Why Hollywood wants a piece of the Oculus VR action

The Oculus demo station in San Francisco, set in a quiet gallery with expressionist art on the walls surrounding several demo areas.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of treating the Oculus Rift as a gaming device, but it might be the company’s broader vision that attracted Facebook. The Oculus is aiming to change other media as well, and one of their major areas of interest is in film, according to Oculus VR’s Film and Media Director Eugene Chung, a former venture capitalist and Pixar producer who now heads up Oculus’s VR film initiative.

Chung promised that the project has already caught the interest of a number of studios and directors. “Hollywood, as of a few months ago, has started to realize the power that VR has for cinema,” he said.

We spoke with Chung at an Oculus event at GDC, just a week before the Facebook acquisition put the Oculus Rift in a totally new light. While most of the demo time was spent on prototype games and the new development kit, Chung was there to chat about Oculus VR’s growing interesting in VR filmmaking.

“My reason of existence at this company is to bring truly amazing experiences into being on the cinema side,” he said. “So that involves a lot of different pieces, including a grand overall strategy.”

Chung has long operated at the confluence of film, tech, and capital. He’s a graduate of both the NYU film school and Harvard Business School. Toward the end of his time at Harvard, he went to a talk by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, who was there to discuss Pixar’s recent acquisition by Disney for $7.4 billion. Chung struck up a conversation after the talk, and soon ended up working in production at Pixar. Later, he became a venture capitalist and backed companies like Buzzfeed. But seeing the Oculus caused him to go all-in.

“As a venture capitalist, I’m used to seeing new things,” Chung said. “But I knew this was the future when I saw the Kickstarter. When I came in and saw the prototypes for what you saw today [Dev Kit 2], I became absolutely convinced. As a film and cinema guy at heart, but also as a tech guy, I felt this was the next great thing to come out where technology meets film.”

While Chung is confident that VR will create a revolutionary new form of cinema, he frankly admits that neither he nor anyone else has a good idea of what that will look like. In many ways, VR could return cinema to its very earliest days.

“You imagine sort of the first days of film, where the Lumiere brothers created the first film of the train arriving at La Ciotat Station. What was interesting about that first film is it was just a simple, short piece. Nobody knew how things worked from a technical or storytelling perspective. It took decades to develop those techniques,” Chung said. “That language may or may not work with VR. Who knows if it is a five minute experience or a five hour experience?”

Ironically, Chung thinks that developing good VR cinema might mean a return to some of early filmmaking’s failed experiments.

“When cinema first developed, their first instinct was to take stage directors and bring them over to the cinema. And many of them actually did not make it,” Chung said. “They tried to produce stage plays over the cinema. And not all the plays worked. What works in one medium does not necessarily work in another. I think in this new medium, whatever we’re going to call it, you’re going to find a few crossovers. But it’s a truly different language.”

Because the “idea of the shot disappears”, Chung explained that stage directors might end up being the people who invent VR cinema’s language.

“In many ways, stage directors might be better directors of a VR experience than cinema. If you look at Sleep No More in New York, that’s a fabulous example of storytelling that is partially asynchronous,” Chung said. “You can be on any floor in this six story hotel, and you are looking at a story. Whether that’s static or involves actors, and in theory those principals could have some really interesting applications for VR.”

That’s not to say that nobody in traditional film would know what to make of an Oculus Rift. Chung pointed out that Hollywood has a quite a few visionaries who have played with technology and perspective.

“There’s film makers like Robert Zemeckis. You have Kathryn Bigelow, who has made an Oculus film, she just doesn’t realize it yet,” he said. “Strange Days in the late 90s. There are very few creators who I show the Oculus Rift to who don’t think it will change the face of cinema. But I don’t think anyone, including myself, knows what that will look like.”

As they are with games, Oculus are adopting a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to developing VR film.

“That language, what’s exciting about it is we’re establishing it now. It’s getting made every day by the people who made the things you saw today, and the people out there who are developing for the Rift,” Chung said. “We know the elements are there. It just hasn’t been defined yet. When we see it, we’ll know. Like seeing that first Pixar short. That’s computer animated storytelling. Before you saw it, nobody would have conceived of that.”