Allumette is a virtual reality short film based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson and makes a serious case for VR-centric filmmaking.
Movies have seen very little change in over 100 years. From the medium’s inception to the 1890s to the 1920s, films went from silent black-and-white affairs to fully voiced color films complete with soundtracks. But since the 1920s, improvements to the formula have been minimal. Old technology has been updated to today’s high-fidelity formats such as 7.1 surround sound and 4K video recording, but the core experience has remained the same since the 1920s. 3D formats have attempted to add a new dimension to film, but people generally don’t watch movies in 3D outside the movie theater.
Virtual reality has a chance to change all that.
Now that the “Big Three” Rift, Vive and PS VR headsets are all out in the wild, there’s a huge opportunity for filmmakers to try creative new tactics in storytelling. VR goes a step past 3D. It doesn’t just make objects pop out at you from time to time or add a little depth to the flat screen in front of the viewer. VR puts the viewer directly inside a 360-degree world with a sense of presence that rivals reality.
The effect is more important and pronounced than one might imagine. Take Allumette, for example. Developed by Penrose Studios, Allumette is a short film loosely based on “The Little Match Girl” by 19th century author and poet Hans Christian Anderson. The claymation-styled film strips away voice acting in favor of a delightful soundtrack and great pacing to allow for quiet, emotionally tense moments. The catch is that the roughly 20-minute film is viewable exclusively in VR on the Rift, Vive and PS VR headsets. Maybe that doesn’t seem important, but it gives the viewer two main advantages over standard TV-screen viewing.
First, the viewer has more freedom over exactly how to experience the film. Secondly, it grants the viewer with a sense of immersion and presence that brings the story to life in a way a standard film simply cannot.
To keep from giving too much away, let it suffice to say that Allumette is about a young orphan girl who holds onto hope along with the last few matches (more like sparklers) that remind her of her mother. The short film combines flashbacks of the girl’s past with her current situation for a heartbreaking experience that almost brought this ordinarily stoic viewer in tears. It’s impossible to know if the film would have had the same impact on me in standard 2D, TV screen viewing. But based on how I experienced the film, I certainly think the medium of VR had as much to do with my take on the film as the elements of the film itself (such as the storyline, soundtrack, animation, pacing, etc.)
Part of that comes from the fact that a viewer in VR has more freedom over what he or she sees than a standard viewer. In VR, the viewer is the camera lens and gets to decide what he or she focuses on. A standard film viewer is forced to focus on what the filmmaker says is important, and he or she misses out on context as a result.
This allowed the makers of Allumette to create instances where multiple things happen at once, and the viewer can take it all in the way he or she wants. If something is happening to one character, the viewer can either look at what’s happening or at the reactions other elements are having to whatever is going on. It’s interesting because the viewer is no longer bound by the constraints of a single camera angle. The viewer is the camera.
Secondly, the sense of immersion and presence afforded by VR makes the content of the film feel incredibly real. The viewer can lean forward to get an up-close look at the expressions on characters faces or the details of their clothing, to the point where it feels like the viewer is looking at the other characters face-to-face. The camera angle reacts to every motion, and the sound (when wearing headphones) is piped specifically to come from the angle it should naturally come from as the viewer moves. The viewer feels like a firsthand witness to the happenings played out live, not like a secondhand observer seeing a recorded account of events.
All of that is to say that if Allumette is any indication, films told in VR have the potential to crank elements like drama, action, horror and nearly every other element of storytelling up a notch. Virtual reality has the incredible ability to make stories feel less like stories and more like, well, reality. Allumette takes advantage of that ability by masterfully playing with the viewer’s emotions in a tough-to-describe way that I don’t think would have been possible if the story was told in a standard film format.
After watching Allumette, I’m very interested to see where VR storytelling goes from here. As developers and filmmakers become more comfortable with the tech, new storytelling techniques will surely present themselves, and I can’t wait to see the results.