Career Opportunities in Organized Crime, a curious new project by first-time filmmaker Alex Oshmyansky, uses virtual reality to make viewers feel like you, too, can join the mob! The story follows the filming of a recruitment video for Baltimore's local Russian mafia, a mockumentary from the perspective of gangsters looking for new members. To make the viewers feel like they're right there with Vova, the head honcho-turned-recruitment-head-hunter, Career Opportunities was shot in 360-degree virtual reality. It's the first feature film shot entirely using VR tech.
The literally-immersive story follows a crew of Russian gangsters who've fallen on hard times and are scrambling to find new sources of income. They come up with the idea to hire some computer programmers in order to con people out of money on the internet by hacking accounts and duplicating Facebook profiles to solicit money from the fraud victims' families and their subsequent recruitment film details the benefits of joining their sect of the mob. "I'm here to tell you about fantastic opportunity, opportunity that will leave you rich beyond your wildest dreams," goes the sales pitch in heavily-accented English. When an American computer programmer, played by Malcom Mills, joins the mafia, we follow him (from all angles) as he goes from being reluctant about working for criminals to slowly succumbing to the mob's mentality.
The 82-minute feature was self-financed by the director and doesn't boast any big stars, but it's clever use of VR, as well as the project's stylistic quirks (such as a faux website supposedly created by the faux mafia) make Career Opportunities in Organized Crime one of the more intriguing projects to premiere at SXSW this week. Plus, Oshmyansky says all proceeds from the film will be given to a start-up non-profit pharmaceutical company that provides low-cost medicine to those in need. VICE chatted with the 31-year-old director by phone to get the scoop on the project, as well as the challenges he faced as a first-time director making the first VR feature film.
VICE: What inspired this project exactly?
Alex Oshmyansky: I just always thought it would be funny. My background is that of a Russian person, so I've always been interested in the Russian mafia. I always thought it would be kind of a funny if The Office were to [mesh] with the Russian mafia. What would it be like?
What other movies or cultural items inspired your film? What tone were you going for?
The vibe of the movie I was going for was kind of based on 1930s gangster movies—old black and white movies, like the original Scarface. I was really influenced by The Public Enemy and that whole sub-genre from when movies were first beginning to become popular in the 20s and 30s. The gangster movies were one of the first really popular genres in that era.
How did you approach filming Careers in 360 virtual reality?
We used six GoPros and we used a couple different rigs to hold the cameras together, including a Freedom 360 and 360Heros—mounts that kept the six cameras pointing in the right directions at all the times. Afterwards, we combined the footage from each camera in software like Autopano Pro, Adobe After Effects, and Video Stitch. We had a great cinematographer, Chad Cooper, who did a fantastic job.
What does the tech add to the project as compared to a traditionally-filmed narrative?
The idea is that you can put on one of these virtual headsets and look in any direction and it kind of feels like you're there with the characters while the movie is happening all the way around you. It gives you a sense of actually being there with the characters. When we are told stories, scientists have found preliminary data through fMRI studies that our brains enter a special state. In this "immersive" state, parts of the brain (like the motion and tactile feeling centers of the brain) activate in a way that make us feel like we are actually there in the story. This happens whether we are watching a movie or being told a story around a campfire. It's my theory that VR film will heighten the "immersive" state you get from film, and make the experience more intense and interesting in certain ways.
What challenges did you face by shooting this way?
This was my first full-length film, and it was challenging to try and pick it up all on the fly. I was very appreciative of the support of the crew while I sort of figured things out. At the same time, we had to try and figure everything out in virtual reality while learning to film in general. No one has done virtual reality at a feature-length scale, so there was a lot of trial and error as we were trying to figure out where to place the cameras, how to best capture the artist performing, how to make sure the audience's attention would be focused on the right parts (in the right directions), as well as how to position the camera so that things could be easily stitched together in post-production. We had to take that all into account simultaneously, and there's a learning curve at first.
How long did it take to complete this project from the initial idea and inception to the release at SXSW? How did it evolve in the process?
I had the idea for years, but I actually started working on it about a year ago. The actual filming took over two weeks, entirely on-location in Baltimore. Principle photography was last summer, at the end of July, and we've been working on post-production ever since—the special effects, the sound mixing, etc.
As my first film, it's kind of my baby. It's ultra-low budget, but I think we were able to do some really cool things from a technical perspective by pushing the boundaries with the VR while also maintaining an entertaining narrative structure.
Now that the project is finally being released, how do you feel about the whole experience looking back? What would you do differently next time?
I'm really happy with it. I was amazed we actually got all the footage in the bag in just two weeks, to be honest. There's less of a hurdle or barrier to entry to start doing virtual reality filmmaking than I thought there would be, though. I figured it would be like this technically impossible challenge that you need millions and millions of dollars to do, but that's not the case. I think almost everyone can make this sort of film if they can get their hands on six GoPros. They're even introducing virtual reality cameras that only cost a couple hundred dollars. All you need at the very entry level to shoot in VR is two cameras pointing in different directions with the fisheye lenses on them, so that they can get the 180 degree shots.
In the film's plot, the characters are shooting a doc. Were those cameras on, too? Did you use any of the fake footage?
We did a bit of an experiment where we actually filmed the part of the narrative where the characters are shooting their own recruitment documentary. We got the "documentary" footage from within the film, as well as the virtual reality footage. Viewers will eventually be able to compare and contrast watching the mockumentary as a regular movie, versus the meta perspective seen through VR. The film will be released to the general public this spring as an app available for download through smartphones, Samsung Gear VR, and the Oculus Rift VR Headset.
How do you feel about being the first director to make a feature VR film?
Mostly tired, but it is deeply satisfying to create something. Regardless how things go, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. It's really cool being an independent filmmaker, because you have a lot of control over your project. At the same time, you have to keep your hands on everything simultaneously, so it takes a lot of time, a lot of sleepless nights. I was sleeping an hour or two max during primary filming and felt like I was going crazy towards the end. But it was worth it. I'm not sure what what the venture means for the future—hopefully the chance to make more VR films.
For more on 'Career Opportunities in Organized Crime' visit the project website here.
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