Script-writer André van Heerden admits even he “got lost” in the experience of viewing the first feature-length virtual reality film.
A 40-minute preview of Jesus VR – The Story of Christ screened last month at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival, and the Ancaster resident and his wife, Carolyn, had front-row seats.
“Because it’s shown in virtual reality, it’s not really a big screen but more of an actual world that you’re suddenly immersed in. It was surreal,” said van Heerden. “…When you’re within that world and you’re able to turn and look wherever you want, you feel like you’re actually there.”
Virtual reality is a relatively new technology for film. The Venice theatre in which it was screened was equipped with 50 virtual reality headsets and individual seats that pivoted 360 degrees.
According to the show-business magazine Variety, if Jesus VR — The Story of Christ is a success, it could help shape the way virtual reality stories are produced and distributed. The film was shot entirely in Matera, Italy, and employed over a hundred crew members and hundreds of extras. It tells the story of Jesus Christ from his birth to his resurrection.
Van Heerden, who has worked in various aspects of film and video production for the past 15 years, said it took about a month to develop the script’s original draft, followed by another six weeks accommodating requests for extra scenes or additional parts to scenes.
“Because the producers were looking for a faithful and accurate telling of Jesus’ story, a lot of my writing was research based,” said van Heerden. “I wanted to make sure that I picked the most significant parts but also the moments that could be strung together to tell a complete story. Everything came back to Biblical scriptures and making sure that it lined up with them.”
Van Heerden also worked with technical advisor Father William Fulco to ensure the script was scripturally and theologically sound. Fulco was the technical advisor on the highly acclaimed movie The Passion of the Christ.
Jesus VR — The Story of Christ is slated to be released around Christmas on all major virtual reality platforms, including Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive.
There will be a special salon at the event for viewing increasingly ambitious productions in the new immersive format.
Venice, first of the big autumn film festivals, is the most glamorous, attracting big stars to Europe’s most beguiling location. But this year, virtual reality technology could steal the limelight from all the talent posing on the Rialto.
The film, Jesus VR- The Story of Christ, is too be unveiled at the festival on Thursday, marks the biggest investment so far in bringing the immersive world of virtual reality to mainstream cinema. The US-backed film will be 90 minutes long when it is released this Christmas, but 40 minutes are to be previewed in Venice for anyone quick enough to grab a headset. Filmed in 360 degrees, it places its audience as spectators at the nativity, and takes them right through to the resurrection. The film is Venice festival’s way of saying that the future has arrived.
“Just as 3D cinema offered a way to draw audiences that had been lost to television back to the cinema, in the 1950s, so VR provides a unique selling point in the battle against the ubiquity and accessibility of online content,” said film and gaming expert Michael Pigott of Warwick University. “VR certainly offers a form of entertainment experience that is new and striking, but perhaps of equal importance is the fact it is tied to technology. Entertainment companies can market a unique experience that audiences can only have if they go to a VR-capable cinema or purchase the requisite headset and hardware.”
Although Imax cinemas are billing their VR theatres as alternatives to the solitary headset experience, up until now consumers have had to shell out for a VR system like Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard or the HTC Vive.
This spring, the Cannes film festival also gave more space than usual to VR, showing more than 35 new short films. But it is Venice that has really welcomed the format, setting up a special viewing salon. So, despite deciding to call off the festival’s opening celebrations out of respect for the Umbrian earthquake victims, Venice will still be watched closely in the wider film world to see how sceptical critics react to VR.
The big question remains: does anything yet bridge the divide between the worlds of gaming and cinema? At Cannes, Steven Spielberg was not convinced. He said he felt VR was even potentially “dangerous” because it let the viewer “forget the story”. Alongside naysayers like Spielberg is Pixar’s co-founder, Ed Catmull: “It’s not storytelling. People have been trying to do [VR] storytelling for 40 years. They haven’t succeeded,” he said last year.
Videogaming, he believes, is the natural home for the technology. “It’s its own art form, though, and it’s not the same as a linear narrative.”
Yet Pigott points out there are two ways that VR is already providing new kinds of storytelling: experiments in a kind of “light” interactivity that allows the viewer limited control over their point of view within a film; and a stronger version, where the viewer can explore a fictional world – something that many video games, such as GTA 5 or The Last of Us, already permit, if only in an animated form, rather than a photographic world.
