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The future of filmmaking is V.R.

Mr. Robot VR episode Mind-blowing experience at SDCC 2016

The clear winner of San Diego Comic-Con 2016 was “Mr. Robot” - with its amazing offsite experience. A retail slot in downtown San Diego was converted to look like the titular company in the television show, filled with vintage computer equipment.

Behind the storefront was a re-creation of Eliot’s apartment, where visitors got to see a glimpse into the future of filmmaking with a 12-minute virtual reality mini-episode.

I considered the prospects for VR to be contained within the realm of videogames and interactive experiences. It seemed like too much of a gimmick to work as an effective medium for cinema.

I was dead wrong. VR filmmaking contains incredible potential.

Early in the “Mr. Robot” VR episode, deft camera placement introduces the viewer into an entirely new cinematic experience: the viewer becomes the editor. Placing a camera between two subjects separated by a distance leaves the viewer in complete control of the ‘edit’ - who are you going to watch? Why? Do you watch the speaker, or the listener reacting? Did you catch everything in the performance?

At one point, the main character goes on one of his lengthy narrations and the camera remains static, placing the viewer in a voyeuristic perspective. The angle is a bit wider than most TV shots like this, and it’s an extremely long take without a cut. The performance has a stage/theatrical quality to it. Paradoxically, the viewer is more distant in physical proximity, but the sensation is more immediate than traditional cinema. The viewer experiences what it’s like to be invisible and eavesdropping on a private moment. As this progresses, the narrator enters an altered mental state, and the VR camera swiftly moves into an unexpected position - creating the illusion for the viewer that they are floating. An immediate transition for the viewer occurs: from a voyeur in the third-person, to a more direct connection with the main character. The viewer seems to occupy two states of being simultaneously: immersive, in that you are still a voyeur present in physical space - but also abstract: your sensation of movement becomes the emotional state of the main character. Godlike powers of observation and experience are there for the viewer to behold.

Later, a pair of characters are placed in a ferris wheel: a confined space, yet semi-transparent, lacking control, as the outside world spins around you. All of which captures the paranoia of the central character. The ferris wheel is also an ideal setting for an awkwardly romantic moment. The VR camera is placed at an unnerving ultra-close position next to one of the characters - creating a sense of intimacy that makes the viewer feel as if they are violating the characters’ personal space. You could just lean in a bit and kiss a character on the neck, or feel like you could read their thoughts just from observing them this closely.

The pair walks along the waterfront, in a moment that seems almost pedestrian in comparison - but then, the moment segues into an impressionistic sequence of silhouettes, shapes, sounds and music. It was wild, thrilling, and fairly simple in construction. Mere scratching of the surface of the potential of VR. The first musical VR film is going to be an incredible trip (Paging: Flaming Lips! See this film! Be inspired! Be next!).

The film concludes with a static camera shot taken, in true Mr Robot fashion, from a skewed Kubrickian high angle, looking down on characters lying down on a bed. Then, a character stands up a takes a seat, effectively changing his axis of orientation by ninety degrees, but the camera remains fixed in its original position. Viewers can try to compensate by tilting their head, but tilting beyond 45 degrees or so becomes uncomfortable, leaving the final images to subjective choices by the viewer - which degree of physical or spatial disorientation do you prefer to experience this moment in?

Milton Lawson

Milton is a writer living in Houston. Comics, travelogues. Go Astros. Go Texans.

A short comic about an indie music shop written by Milton Lawson with art by Dave Chisholm

A travelogue about four friends taking their first trip to Europe. Now available on Amazon.com.