A VIVE Studios production about the miracles performed by Jesus Christ was the winner of the “VR Film of the Festival” grand jury category.
7 Miracles – one of the longest feature-length cinematic VR films ever produced – premiered last week at the 26th Raindance Film Festival, Europe’s leading independent Film Festival and the largest in the UK. It was created using photogrammetry and volumetric video capture, producing images in 8K with additional scenes built-in 3D.
Coming in at just over 70 minutes, the film is divided into 10-minute chapters, each depicting one of Jesus Christ’s famous miracles from the Gospel of John. The chapters can all be watched sequentially, or episodically in whatever order the viewer wishes. This flexibility helped to bridge the gap between the current dominant form of short-form VR content and the longer pieces that they wanted to explore. They opted to make 7 Miracles a seated experience due to the fact that people’s seated heights are much more similar than their standing ones. By placing the action above you as it would be seen on a conventional movie screen, the experience feels just as comfortable and familiar as going to the cinema.
I recently had the opportunity to view 3 chapters at a special preview event using one of the new VIVE Focus headsets, which Joel Breton – VP of Vive Studios and Executive Producer on the film – calls “the Ferrari of all-in-one VR.” It was an excellent opportunity to try out the hardware considering that, according to rumors, the device isn’t scheduled to hit UK/US markets till the holiday season. Simple, yet effective controls allowed for quick adjustments to my headsets fit, the distance between my eyes, as well as the calibration of the inside-out sensors. The other feature I found quite nifty is that with the push of a button you can access the external camera image, saving you the trouble of having to constantly lift up the headset from your eyes.
Breton told me afterwards that it was interesting for him to see a completely silent theatre full of people immersed in the same experience. You don’t need headphones with the VIVE Focus headsets, but seeing as we were relatively close to each other, we wore ear buds so as not to interfere with one another’s experience.
“All-in-one VR is probably what I’m most excited about – getting rid of wires but still being able to have a very rich and colourful experience is certainly the future,” he added.
But in order for people to want to buy those headsets, everyone recognizes that there must be compelling content available that they want to experience, which is where VIVE Studios comes in. This is Breton’s project, one he hopes will expand the content ecosystem and push the envelope of what can be achieved through immersive storytelling.
“The main thing that makes VR storytelling so exciting, is that instead of projecting the action in a screen in front of you it puts you right in the middle of the action – You become the hero,” said Breton.
At the discussion after the screening, the cast and crew were asked why they thought now was the right time to try longer-form content for VR. It was clear that the group, composed entirely of entertainment industry veterans, is enthused about the potential of VR to create new types of narratives and stories. They’ve been working on 7 miracles for about 2 years, and hearing them talk about it, it’s clear that a lot of effort and work – as well as significant investment in terms of money and technical resources – has been poured into the project.
Breton began his career at SEGA Genesis where he developed and published over 250 video games, including such iconic titles as Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong, Quake and Doom.
Executive Producer Enzo Sisti worked on more than 100 movies including Wonder Woman, Avengers: Age of Ultron and (appropriately) Passion of the Christ. He says he was initially very skeptical, but much like the non-believers in the film, he was converted.
“This is very exciting and I think this is the future. After 50 years in the business, I’m excited about starting a new career,” he said.
In spite of a myriad of challenges, Director Rodrigo Cerqueira believes the technology – specifically six degrees of freedom functionality – and production values have moved far enough along that we’re able to push the envelope even further.
Cerqueira recalled how his company, Panogramma, had produced hundreds of short pieces between 2010 and 2015. But it was only after they were asked to do a one-hour experience for the World Cup that his eyes truly opened to the possibilities of longer-form content.
“As filmmakers we have the responsibility to push those boundaries, and others will follow in our footsteps and push it even further, and that’s how we advance the medium,” he says. “That learning curve is so important and it’s also important that there is a learning curve. If you look at film they also started with short format and when they first started making them longer, most people thought that was crazy.”
In many ways the production went along similar lines to a regular indie film. Sisti said they had between 80 and 100 people working on the shoot, which lasted around 15 days. Post production took place over a hefty 10 months, but again, many CG-heavy productions would demand similar resources. This was after Cerqueira spent over 4 months planning the workflow.
Technical limitations leading to choices that shape the creative direction of a medium is a common occurance within the various creative industries. For example, shooting with a 9-lens 360 camera rig meant that all directions are filmed simultaneously, therefore there is no “off-camera” area where a crew can stand during shooting. They either had to be disguised as extras or find somewhere to hide (we were shown some funny shots of sound engineers lurking behind bushes next to a camel).
Dejan Bucin, who plays Jesus in the film, says that from an actor’s perspective it often felt much closer to performing in theatre than for a camera, which offered him the opportunity to really immerse himself in the role:
“I was Jesus for ten minutes, and it was a hell of an experience!” he laughs. “You can exaggerate and project. You forget about the audience, because you really get into those interactions. In a regular film you always see this amazing setup, all the crew, equipment, etc. But in VR, that all disappears.”
Additional kudos go to the team for not only tackling the challenges of producing feature-length VR, but also choosing to do so with a Biblical story; which comes with its fair share of baggage, so to speak.
Any Brit, including myself, can tell you how difficult it is to get one of the many Monty Python’s Life of Brian references out of your head while watching any film about Jesus. After all, the only logical retort for someone claiming to be the Messiah is to declare them a very naughty boy…
This is of course my cross to bear rather than a reflection of the productions quality. In fact, I was rather surprised at how much I enjoyed it, specificaly the chapter where Jesus turned water into wine. Jesus generally comes across as a dude you’d definitely invite over to your party. And yes, there is water-walking, so it’s definitely worth a watch.
Audiences should be able to check out 7 Miracles for themselves soon as it makes its way to major VR headsets later this year.
Image Credit: Beam.eo.nl