Lucasfilm has played around with Google’s Cardboard headset kit, making a short VR video called Jakku Spy, which it released before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while newcomer Baobab Studios has made a six-minute film called Invasion! It was presented at Cannes by Eric Darnell, the co-director of animated hit Madagascar, who told reporters it was not an extension of cinema, but “a brand new language”.
This month, a pop-up event in Los Angeles showcased The Turning Forest, an adventure made by Oscar Raby in which the viewer partners up with strange creatures to activate musical cues together. Another new short film, Tendril Studios’ Sankhara, makes the viewer a space traveller who returns to Earth, inspired by TS Eliot’s poem Four Quartets.
Oculus, bought by Facebook for $2Billion, has set up a Story Studio division and followed up on a release last year, Lost, with Henry – “a heartwarming comedy about a loveable hedgehog”.
Oculus’s new owner, Mark Zuckerberg, has no doubts about the importance of VR, but emphasises its impact on health and education, and watching sport, rather than film. “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, or studying in a [global] classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting a doctor – just by putting on goggles in your home,” he wrote.
Optimists about the potential influence of VR on cinema believe it is a matter of learn to tell a story in a more complex way, something that great novelists have always done and that immersive theatre companies like Punchdrunk now also practice successfully.
Ultimately, Pigott suspects that both VR and conventional film will find a way to coexist, like cinema and TV have. “These were two very different mediums, and it turned out there was room for both. It is less a question of technologies, than of different modes of storytelling and spectacle, and … one is unlikely to simply replace the other,” he said.
The 73rd Venice International Film Festival presents the world premiere screening, in a special 40-minute preview, of Jesus VR – The Story of Christ, the first Virtual Reality feature-length film ever made, a new immersive experience that is revolutionizing the world of cinema. The film, which runs 90 minutes, is produced by AUTUMN VR Inc. and VRWERX, LLC.
For four days, from September 1st to the 4th, all accredited visitors to the Venice Film Festival are invited to experience this technology applied to the preview of Jesus VR – The Story of Christ, for a short time, or for the entire duration. The screening will be held in the new VR Theatre, on the second floor of the Casinò, which will be equipped with 50 VR Head Gears for individual viewing on seats that pivot 360°.
“We are particularly happy to present the world’s first virtual reality feature film. – declared Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice Film Festival. – JESUS helps show the narrative and spectacular potential of this new technology, which until now has been limited to brief films. The presentation is particularly important because this year the updated film market, now called Venice Production Bridge, is also presenting 6 VR projects among the 40 proposed audiovisual products in search of financing, alongside movies, documentaries, TV series and web series. It is a sign of the attention the Venice Film Festival pays to the sweeping changes which are helping redefine the horizons of the production of images in motion.”
Virtual Reality is a new revolutionary expressive means that is redefining the forms of cinema and the media industry, offering new creative opportunities to directors and artists, to tell new stories and explore original innovative languages.
Jesus VR – The Story of Christ offers audiences an experience that is unparalleled in its immediacy, going back 2,000 years in time to witness the story of Jesus Christ from his birth to his resurrection, from his baptism to his first miracles, through the last hours of his crucifixion.
Jesus VR – The Story of Christ was shot entirely in Matera in 4K 360° with an all-Italian crew. This is the first and most ambitious feature-length Virtual Reality film ever produced, employing the biggest VR production crew ever, with over a hundred crew members and hundreds of extras.
Enzo Sisti is the executive producer of Jesus VR – The Story of Christ, and in earlier years was the executive producer of The Passion of the Christ (2004). The religious advisor is Father William Fulco, who was also religious advisor on The Passion of the Christ.
Jesus VR – The Story of Christ was directed and produced by David Hansen with his partner Johnny Mac through Autumn VR and VRWERX’s Alex Barder and Russell Naftal.
“We’re proud to have shot this entire innovative film in Italy with a mostly Italian crew”, says Executive Producer Enzo Sisti, “It’s fantastic that the first place we’re screening it is in the fabulous Venice International Film Festival.”
Jesus VR – The Story of Christ will be available this Christmas on all major Virtual Reality platforms including Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and the HTC VIVE.
The Biennale Cinema 2016 will run Aug. 31 to Sept. 10. For more information on tickets click here.