How Google's Oscar Nominated VR-Short "Pearl" Changes the Way We Interact with Movies

Posted by Dallin Nelson on

2017 marks the first year in Oscar's history where a 360° VR film has been nominated for an award. I'll repeat that in case you didn't hear. For the first time in history, a virtual reality motion picture got nominated for an Oscar!

After years of sci-fi concept films like in RoboCop and Demolition Man, movies are finally immersing viewers into digitized 3D universes. Viewers are no longer merely observers, but can now take part by participating in a film's setting and scenery. 

The first movie I ever watched that tried to show consciousness from a first-person point of view (seen from the viewer’s eyes, rather than from outside) was Spike Jonze’s 1999 fantasy-comedy Being John Malkovich. The movie is about a doorway that gives people control over Malkovich for 15 minutes from inside his head, from behind his eyes. At one point, Malkovich himself discovers the doorway and enters, resulting in a situation as confusing as you’d imagine.


For a 2D screen, there are some difficulties with putting a viewer behind a character's eyes. The camera can only demonstrate movement by panning in one direction. Characters can look at you directly through the lens, but they’re flat, lacking lifelike depth. In Being John Malkovich, the edge of the frame is darkened, suggesting a peripheral limit. That isn’t right either. We don’t “see” the edge of our vision any more so than a blind person sees their lack of sight. Vision simply ends where our noses and eye sockets begin.

Can films present perspective and depth without leaving holes?

We need that other dimension, and this is where VR comes in.

Pearl is an Oscar-nominated film, produced by Google Spotlight Stories and Evil Eye Pictures. This tearjerker unfolds from the passenger seat of a car, where viewers observe a single father as he raises his daughter, Sara. We watch her grow from toddlerdom to those troubled teenage years. All the while, her father nurtures her with his greatest gift—music. You, the viewer, participate in the scenery by choosing where to look and what to see, rather than just watching a whole 2D screen.

This third dimension provides the kind of perspective where we can drive through a swarm of fireflies as they zoom past us in every direction, like Star Wars scenes of light speed travel. Snowy trees and amber skylight show time moving forward as it filters through the windshield in front of us. The sun rises and falls. Characters age and gain experience. Even sound is given perspective as the film’s musicians jam in the back seat behind us, beyond simple left and right stereo fields—another illusion, of course.

The use of 3D means the technique of darkening the frame’s edge, like in Being John Malkovich, is now obsolete. We have a 360° scene with no limits. So, what does this new dimension mean for entertainment?

Storytelling in the third dimension

With the ability to put people right inside a consciousness, from its very perspective, some new feats will be tackled in storytelling. More lifelike camera views mean writers and directors have new territory to explore in the nuances of consciousness. 

Films can travel into subjects like imagination, memory, adrenaline, drawing a blank, daydreaming, being stunned, feeling frantic, or anything else uniquely experienced by the first person POV.

Imagine looking closely at the texture of an actor’s face, or watching the hair raise on someone’s neck. What if our favorite actors interact with us more? What if they ask us questions or react to our shifty eye movements? What if films gave us a choice to determine a story’s trajectory? Imagine the future of horror, where we can hear a monster and know it’s nearby, but we can’t see it.

The future of entertainment

There’s a powerful new frontier of mystery and viewer-intimacy that comes from, not just seeing, but interacting with a film. No matter how immersed we may feel in a 2D scene, it’s always safely in front of us. 3D introduces the instability of not having eyes in the back of your head.

With VR having now made it to the Oscars, we’re sure to undergo a significant change in how viewers interact with their entertainment. Are you ready to experience entertainment in the third dimension? Do you have what you need to step into a new reality?

**all "Pearl" images courtesy of Google Spotlight Images

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