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Ko - production in Busan
  • Possibilities of Virtual Reality in Korean Cinema
  • by KIM Hyeonsu /  Oct 12, 2017
  • From space-conscious documentaries to sports dramas, local films Are exploring a new realm of immersive storytelling



    This year, the Venice Film Festival introduced a competition for virtual reality (VR) films for the first time. The global film community’s interest in VR films can be traced back to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, which went on to show stimulation ride-based VR content the following year in its New Frontier section. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Carne y Arena, by director Alejandro G. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, was presented in an exhibition-style screening. Many countries have been showcasing different forms of VR films, and Venice’s new VR competition section was the prime venue for viewing the latest trends. Not falling behind on the global interest in VR, Korea has seen the birth of diverse projects in the new format. Among these, documentaries have enjoyed particularly notable developments. After premiering at the SEOUL International Women’s Film Festival in May, Gina KIM’s short VR film Bloodless went on to compete at Venice. The 12-minute documentary film is based on the true story of a Korean sex worker, who was brutally murdered by a U.S. soldier in Korea’s Dongducheon Camptown in 1992. Like Carne y Arena, Bloodless is also designed for viewers to have a hands-on experience of a given time and space. And so, it focuses on how to “experience” the space of Dongducheon rather than following a narrative flow like traditional films. The film begins in front of an alleyway in Dongducheon, which was shot in 360-degrees. The camera remains stationary, allowing viewers to explore the area on their own. Moments later, the sun sets and the viewer is made aware of the presence of a woman. Audiences end up inside her tiny room, where she meets her tragic end.

    Technical Limitations and Possibilities



    It is perhaps natural that documentary films are actively exploring the spatial realm of the VR format. VR content has traditionally been characterized by sensorial immersion, interactive features, and spatiality. Sensory immersion and interactivity have usually been more associated with computer games or simulation ride videos. These two features can be rendered through computer graphics or other editing tools in traditional cinema, but not the spatiality of VR films. Bloodless is a prime example of such space-conscious films. For the director, VR was also necessary in order to avoid objectifying the female body. “With VR, the viewer is no longer a passive spectator, who can take voyeuristic pleasure from a spectacle in front of them, and at a distance. Upon realizing the potential of the VR, I came up with a way to tell the same violent story, without showing and exploiting the image of [the sex worker],” said director KIM in a statement. If KIM had utilized VR to philosophical ends, there were also documentary films that tried to overcome the technical limitations of the medium. This summer’s EBS International Documentary Festival that took place in Seoul presented a collection of VR films from near and far. Among the titles, KIM Kyoung-ho’s Vertigo#01 Jang-gu Seom (2016) took advantage of, rather than attempt to downplay, the motion sickness that has been a problem for VR projects. Another technically unique film was The Wish by PARK Gyu-tek. The film captures the training sessions of Korea’s national para ice hockey team ahead of the Paralympics. PARK, who has ample experience with 3D technology for his debut piece Tunnel 3D (2014), said he wished to show how Paralympics games are not any less vigorous compared to regular sports. Conventional sports films manipulate the camera to express dynamism, such as through panning, dolly shots and zooming in/out. This is not possible, however, for VR films. Viewers might experience motion sickness if the camera shakes even just a little in the filming process. And so, filmmakers have limited cinematographic choices and must focus instead on where to install a 360-degree camera, for example. In The Wish, PARK makes the interesting choice of filming from the point of view of the hockey puck rather than a person.

    Market Potential of VR



    It is nearly impossible to create VR films at an individual level in Korea because a commercial market has yet to develop. Specialized equipment and filmmaking skills are necessary, and there is no market to sell VR content even if one manages to make it. And so, many VR films are being created with state support in Korea.

    PARK received assistance from the National IT Industry Promotion Agency (NIPA) for The Wish. Unlike the Korean Film Council’s production support programs, NIPA backs projects for research and development (R&D) purposes. The Wish is a piece resulting from a study on the capacity of live broadcasting VR content and a project for developing a VR application.

    The Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), the country’s representative film school who alumni include the likes of helmers BONG Joon-ho (Okja, 2017) and CHOI Dong-hoon (Assassination, 2015), has also turned its focus to VR. Last year, KAFA produced two VR shorts, Reawakening of Memories by Kim Young-Kap and Eyes in the Red Wind by LEE Seung-moo. The school launched a VR education program this year to foster experts and produce new content. KAFA will select two projects among submissions and provide winners 11 weeks of training to learn the technical aspects of filmmaking so they can create VR films on a budget of KRW 200 million (about $180,000).

    Making a VR Film



    The VR filmmaking process is markedly different from traditional filmmaking methods. 2D filming is not compatible with the medium, which must be shot in 360 degrees. It is possible to shoot in 2D, but images become extremely distorted. One must film scenes in both 3D and 360 degrees in order to achieve more depth, hence creating a more convincing virtual reality.

    The two KAFA films were created through much experimentation with 3D and 360-degree filmmaking. Reawakening of Memories is a sci-fi thriller about a cop who tries to solve a murder case by logging into the brain of a dead person and accessing his last memories. For this project, filming in 3D was necessary to fully utilize the diverse elements of the VR medium.

    Eyes in the Red Wind, on the other hand, features a shamanic ritual taking place on a boat. This was filmed in 3D using a cablecam, which helped minimize motion sickness for viewers. Both Bloodless and The Wish were shot entirely in 3D. Not surprisingly, companies that have largely specialized in researching and/or producing 3D formats such as Venta VR have gone onto tackle the VR content business. It is thus necessary for VR filmmakers to become well-versed in the characteristics and concepts behind established technologies such as 3D, 4DX, IMAX, and ScreenX. If conventional film formats were developed in order to provide immersive experiences for audiences sitting inside cinemas, then VR tries to place viewers inside a theater of his or her very own. And so, the sense of immersion, interaction and spatiality can be fully maximized inside the viewer's personal cinema.

    In addition to the technical issues related to VR projects, storytelling is another source of concern for local VR filmmakers. The technical limitations and characteristics of VR make it impossible to tell stories in the narrative grammar of traditional films. The same goes for video game creators trying to tackle VR technology. Cinema can be called the art of editing frames and crafting time, and transforming this into VR requires a much more sophisticated approach. 

    “Cinema is the frame, cinema is the length of the lens, cinema is editing, the position of images that create time and space,” Inarritu said about his VR installation Carne y Arena. “Virtual reality, even when it's visual, is exactly all what cinema is not.” As such, the storytelling must be designed with such features in mind.

    There are currently two notable big-budget VR-related projects underway in other countries. In China, LIU Cixin's Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem is being turned into a three-part space opera. The film features a sequence in which the protagonist wears a head-mounted display (HMD) in order to move into another space. In Hollywood, Steven Spielberg is helming Ready Player One based on the novel by Ernest Cline. Set in the year 2044, it is about uncovering the secrets of a giant VR game called Oasis. However, it is important to note that neither title is a VR film; they are simply conventional movies featuring elements of VR.

    It is worth imagining how certain stories could be turned into VR formats, such reinterpreting the non-linear structure and time elements of Memento or the multiple perspectives of Rashomon. Technological problems or platform restrictions currently at hand will eventually be solved over time. Rather, it is a matter of solid and sensible storytelling that would allow VR technology to shine in the near future.
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