Chinese Filmmakers Punch Back with Virtual Reality
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2016-04-25 08:02:16

Zou Shiming has boxed his way to two Olympic gold medals for China — first in Beijing in 2008 and then in London four years later. At last week’s Beijing International Film Festival, Zou was once again in fighting form, as he put on a headset and took swipes at a virtual opponent.

Boxer Zou Shuming experiencing virtual reality technology during a press conference at the 6th Beijing International Film Festival, April 19, 2016. Courtesy of The Filman Investing Management Co. Ltd., or ‘Filman Group.’

Boxer Zou Shuming experiencing virtual reality technology during a press conference at the 6th Beijing International Film Festival, April 19, 2016. Courtesy of The Filman Investing Management Co. Ltd., or ‘Filman Group.’

Virtual reality (VR) was one of the hottest topics among the film elite and industry insiders gathered at the festival. There were at least five forums dedicated to the topic, such as “The Peak Is Coming,” which identified VR as the next big thing for the Chinese film industry, and “The Future of the Film industry,” which declared 2016 as the first year of the “VR Age.”

Both the Chinese movie industry and VR technology itself seem on the cusp of making it big. Many Chinese film companies see VR as a weapon they can use to take on big-budget competition from Hollywood in the near future.

According to Ye Ning, CEO of Huayi Brothers Pictures, the hype surrounding VR shows the ambition of today’s Chinese filmmakers. “China is on the way of becoming the biggest film market, and the most important film power, in the world,” Ye told Sixth Tone. “Therefore, it is our responsibility to bring cutting-edge technology like VR to the movie industry.”

Yet in sharp contrast to the hype, the quality of current VR films is underwhelming. At the forum “The Future of the Film industry,” 90 percent of attendants identified themselves as “VR insiders” or “VR fans.” Yet they all struggled to name even one VR film which they would recommend.

Even some of the VR insiders most invested in the technology are skeptical about VR movies. One of these is Ding Liang, senior vice president of Fantawild Holdings Inc., a Shenzhen-based company that started to explore VR technology as early as 2000. Ding told Sixth Tone that although he firmly believes VR technology will excel in fields like gaming, education, and social networking, he remains cautious about the prospects of VR in the movie industry.

“The essence of VR is a panoramic self-exploration, so it is sure to break the so-called fourth wall,” Ding said, referring to the boundary between the viewer and the movie. “So the big problem is, how can a VR film provide a number of interactive experiences yet still be a movie.”

Jin Wenjun, director of the first Chinese VR short film, the 12-minute “Live Till the End,” told Sixth Tone that shooting a VR film is totally different from traditional methods of filmmaking. Close-ups, long shots, montages, fast cuts — all are common movie-making techniques that cannot be used when making a VR film, he said. According to Jin, the only tools available to the director of a VR movie are the actors’ performances and the plot design.

Jin said the ideal is that audiences feel free to explore a world and a plot created by the filmmaker, but that they make only the choices the director wants them to make. “But I don’t know how to do this, at least for now,” he said, referring to making VR movies.

Besides artistic obstacles, the technology itself has a long way to go, too. VR equipment is still inconvenient to use and uncomfortable to wear. More importantly, some people feel dizzy after watching VR images for more than a few minutes.

But many in the industry are nevertheless determined to explore the realm of VR films. “What we really have to overcome is the limitation of our thinking and imagination,” Dong Aihui, CEO of VRision Film, told Sixth Tone. “Instead of worrying about the harm that VR might bring to traditional film, we should think about how to use existing film techniques to make a VR film.”

Zou, the boxer, seems ready for the battle ahead. After waving his fists in the air for a few minutes, he took off his VR equipment and excitedly announced he is going to make and star in a VR film on boxing.

“One thing we have to realize is that VR technology will bring a revolution to the film industry, and, unlike 3-D or IMAX, this revolution will be earthshaking,” Li Jie, senior vice president of Youku Tudou Inc., a popular Chinese video streaming service, told Sixth Tone. “In terms of film technologies, Chinese filmmakers have always lagged behind, but now, when it comes to VR films, we are standing on the same starting line as Hollywood,” he added. “This time we should not lose.”

(Header image: Delegates use Gear VR headsets at the Samsung Unpacked launch event ahead of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Feb. 21, 2016. Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG)