• Interviews

VR – The Future of Cinema?

For the past few years, the Venice Film Festival has had a special section for Virtual Reality. As AI dominating the cultural discussion and Apple releasing its first VR headset – albeit for a price the general public is unable to afford – we sat down with two filmmakers who have used this new medium to tell their stories.

Greek American Victoria Bousis is the Founder and Creative Director of Ume Studios. After earning a master’s degree in media, technology, and innovation from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), her aim was and is to bring character-driven stories to audiences in ways that have not been done before. Last year, her directorial debut, Stay Alive My Son, a film about the Killing Fields in Cambodia premiered in Venice, Berlin, Sweden, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thessaloniki, winning her a slew of prizes including the prestigious Producers’ Guild Award for Innovation.

Alessandro Parrello is an Italian actor and director who started in the film business 20 years ago, starring in the television series Elisa from Rivombrosa and making his directorial debut in 2009 with the short Too Much Gambling. Two years later he founded his production Company 46West, based in Rome and New York. He is working on his first major feature which will either be Lo Zio di Venezia (My Uncle from Venice), a comedy or Nikola Tesla, The Man from the Future, both of which he has already shot short films of.

For the Nikola Tesla project he created a VR version. Admittedly the medium is something to get used to. As I sat with the headset on and watched a scene in which Tesla presents his invention to an audience of doubters, I suddenly realized that I was no longer merely watching but was part of that audience. I turned around and saw the back of the room with rows of people behind me. I was in it, part of the scene which is the whole point of virtual reality. And moving around is a good idea, which also became obvious with Bousis’ film Stay Alive My Son. To sit still as if you are in a regular cinema can not only be dizzying but it will also rob you of a deeper experience when it comes to the story.

Bousis and Parrello had a spirited discussion at the ORA! Fest in Puglia, with Parrello explaining what VR means to him personally.

Parrello: I believe that virtual reality is just an extension of the cinematic language. It’s another tool to tell a story. So we combine technology and storytelling probably to entertain people, and it’s more effective to young people in my experience, because through this tool of virtual reality, the kids or the young people, the students, they can try, they can have fun for like ten minutes, but at the same time they can learn maybe an argument or in this case, a legendary figure that probably they didn’t know before. I think the virtual reality serves the culture, the learning, the formation, the students. It works in medicine, in architecture, in tourism. But I’m not quite sure it’s going to be something that can replace cinema. I’m a big fan of old-fashioned cinema style. And I personally believe that cinema is irreplaceable, that cinema is something that is going to be forever the way we know it.

Bousis: Alessandro, you mentioned something about it being a children’s thing. I disagree with that. Just two weeks ago, we were in Geneva in front of the United Nations, where numerous heads of state were in the headset. And we are about to change global policy. We will change global policy to allow families that deserve the right of reunification to be able to be reunified in five years. We head to Geneva in December where 3,000 prime ministers and heads of state will pledge to unify families. So, it is a very powerful medium. There is an educational component. It is very involving, it is very immersive, it is very powerful. But that is where I believe change happens when it actually punches you in the gut and makes you respond and act. I chose the storyline of my film as a reaction to what was happening geopolitically. At the time, the Syrian refugee was crisis was happening, then we saw what happened in Ukraine, and I thought it was time that people mobilize some kind of action to change the narrative of family separation to one of unification.

Parrello: No, I agree with that.

Bousis: He agrees! That was easy. (Laughter) See, [in my film] I use technology in a very interesting way, in a way in which compels people to become passionate about others again. I saw after Covid the closure of theaters substantially changed our ability to be impacted by films, by vesting ourselves, our emotions and our beings into that storyline. When I studied technology at MIT, I investigated it for the reasons why it was different and the reasons why it is different. And what you saw up here was I recreated all those worlds inside the game engine, which means you can physically walk around these worlds, lift objects so that your brain actually starts neuroscientifically transferring into you, becoming that character, which opens up a very big door. It opens the door for us to not only feel as if we are the character and literally in their shoes and to experience their emotions, but also have our brain believe that we are experiencing those emotions. And the thought behind that is that if we can remove the headset, will we be changed as human beings? Will we also change our world as human beings? And that is the number one reason why I chose the technology, why I made it interactive and not only just an immersive film. I wanted you to be in the world. I wanted you to experience the world, and I wanted to make that story your own.