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Entries in VR (1)

Saturday
May282016

VIRTUAL HORRORS AT FOREFRONT OF NEW ERA IN STORYTELLING

A sidebar to the Marche du Film distribution marketplace at the Festival de Cannes is NEXT, a gathering of business and tech innovators who are shaping the future of the global film industry. Presently, there is no more energised sector than the world of Virtual Reality (VR), represented at NEXT by designers and financiers from the US, Canada, Switzerland, The Netherlands and France. One of the most enthusiastic VR entrepreneurs is LA-based industry veteran Russell Naftal who, with co-managing partner Alex Barder, is primed for the launch of the VR horror experience, Paranormal Activity, an immersive brand extension of the popular film franchise being developed in-house at their company, VRWerx. SCREEN-SPACE got the latest VR spiel from Naftal (reproduced below, in full), before donning the eyewear and plunging into the Paranormal Activity Cannes 2016 demo footage, recounted in its entirety (in italics) by your quivering correspondent…. 

“Two years ago, Alex and I merged our companies – I had a television and digital company and he had a film company, we’d been doing business together for years. We’d both been looking at VR because distribution in the entertainment business is priority; if you have content, you need a distribution platform. We looked at the industry and it was starting to change; digital was growing fast and my role within it was becoming a little stale, a little standard. So we defined VR as being the new distribution platform, a new way to explore content while providing a more immersive experience.”

Having grasped two lightweight devices that will provide virtual hands as well as allowing freedom of movement within the contained VR environment, a tech assistant fits the HTC Vive eyewear and a headpiece for aural immersion. As large as - but lighter than - a hi-top sneaker, the ‘goggles’ slip comfortably over my eyebrow ridge and rest on the bridge of my nose. My field of vision is immediately engulfed by a 3d greyish-white grid, until the assistant says, “Ok, I’m going to plug you in…”

“Our first consideration was, ‘who are going to be our consumers?’ The gamers were our low-hanging fruit; they’re going to be the taste-makers, the ones who will say, ‘VR, thumbs up!’ And we need them, because there are millions of kids playing games and spending money. Next, we knew if we were going to get a game we needed something that was going to be really immersive. What’s going to be visceral? And, of course, that’s horror. But no one has the time or money to launch a new platform and a new brand. We needed a brand that was already out there.” (Pictured, right; Russell naftal of VRWerx)

The entrance foyer of an average suburban home materialises before me. It is dimly lit, with one white-light source cutting through the shadowy ambience. Illuminated is a square table, upon which I find a torch and a post-it note, which reads, ‘Needs batteries.’ Atmosphere is enhanced with a steady hum pumped through the headset. To the right, glass-panelled sliding doors beckon, but I need those batteries to proceed. To the left, a door is ajar; pushing it open, a chest of drawers stands before me. A lighter is visible, which I grab and consign to my inventory; I lift a soda can, which falls to the floor when I try to file it away (meaning it serves no purpose in this section of game play). In the second drawer are the batteries, which I insert in the torch, and exit the room…

“Paranormal Activity is the second highest grossing horror franchise ever, has a huge fan base and, frankly, who doesn’t love the haunted house experience. We went over to our friends at Paramount, who had just released the last of the movies in October. It was a moment in time when the rights happened to be available, and we acquired them to make the Paranormal Activity interactive VR game. This will be the first time that a feature film will be integrated into a VR environment and is being viewed as a continuation of the franchise, but in the most immersive way.”

As I return to the entrance foyer, I find chairs have been balanced precariously on the small table, recalling the famous fright from Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (a film referenced often in the franchise).  As I approach the sliding doors, a small child’s voice whispers, “She’s behind you.” Chills run up my neck; suddenly, I am aware of my pulse. I hesitate to look behind me, and when I do, nothing is there. There is a crashing sound, and I turn quickly to find the panelled doors have slammed shut. I move through them, entering the expansive living room familiar to fans of the series. I instantly recall it is where some horrible things have happened...

“We are scheduled to launch around the end of the American summer. The game is about 3½ hours of story, with gameplay coming it at about 10 hours. Our background is as storytellers and that was our focus going into VR. If we were going to get into this we wanted to have something that was immersive, of course, but also engaging. We had all the confidence that we were going to develop a good looking product, but we had to make sure that the story was there and the people that players would be immersed with were real and affecting.” 

To the left is a hallway, at the far end of which is a staircase. To the right are a few steps that lead to a landing, upon which a little girl is nervously pacing. She utters a shrill warning about what haunts her house, and that I should follow her, before darting out of view. At this point, my tension level is growing alarmingly; a presence is in this room with me…

“We are evangelists for VR! We are firm believers that this platform has the potential to impact everyone on the planet. When the last Paranormal Activity film came out, we set up the VR booth right there in cinema foyers; if you bought a ticket to the movie, you also got to experience the game. We knew the gamers would respond, but we wanted to see how the general public would respond. And it was massive. So we know that VR is not just for gamers. I mean, you can travel the world via VR; you can adapt educational programmes. VR is a game-changer, the first one the industry has seen for a while. It is not just about the games industry, or the movie industry. It’s a whole new experience in storytelling.”

I notice a room in the hallway, its darkened interior offering the promise of more frights but none are forthcoming. The staircase beckons, but a rumbling stops me cold. Two heavy pieces of furniture atop the stairs are shaking violently and are hurled down the steps in my direction; I leap back as they land at my feet, and I begin to walk backwards out of this place. A cracking sound fills my head; I look up and see the walls are peeling, paint and plaster falling to the floor. It is time to leave. I turn and, standing before me, is a woman… 

SCREEN-SPACE would like to thank Marie-Emmanuelle Oliver, Head of Marketing for Marche du Film for providing access to the VRWerx team and the NEXT Pavilion.