There are many ways that a virtual reality cinematic experience differs from a traditional one. Much of the discussion is around whether or not certain techniques translate from one world to the other, and what can be done psychologically, physiologically, or mechanically without inducing pain or nausea in the viewer. But there’s less discussion about the narrative structuring elements of traditional filming and editing techniques and what their immersive counterparts might be. There are numerous camera and editorial decisions that we have “learned” to understand in watching movies – the so called cinematic language. Things like the over-the-shoulder point of view shot, the two angle dialog shot, or the sequence that moves from a long establishing shot to a medium shot to a closeup shot to introduce a place and/or character. But I’m going to choose the whip pan as the best example to illustrate some basic differences between traditional and VR cinema.
But why the whip pan? Well because it’s a very useful and ubiquitous film transition, that functions on many levels, yet it is almost entirely physically useless in an VR experience because that much camera motion is disorienting and causes motion sickness.
So is there a VR analog of the whip-pan? And what is a whip pan? Simply put – it’s where the camera spins very quickly from one point of view to reveal another one. This winds up putting the ending view in juxtaposition to the starting view. A common example might be a tense POV shot where the camera whips around to reveal the threat – a monster, the enemy, or antagonist of some kind. Also, because one byproduct of moving a camera very fast is an exaggerated motion blur that obscures what’s being filmed, a whip pan can be used to hide a transition to a radically different camera angle or even a different setting or time. The whip pan wrenches our perception and attention from one understanding of the story to another.
To illustrate the difficulty in finding a VR analog, let’s look at a whip pan example applied to both traditional projected cinema and immersive cinema.
Traditional: We are watching a horror movie, the setting is a forest at night, the shot is a POV shot and we are walking forward slowly, scared, seeing only what’s lit directly by our flash light. We hear a noise from behind – a breaking twig – the camera whips around to exactly where the monster is, and then drops down to just miss an enormous claw aimed right at where our heads would have been.
Immersive: We are experiencing the horror movie in a first person role, moving through the forrest at a rate that’s not too disorienting to be uncomfortable or distracting, maybe our attention is following the flashlight beam. There’s a sudden noise behind us, a breaking twig, we turn in our seats to, maybe see the monster in time to maybe duck underneath its giant claw. Maybe our reaction times are too slow and we miss the action of the monster entirely but are thrown into the next segment of the narrative anyway. Maybe we’re left confused and lose interest.
So what is it that makes the traditional whip pan so effective, what did it facilitate, and what does it lend to the overall emotional effect of the shot? The whip pan is the reaction of the audience; we have been conditioned as an audience to interpret this motion as our own action, something which on some level we feel we have created and are in control of. Our experience is that we are reacting to the sound by actively turning toward it and facing it, when in fact that’s very far from the truth. In reality the “camera” presciently reacts to a sound created at precisely the right moment, at exactly the right speed to get to the perfect point at the next perfect moment to both reveal the horrifying threat and simultaneously and miraculously escape it. This is not an exercise of free will, this a controlling cinematic device with a very specific narrative purpose and outcome: disorient, respond, reveal, escape.
There are also practical components of a whip pan that are often just as important. People in VFX know that you can hide a multitude of sins in the motion blur. Even in non-effects films, editors can hide a number of unlikely or incongruous transitions by dissolving through a fast camera move. Very often the camera angle or placement from the A part of the pan is not desirable for the B part. Or maybe you want to pan from being tall and looking down to being short and looking up. This can be very effective at making a revealed threat seem more ominous, or it might simply be an accommodation for practical size differences. The point is that the confusion and the disorientation of the pan itself is used to hide incongruities and inconsistencies that occur in getting from your origin to your destination. Because we know to accept this motion blur as transition from one thing to another it can also be used to transition from one place or time to another – we begin the pan and everything is green, we end it and everything is covered in snow – we know that we went from summer to winter and probably understand that we had a whirlwind autumn.
The whip pan goes beyond a simple camera move and becomes a complex mechanism of narrative cinema. How do we give a VR audience experience the same emotional experience? Should we? It may be that the whip pan is too idiomatic a part of traditional film to have an easy, direct counterpart – like one of those German words that has to be translated into an entire sentence in English. Maybe it’s a matter of breaking entirely from a first person POV experience to an angle where we see the entire resolution of the action? Maybe trying to do that at all is missing the point entirely. Maybe VR is not about controlling the view, but rather controlling the environment. Maybe narrative control is an outdated authoritarian construct. Maybe it all just requires our experience of VR to mature, and – like those people who stopped running out of early movies from oncoming trains – we’ll stop throwing up and learn how to read to VR’s abrupt new camera moves.