A Preview of The Hunger Games Virtual Reality Experience
Last night in Manhattan, we got to experience Lionsgate and Samsung’s latest cutting edge venture to further immerse fans in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian sci-fi world: The Hunger Games Virtual Reality Experience. A six-minute journey through the post-apocalyptic landscape of Panem, this VR exhibition was held at the Pop 14 art space, where the walls had been turned to Brutalist concrete slabs and the staff was made up of folks in white District 13 jump suits.
After signing a waiver, we were shown to one of a dozen stations where a D13 representative fitted us with headphones and the Oculus-equipped Samsung Gear VR head-mounted display (HMD), which runs off of a consumer-grade Galaxy S6 phone. Once the set is booted up, we see a blue dot hovering over a control panel, and we move our head until the dot hovers over the play button.
What follows is fascinating visual recap of previous films, featuring scenes from Katniss Everdeen firing arrows during the title games, to President Snow in his lush Capitol garden, and then an elevator ride down to a bunker where rebel forces plot over a 3D hologram. It climaxes with a tease for Lionsgate’s upcoming The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, though by the end you feel like you’ve experienced a real story and not just a glorified ad. The chair itself vibrates from time to time to add extra “4D” dimension, like when a ship floats above our heads.
If anything, fans of the franchise will believe they have actually toured through all the most memorable set pieces of the series, from having an aid package drop out of the sky to a full on revolt in the streets.
“VR is still obviously an infant industry in terms of resolution, goggles, how much the engines can handle and software to build it,” says Colin McGreal, designer and director at ReelFX of The Hunger Games Virtual Reality Experience. “I come from a broadcast, graphics and filmmaking background and I’m very conscious to keep the narrative involved.”
Some of the ways this technology is already useful includes a husband able to remotely witness the birth of his child from outside the delivery room, for fans to be able to attend a concert from their bedroom or for a disabled person to go zip-lining. McGreal, however, feels like there are real opportunities for filmmakers and storytellers to adapt to this new technology.
“I like the fact that that’s where it’s going in a lot of ways,” McGreal told us. “Obviously there’s a lot of implications for socio-cultural/beyond entertainment avenues, and that’s very exciting, but I like the idea of bringing a filmmaking mentality to VR. That’s a big challenge because by the nature of VR you can look wherever you want, you can explore what you want to explore regardless of what’s going on in front of you. So how can we bring a directed storytelling aspect to this 360 experience and keep people looking where we want them to look?”
Our experience made it very clear what we were supposed to be looking at almost the whole way through, with cinematic angles putting us at a vantage point that draws you towards Katniss or whatever else we’re meant to see. In one scene in a dimly lit underground bunker, the filmmakers use a flashlight pointed in a certain direction, and if that’s not enough they have a cat run across the room to bring our attention back to the lit area.
“That was on purpose, that scene in particular,” McGreal insists. “I also try to bring a little more visual poetry where it’s simple and abstract at moments but it’s also strategic at drawing your eyes to places, like playing with the kitten with the flashlight.”
“Simple” indeed, as there is actually very little movement from characters in the video, with most of them in still poses as we move around them, giving us an experience not unlike the “bullet-time” effect in The Matrix. Although the artistic vision from the get-go, this still figure technique came partly out of necessity, as the schedule demanded McGreal and company put the piece together in only ten weeks.
“Complex animation would have taken a year, so it was always these frozen moments, like a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ tour at Disney World if you will,” he remarked. “It’s been a great exercise and working with great CG artists to get this in place so that we can get more ambitious with actual animation. The CG and VR artists we worked with are used to working in video games but like this more. They’re like, ‘This is great! We want to keep pushing the envelope.’ Instead of a game where you run around shooting people we’re trying to give a cultural and emotional experience.”
A cornerstone of storytelling is that the audience wants to be shown the way. If you’re watching a visually complex movie like “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” there are actions and characters in the background and on the sides of shots that can snatch an audience’s gaze or provide a bit of humor/world-building detail, but there’s always one individual or set of characters we’re meant to be following. The creators of this VR experience understand that implicitly, and even though they’ve stitched together information from 52 virtual cameras to create a 360-degree world it is still the journey of Katniss that concerns us.
The Hunger Games Virtual Reality Experience will be made available to download for the Gear VR HMD this weekend, with deliverables coming out for iOS, Android devices and Oculus Rift in the near future. The idea that one day we will get to experience a feature-length film in this mode seems like it’s just around the corner…
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(Photo Credit: Max Evry)