Studio 360

By Marantz, Andrew | The New Yorker, April 25, 2016 | Go to article overview

Studio 360


Marantz, Andrew, The New Yorker


STUDIO 360

The pioneers who are making the first virtual-reality narratives.

Janicza Bravo makes short films about loneliness. In one, Michael Cera plays an abrasive paraplegic who can't get lucky. In another, Gaby Hoffmann plays a phone stalker for whom the description "comes on too strong" is not strong enough. Bravo's shorts employ the visual grammar of art-house cinema: over-the-shoulder shots representing a character's point of view, handheld tracking shots depicting urgent movement, lingering closeups to heighten intimacy or unease, carefully composed establishing shots with an actor in the center of the frame.

In March, 2015, Bravo went to Venice, on the western edge of Los Angeles, to meet with a production company called Wevr. The name is pronounced "weaver," but it can also be thought of as a sentence, with "We" as the subject and "V.R." as the verb. As anyone who has read a tech blog within the past five years, or a sci-fi novel within the past five decades, knows, "V.R." stands for virtual reality--a loosely defined phrase that is now being applied to several related forms of visual media. You put your smartphone into a portable device like a Google Cardboard or a Samsung Gear--or you use a more powerful computer-based setup, such as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive--and the device engulfs your field of vision and tracks your head movement. The filmic world is no longer flat. Wherever you look, there's something to see.

The producers at Wevr invited Bravo to write and direct a V.R. project. "I said no," she told me. "It sounded like a technical thing, and I'm not into technical. But then I talked to my husband, and he said, 'How often do people just hand you money in this business?' So I changed my mind." She thought about what kind of story might be told most effectively in the new medium. "The two words I kept hearing about V.R. were 'empathy' and 'immersion,' and I wasn't sure that being immersed in one of my dark comedies would be all that useful."

Instead, she wrote a naturalistic drama about a group of friends who encounter two police officers. Bravo, who is black, tends to write roles for white actors, but for this project she assembled a mostly black cast. In 1999, Bravo's cousin, who lived in Brooklyn, had a brief confrontation with the N.Y.P.D. that resulted in his death. According to the police, he choked on a bag of drugs. Bravo read a short article about it in the Post . "Name, cause of death--that was it," she said. "I wanted to bring you inside the world that was left out of that paragraph." She called her script "Hard World for Small Things," after a line from the 1955 film "The Night of the Hunter."

Anthony Batt, one of Wevr's three founders and its head of content, is a forty-eight-year-old with artfully tousled hair and a bushy, graying beard. Some of Wevr's projects are computer-animated, some are live action, and some combine both elements. "We start by identifying people with interesting minds, and then we wrap them in a creative bear hug," Batt said. This can entail weeks of meetings, phone calls, and test shoots designed to help directors unlearn much of what they know about two-dimensional films--or "flatties," as V.R. triumphalists sometimes call them. Neville Spiteri, Wevr's C.E.O. and another of its founders, said, "We've had traditional scripts that can't work as V.R. unless they're totally rewritten."

For Bravo, the bear hug was relatively painless. "Hard World for Small Things" would be a live-action short, with two scenes filmed on location. The first scene--five minutes of unhurried, semi-improvised dialogue--would place the viewer in a car as it wound through South Central L.A., then idled outside a bodega. The second, much shorter scene would take place inside the store. Bravo would use four wide-angle lenses, pointing in all directions from a single source, positioned so that the viewer felt like one of the friends. Then, in postproduction, Wevr would "stitch" the footage together to make a single spherical image. …

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