When documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit received his cardboard VR headset from the New York Times about a year ago, he didn’t know it would send him on a career tangent he’s still pursuing.
"Everyone who is creating in this space is essentially a beginner," Hustwit told the crowd as he took the stage at the 2016 Fast Company Innovation Festival on Tuesday. "It’s not going to replace traditional filmmaking, it’s not better or worse, it does something different. And it’s still in its infancy."
Once indoctrinated into VR, Hustwit began to think deeply about how the platform could be used, admitting that "there was so much obsession over the gear" at the start—are they bulky? Are they comfortable? Will they give you eye herpes?—but not nearly enough thought being given to its potential for storytelling.
Inspired by an April 2016 Medium post from filmmaker and designer Katy Newton and designer Karin Soukup, Hustwit began looking into how the very structure of VR—a 360-degree view as opposed the more restrictive 90-degree view of a movie screen—actually affected the way viewers absorbed and retained information. Verbal clues and narrator exposition were lost on VR viewers, who were too engrossed in looking around and taking in the visuals. "As you up the visual complexity, audio information retention just drops through the floor," says Hustwit.
Hustwit then created SCENIC, a collective of documentary filmmakers, including Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story), Liz Garbus (What Happened Miss Simone?), Marshall Curry (Point and Shoot), and others, intent on experimenting and exploring the possibilities of VR. The group’s first projects will be released later this month in partnership with the Wall Street Journal and Google Daydream.
To close his session, Hustwit put out a call for pioneers. Not just filmmakers or game makers, but anyone. "The barrier for entry is high, but it’s coming down," he says. "The technology is becoming more accessible." His vision is for VR to become as multifaceted as it can possibly be. "I don’t want it to just be one thing. Just films. Just games. You need that variety."
"There are no rules in VR."