A few weeks ago, I found myself in Spike Jonze's Chinatown home dodging Syrian kids as they played soccer. I was wearing a headset that had me immersed in a 360-degree virtual reality documentary shot at a refugee camp in Jordan. As I turned my head to follow the action on the field, I lost my balance and kicked the leg of the nearby kitchen table. I wasn't used to watching a convincing virtual reality movie (who is?) and felt bested by technology, like when an old person is listening to a museum's audio tour on headphones and keeps shouting at people because she can't hear her own voice.
The film was one of three that Jonze and the director Chris Milk had me experience using the headset. There was also an animation in which you're standing in the middle of a lake. A train chugs across the lake, right at you, and then through you, exploding into hundreds of birds. The third film is composed of super-close-up footage of protesters demonstrating at an anti-police-brutality march in Manhattan (it was produced in partnership with VICE News, and Jonze is a longtime VICE creative director). The company behind these movies is VRSE, a virtual reality production house founded by Milk and backed by Annapurna Pictures' Megan Ellison and venture-capital cash. VRSE has impressed the entertainment industry at Sundance and global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The possible future of VRSE has Jonze and Milk ecstatic, like it's the early days of filmmaking and they're Eadweard Muybridge. And while the thrill you get from watching the movies can be hard to describe, it's safe to say these guys are on to something, even if no one's quite sure what that is yet.
I interviewed them while Jonze softly strummed an acoustic guitar.
VICE: If VRSE could become anything, what would you like it to be?
Spike Jonze: Right now it's just the first millimeter of a whole new medium. It's not really about what we want it to be; it's just about the possibilities.
Chris Milk: We're just figuring out what works and what doesn't work. Cinema is this empathy engine, and it allows us to feel compassion for people who are very different from us, in worlds that are very far from our own. VR takes this idea to an entirely new level. After five minutes you feel really deeply for those people in that refugee camp. What this technology is doing, fundamentally, is allowing you to feel like you're sitting with that person. Even though your brain knows that this is all an illusion, because of how it presents itself to your consciousness, it's so aligned to the way that you receive the real world. You come out of it feeling something deeper and connecting at a far more profound level.
Jonze: It's like you don't have a body. You're able to empathize without having the self-consciousness of being two feet away from someone or invading their space.
Can you explain the allure of watching these films?
Milk: There's a purity to being in that moment that isn't cluttered by all the things that usually go along with normal reality. You can exist there without any ego. You can see every nuance and quiver and breath in all the emotion. I showed it to someone the other day who was at the [anti-police-brutality] protest who thought it was powerful but never cried, and then they watched the virtual reality version and came out crying a lot.
Jonze: Being there is just different. I wouldn't want to say this is better, but it's a different experience. It's really moving.
Milk: The protest is something that you had the ability to go to, but you couldn't go to a refugee camp, most likely.
Jonze: Right. One of the things we're doing is giving the equipment to VICE News to create these immersive news experiences, which is really exciting to me. Like the idea of Simon Ostrovsky's pieces in Ukraine, which are already so immersive, and yet you can imagine in this medium they would be even more so. You'd be like, "Wow, this is what it's like to be in this conflict in Ukraine right now."
Do you think that having this weird-looking camera with lenses all around could affect peoples' behavior in these situations?
Jonze: In a sense, it's less imposing because the traditional camera's lens is like a barrel pointing at you. You are being aimed at. This isn't aiming at anything.
What's the next news documentary you plan on producing?
Milk: The one on the Syrian refugee camp comes out of a partnership with the United Nations, and we're going to do a series of films on different people in crises around the world. So a crew is going to Liberia in a couple weeks to do a story about Ebola. And the UN is doing a virtual reality lab where they're gonna show these films to different visiting leaders and dignitaries and people who work at the UN every day. I think that's where this really becomes something special—when you can share a story with someone who can actually take action and help.
Could you see VRSE producing scripted narrative features?
Jonze: Yeah, for sure. A hundred years ago cinema was a new technology, and the language of film has been invented and reinvented countless times, and rules have been created and broken endlessly. So even when we were editing this VICE News piece, we were making up rules and joking that in five years, or a year, every rule we make up will be broken and reinvented. So yeah, narrative, art, animation, documentary, anything. You know it's gonna get used for porn. That's probably where the technology will be advanced the most, because there's so much money in it.
Milk: Porn drove the adoption of VHS, the internet, etc. Ultimately, what virtual reality needs to succeed is not porn but compelling content that humans like to watch, and it needs humans to watch that content. You need an audience, and you need the stuff that the audience watches. The technology has finally caught up to the dream, and now the content needs to catch up to the technology.
Jonze: The most interesting thing will be when kids who grow up with this thing start writing for it. They'll be writing from the point of view where it's just inherent to the way they think. I started making music videos at a time when music videos were still pretty new. I always thought of it as so exciting because music videos could be anything set to music. This is even more so that. Usually the technology comes first, and then the rest adapts. This is the first step to that. I'm sure in five or ten years we'll look back at this and it'll look so dated.
Like the early days of the internet.
Jonze: Yeah, there was this idea of video on the internet, and it took a while for that to become what YouTube is today. Like six years. Hopefully it's not that long with VR and everyone will have a 360-degree camera and will be able to shoot and post stuff. Imagine Vimeo and YouTube with virtual reality.
Milk: Right, then you get stories that we can tell. You get intimacy with a subject, and people are opening themselves up because they're the authors of it. And also just recording moments and living them back again. I had this experience where we were shooting tests a few months ago, and at this test I was with my now ex-girlfriend, and we were holding hands and being happy together. And then we broke up a couple months later, and this footage was stitched together. And I put on the headset and looked at it, and it was like I was transported in this time machine and was there again, with my ex-girlfriend. And all those feelings came back. It wasn't like looking at a picture or a video. I was there again, experiencing it as a time-traveling ghost.
How do you feel about all the other groups that are starting to invest more in virtual reality right now?
Milk: There's definitely a VR gold rush going on. It's great. The community needs stimulus to create work. My only fear is that too many people will make stuff that's not great. What you need is great content to attract an audience. I want everybody to make great stuff. We're going to be producing VR films with different writers, directors, and producers, but there's also a larger effort to expand the language of VR storytelling and experiment and publish the results of the experiments. If you also want to do VR, we want to help you. There's the VRSE app for distributing VR content; VRSE.works, where we make the content; and VRSE.farm, our VR content incubator with Megan [Ellison], where we grow the content and language.
Jonze: It's a lab to explore what that medium would look like in different areas.
Milk: Anything we learn in that regard should be shared openly. If I figure out a compelling way of making a scene in a car between two people, I should be sharing what we learn about the language with everybody else because that only helps all of us. The more that people make good, compelling content in virtual reality, the more it helps the community. There's no limit to how much good content there can be. We've never reached a saturation point in any other medium where there's just too much good stuff to go around. No one says, "I don't want to go see this amazing movie because I just saw an amazing movie."