With traditional filmmaking and photography comes lots of successes – the ability to easily point the lens at a subject, frame it and capture the moment, almost allows for a sense of perfection, where everything outside of the frame, for the viewer, no longer exist. Barthes (1977), describes a frame as a ‘pure cut-out segment with clearly defined edges, irreversible and incorruptible’. The photographer or videographer, and the people who accompany them, are the only people to experience anything outside of that frame; ‘everything that surrounds it is banished into nothingness’. However, why would anyone want this? If only there was a way to capture scenes, without limits, some would say 360 degrees of view, for the viewer to choose the part that interests them the most…
Enter panoramas. It began in the eighteenth century, when the most common mode of landscape representation was from a bird’s eye view. This gave the viewer a ‘high viewpoint outside the subject depicted within the frame of representation, whether a city, a coastline, or a pastoral scene. The aim to show as much as possible outweighed the concern for true perspective and straight sightlines’ (Ford, 2017). Some would say that the spectacle of the sight overruled the sights themselves. An early example of this is Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1648 “Long View” of London, which is six drawings joined together. This view has been commented on, as it is not London as anyone would usually experience it, but rather ‘London laid out neatly in the mind’s eye, where one can enumerate its features and remind oneself of many separate things at once’ (Harbison, 2002). This is simple compared to today’s standards of instant panoramas using a smartphone, but would have been seen as a new revolutionary way of viewing more than what a standard photo, painting or drawing could capture, and for the first time, allowed the viewer to see exactly what the artist experienced without being there.
As technology and engineering progressed, we saw more examples, and ‘The Panorama’ was patented by Robert Barker in 1787. This was different than Holar’s ‘Long View’ of London though, as Barker wanted to show a painting in full 360 degree view. However, Barker acknowledged that this was nothing new, as ‘the manipulation of perspective, with multiple viewpoints made to appear visually consistent, was already a constituent feature of bird’s-eye views’ (Ford, 2017). Barker suggested that instead, his innovation was in relation to the way a viewer interfaces and interacts with the image. The Rotunda in Leicester Square, where Barker’s panorama of London was exhibited in 1801, fully controlled what the spectator could or could not see, opening a new perspective on viewing art. As Barker explained, ‘the idea is entirely new, and the effect produced by fair perspective, a proper point of view, and unlimiting the bounds of the Art of Painting’ (cited in Ford, 2017).
Technology improved, allowing for moving spectator platforms, rotating screen and then projections, which has lead us to where we are today, with rides at Disney World using a very similar concept of spectators viewing a surround image whilst sat on a moving platform, much like The Rotunda, albeit using ground-breaking projectors and holographic displays. We are now in a position where we can make our own panoramas using a camera or smartphone, and have access to inexpensive cameras, headsets, goggles and projectors that, with experience and time, allow us to make our own immersive experiences. Could this method of capturing media replace traditional methods, such as single lens cameras, and more specifically, can it still tell a story?
Last year, I experimented with the Insta360 One X camera system, and used it for filming some short clips of myself running. This use of the technology is interesting, as it does allow for a first person point of perspective much like a GoPro, but the only thing controlling the viewers experience is the location where I am running. Unlike a GoPro, the user can look around in any direction, creating an additional layer of immersion, like they are running alongside me. With the release of the new Insta360 One R, with its GoPro-like mounting capabilities and rigid build, it could open up more possibilities for spectators of sport, pulling the viewers into not only experiences that the videographer is looking at, but everything around them too. From a storytelling perspective where the spectator is in control of the story, this is excellent. The same applies for the early example of 360 and panorama – the viewers interpretation is often the only asset that dictates the story as there is so much to take in at once.
Other uses of the technology can be seen in wildlife, with the example of ‘Gorillas in VR’ (Habitat XR, 2020). This is an example of something that very few people will get to experience in real life, and using conventional camera and filmmaking methods does not capture the sensation of being amongst the gorillas as much as 360 and VR does. Despite this, we simply enjoy this for the spectacle – it’s something that we spectate, with no specific development in a narrative, therefore not really telling a story in a traditional sense. This is where examples such as Sanctuaries of Silence (Loften and Vaughan-Lee, 2018) are unique, as it provides the viewer with a fixed story and narrative, yet still giving them the freedom what to look at and listen to. The narration is almost background noise, that we passively take in and listen to, whilst exploring the surroundings and listening to the various noises recorded using spatial and atmospheric technologies. The creator doesn’t need to worry about the viewer ‘missing’ something if they are facing the wrong way, as in this film, every direction is the correct direction. Even though we are given this freedom, when asked what the film was about, we will all give the same answer, despite all having a different viewing experience.
The question of whether VR can tell a story is a contentious one. On one hand, being able to explore a story world, yet the story still remaining a pre-written, pre-defined narrative, will make the viewer’s experience more immersive and therefore enhance the story that is being told. However, examples such as Sanctuaries of Silence demonstrate that VR isn’t doing the story telling, it’s complimenting it. Much like a fictional book, the words tell the story, and then if the reader is struggling to imagine what the author is describing, pictures and illustrations are used; not to replace the words, but to compliment them. The issue arises when we try to use VR to tell a story by itself. Evans (2016) writes that in conventional books and movies, ‘time and space appear to you only as and when the storyteller allows’, yet in VR, you can freely look around in 360 degrees and can control what appears in your field of view. This goes completely against the notion of a traditional story as we are ‘never quite as in sync with the story that is being told; there is no clear demarcation between “story space” and elsewhere, as there is with a TV or movie or game screen. Your mind keeps telling you that everything is story space. But you can only focus on so much of it at a time; and it is all too easy, and tempting, to look away from what matters to the story, in favour of some curious detail, at exactly the wrong moment.’ I am really excited to further explore virtual reality and 360 spaces, although it is still to be discovered what exactly I would do with the technology. As Evans (2016) states, ‘VR is not for traditional narratives. VR is for whole new kinds of narratives’.
Barthes, R. and Heath, S., 1977. Image, Music, Text. Glascow: Fotana/Collins.
Ford, L., 2017. Virtual Reality, 19Th Century Style: The History Of The Panorama And Balloon View. [online] OpenLearn. Available at: <https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/visual-art/virtual-reality-19th-century-style-the-history-the-panorama-and-balloon-view> [Accessed 12 October 2020].
Harbison, R., 2000. Reflections On Baroque. London: Reaktion Books.
Habitat XR, 2020. Gorillas In VR. [vid] Available at: <https://www.with.in/watch/the-ellen-fund-presents-gorillas-in-vr> [Accessed 16 October 2020].
Loften, A. and Vaughan-Lee, E., 2018. Sanctuaries Of Silence. [vid] Available at: <https://www.with.in/watch/sanctuaries-of-silence> [Accessed 16 October 2020].
Evans, J., 2016. VR is terrible for traditional storytelling. [Article] TechCrunch, Available at: <https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/07/steamboat-willie-days/> [Accessed 12 October 2020].