date include the introduction video for Samsung’s Gear VR, a VR experience based on the movie The Wild, and Jurassic World: Apatosaurus (featuring visual effects work from ILM).
If Oculus seems to be leaning heavily on familiar movie tropes, that’s not so surprising. The general public is likely to need coaxing into the world of VR with content that - at the outset, at least - feels familiar and comforting. At this point companion pieces to established Hollywood titles and animated tales in the mould of Pixar and Dreamworks make perfect sense. Furthermore, even the in-house Oculus creatives are only just getting to grips with the medium. In the longer term, it’s likely that real innovation will only take hold as VR filmmakers not only work out how best to blend storytelling, interaction and immersion, but also respond to how, where and in what social context audiences end up actually using the technology.