Damien Chazelle’s First Man is an unusual 1960s piece. It is apolitical. The hero is a stoic civilian astronaut whose emotional life is the sum of Hollywood’s best pout (that of its lead actor Ryan Gosling) and a little bead necklace which he hides in his spacesuit. The Neil Armstrong biopic is memorable because of the technical virtuosity with which Chazelle shows space travel—a daunting, yet alluring experience. As soon as I put on the Oculus, I was inside Apollo 11 with Armstrong. The VR headset took me right inside the spacecraft. Outside the window, I saw a blanket of glittering stars and asteroids. After hovering over the hard craters, we finally landed on the moon. The door opened, and Armstrong walked out to take his “giant leap for mankind".

A few years ago, with the launch of the Oculus Rift, a new revolution in the experience of watching moving images seemed imminent. Media houses and film studios adopted the technology, but the need for a clunky device to experience it and high expenses ensured VR’s shift to a selective or niche viewing segment. There’s not been much excitement so far around the Oculus Quest, which will be launched in early 2019. But now, a change in trend appears to be in the offing.

Ravi Velhal, a global content strategist for Intel Corporation was in Mumbai to showcase First Man: Virtual Reality Experience, a short promotional VR film for First Man that he was instrumental in creating. The film was launched at the premiere of Chazelle’s film at the US space agency Nasa and was later screened at select theatres across the US.

Velhal, based in Portland, Oregon, was a speaker on new immersive film technology at the Whistling Woods film institute in Mumbai, where representatives from over 50 film schools from around the world had congregated. An engineer and imaging expert originally from Sangli, Maharashtra, and an expert in immersive technology innovations in film-making, Velhal said, “New technology has defined new expressions for storytellers, and brought new immersive multi-sensory experiences for audiences." He is also a collaborator on the VR experience of Save Every Breath for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and for Spider-Man: Homecoming, which are available to experience on all major VR platforms, including PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift for free. Velhal is collaborating with musician A.R. Rahman on Le Musk, a VR film which he has written and is directing. The trailer of Le Musk, which Velhal also showcased in Mumbai, reveals little about the film’s story. Set in several locations and ages, it is a film about perfumes and the immersive experience engages the viewer’s olfactory senses. A specially designed chair enhances the experience.

Viewers can sit in a specially-designed chair during the experience. Photo: Twitter.com/Ravivelhal
Viewers can sit in a specially-designed chair during the experience. Photo: Twitter.com/Ravivelhal

As Velhal’s work shows, it can be a potent film promotion tool for big budget projects. The most interesting VR work are passion projects of film-makers. Earlier this year, Darren Aronofksy backed Spheres: Songs Of Spacetime, a three-part VR series in which its creator Eliza McNitt re-imagines the music and depth of the cosmos. It is travelling to film festivals across the world. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s artwork Flesh And Sand, about the anguish of immigrant life, set at the Mexico-US border, premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, the first virtual reality project to be screened at the festival. Iñárritu takes his viewer right into the heart of the pain and toil involved in the immigrant experience—a great example of how VR can be optimized for creative storytelling.

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