At the VR vanguard

01 June 2017

Together with Submarine Channel the Dutch Film Fund presented 4 projects in the Cannes VR-program NEXT: Ashes to Ashes (Submarine Channel), Februar (Maarten Isaak de Heer), What Do We Care 4 (Steye Hallema) en The Night Watch (Maarten Treurniet). Our reporter Nick Cunningham interviewed the makers of these VR-projects.

Written by Nick Cunningham

Dutch Filmmakers impressed during the NEXT VR sidebar at Cannes 2017


The VR industry may be in its infancy and operating within an increasingly sophisticated audiovisual landscape, but signs point to its ongoing healthy development, explains Amsterdam-based Submarine Channel chief Michel Reilhac. Outlay on hardware is rapidly reducing for audiences [Reilhac himself is happy to watch VR output on a 60 euro headset downloading VR content onto his I-phone 6], and the coming years will see a boost in quality production that will meet considerable audience demand in the future, he adds. 

“What I think will happen, and this will take three years, is that individuals will feel compelled to buy a headset - and they are going to do it when they realize that they don’t need to spend a fortune on it,” Reilhac underlines. “But they will also do it because social networks such as Facebook will massively release access to their VR services and to platforms which are now available in Beta form. So it will take time for people to realise that VR can be something that they can use in their homes and on their phones, and [during that period] the market for production of VR content will build itself.” That said, Reilhac points out that the VR industry is also set to enter a natural period of external criticism (he cites the Gartner Hype model for the adoption curve of any new technologies) that naturally follows an initial period of hope and expectation. “Anything new will always generate enthusiasm first - and then huge criticism follows. So we are now starting on the downward slope of the Gartner cycle, But three years from now we are going to start feeling a massive upward slope again towards [a demand for] equipment such as AR and VR glasses, and for VR headsets to be smaller and more ubiquitous and easier to carry in your pocket. It will be an interesting time.”

Filmmaker Maarten Treurniet, whose The Night Watch screened during the Cannes sidebar, agrees. “Forty million Google cardboards have sold worldwide, as well as about 5.6 miliion Samsung telephones with VR possibilities – this is quite a number. And you know what? Microsoft, Google and Apple - they have all made VR one of their bigger [objectives]. They are all convinced it will be a huge thing.

VR and traditional cinema

Treurniet’s film, in part inspired by Escher’s optically alluring drawing of an eternally spiralling staircase, is a psychological thriller about a nightwatchman who pursues an intruder in the factory where he works. “The funny thing is that people recognised something different to what they saw in the other VR films here in Cannes, that it’s a narrative film. Of course I did a lot of editing in the film, which everybody tells me is impossible,” he stresses. “I went to the VR summit in the Carlton Hotel, and there were all these Americans talking about how to market VR, at he same time telling me that it was impossible to edit within VR as the cameraman is a ‘viewer’. So I tried to explain that you can do two things, either to make the camera a character in your narrative story or you make the location a character in your story. It is either one or both, but they [other VR makers] tend to place the viewer as the cameraman. They want to make you part of the story, but I am not convinced that that will work in the long-term.”

While making Ashes to Ashes co-director Jamille van Wijngaarden took a different tack, eschewing any editing in post- and opting instead for editing within the mise-en-scene. Her one-shot film, produced by Submarine Channel, is part-tragic/part-whimsy and is filmed from the perspective of a funeral urn that contains the ashes of a recently deceased grandfather. Referencing the theoretical preferences of Cahier du Cinema founder André Bazin, the film forefronts the mechanical processes of filmmaking as it whisks away set walls and makes liberal use of the rails laid down for the tracking shots.

“I am a film director who knows how to direct a normal ‘flat film’, and the tools you have as a director to make a flat film is to make individual shots, the use of editing, one shot set against another during dialogue,” she says. “But as we don't have those tools in VR we chose to edit our actors, and we chose mise-en-scene to make a close up, or if a character wasn't important any more to the viewer he would just turn his back to the viewer.” At which point, she affirms, the emphasis within the film narrative is automatically transferred elsewhere. Van Wijngaarden will return to ‘flat’ filmmaking for her next few projects, “but I want to do another VR film when the best story and opportunities to explore the possibilities of the format come along.”

The other Dutch VR presentations were Maarten Isaäk de Heer’s Februar, a 2D animated panorama, and What Do We Care 4, a music video by Steye Hallema that explores the full potential of 360º video.

VR funding: a developing process

Netherlands Film Fund’s head of New Screen NL Dorien van de Pas points out that it is Fund policy to support both technical and story-telling innovation, even if the future of the VR medium is not immediately clear. “We must be there if something new is emerging,” she underlines. “We are at the beginning of this developing process, and funding projects likeAshes to Ashes also helps us to gain greater knowledge about new formats such as VR, but I think it is crucial that the stories that are told actually benefit from this new technique, and so far that is not always yet the case. So we are still searching for that.”

“But to be honest I am really curious about where it goes,” adds Van de Pas. “All the festivals are making space for VR but I don't know what the future is, also from an exhibition perspective. We have the world’s first VR cinema now in Amsterdam and I think they are really searching for good content, but we don’t yet know if people are doing it once for the experience or if they will come back again afterwards, We really have no idea. Nevertheless, we are prepared to fund development to help give VR every chance.”

Reilhac takes up the argument, pointing out how in The Netherlands there is a healthy balance of private and public interest in the sector’s future finance. “Yes, there seems to be a very interesting and dynamic mix between public funding and private investors, moreso than in other countries where the VR scene is alive, like France or Germany, where it is almost entirely publicly funded. So what I am seeing is that there is a lot of start-ups and creators who work in VR in Amsterdam in many different ways.

“Dutch producers and directors and funders embrace a lot more directly the idea that there is money being poured into producing content and developing technology for VR, and they take this typical practical Dutch angle and say ‘well there is no reason why we shouldn't be involved in all this as well’,” Reilhac concludes.