Knives is unique in the newly realized immersive video spectrum: Though there are VR projects or 360 immersive videos that claim to be the first VR feature films and other bragging rights, director Adam Cosco has rapidly developed an unlikely feasible grammar for transporting many cinematic conventions into this form of filmography in-the-round. Knives continues the third-person style Adam Cosco pioneered in his VR narrative Intimate Strangers that premiered at FIVARS 2015.
His bold choices were controversial to say the least; audiences sometimes resented having to turn around for a two-shot or missed part of the action, but in our interview with Cosco earlier this year, he discussed how he had made many important discoveries since then, and – rather than shy away from the experiment, leaned into it further.
“The thing that’s interesting about Knives is that it wasn’t written for 360 or VR. My philosophy is that if you approach a script and think about it as a VR film, you’ve already shot yourself in the foot because, in my opinion, it’s a very limiting way to think about stories. Think about the story first, and then think about where to put the 360 camera. That way you’re primarily focusing on directing.”
Modeled after shows like The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt, Knives is an allegory about purging the aspects of your personality that aren’t serving you. The surreal drama details a door-to-door knife salesman’s encounter with Kelsey Frye, a housewife on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Unbeknownst to Kelsey, the Salesman has ulterior motives, and soon reveals that Kelsey must kill off the jealous part of herself in order to move on with her life.
“The story is about change,” Cosco confides. “It’s about how you can look back on yourself, sometimes as little as a year ago, and say ‘I don’t know who that person is.’ And – this is something we all do – but it’s almost like we are so ashamed of who we were in the past. Like, if 25 year-old me walked into my apartment, I’d probably want to kill him. And that’s what change is. It’s killing the parts of yourself you don’t like anymore.
“To me the big secret that no one has discovered about this medium yet is that this is an actor’s and director’s medium. It affords actors so much freedom to do the unexpected; it forces them to think of their entire bodies, because there is no hiding when you can see everything.
“Blocking needs to be real, because the human eye has a bullshit detector and knows when human movements are forced. Standard film can hide these things, but there is no hiding it in VR. This forces directors and producers to be on their toes, making every moment count. How can we make this efficient? How can we accomplish this in the shortest amount of time without cutting so much that it’s disorienting or so little that it ends up looking like security camera footage.”
We asked Cosco to expand on this and the challenges of designing shots for 360, especially when using different lenses, closeups, insert shots and special effects, even complex actions sequences.
“We planned the film intensely. My producer and I shot the film I would say about 3 times on the Ricoh Theta camera just to see if the angles would work. Somewhere out there is a version with me playing the wife and him playing the Salesman. No one will ever see that.
“I mean, planning was essential because the vocabulary of this new medium has no shorthand. If you have a director and a DP discussing a shot and the director is like ‘I want to pull out then drift over here, as if the camera gets distracted by this piece of paper’ and the DP could be like, ‘Like in Taxi Driver, the payphone scene’ and they can reach an agreement based on similar knowledge. That’s a shorthand. But with VR, there isn’t that bedrock of knowledge to rely on. You can’t say like this shot in Fight Club, or like the bathhouse scene in 8 1/2 or like the famous zoom dolly in Jaws.
“With VR, it’s all a theory until you prove it by making shitty video storyboards to see for yourself if it works. Otherwise it’s just a notion.”
KNIVES stars Jessica Lancaster, Paul Eli, Eva Hamilton and Corey Landis. It is directed and written by Adam Cosco, and shot by Maximilian Schmige. Full cast and crew at IMDB.
KNIVES made its first appearance at the FIVARS Preview at VRTO Conference in June 2016, which was focused on more of a tech and industry crowd. It will be available to all audiences at FIVARS 2016, September 16-18th in Toronto, Canada, where it officially premieres.
Today we shine a light on FIVARS 2016 selection “Invisible” – an extraordinary short film by director Lilian Mehrel created for immersive 360 video playback technology that is full of heart and nuance.
We spoke to director Mehrel about this special work:
Invisible is a short virtual reality film that takes a 360º look at what it means to feel invisible – or seen – through a minimalist live-action narrative.
Our story begins and ends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, introducing us to three characters with varying experiences of being acknowledged. We hear their thoughts as we flow from a museum guard – whose job is to be invisible – bantering with a nearby sculpture, to an artist and new mother of twins recalling the first time they looked at her, to a lonely trans girl perceived mistakenly by all but a blind woman.
The film is inspired by Lana Wachowski, and the story she revealed at the HRC Visibility Awards. This trans woman we know as the cinematic visionary behind The Matrix was almost lost to the world once. Struggling with how the world saw – or didn’t see – her, she wanted to disappear. She went to a typically-empty train platform to jump. On that day, someone happened to be there. And because that stranger looked her in the eye, and didn’t look away – she is still here.
We are also inspired by eye contact as a striking affordance of virtual reality. When a character in 360º video looks at the camera, it feels as though they are looking directly at the viewer. This virtual eye-contact affects viewers unexpectedly. Our viewer is free to explore with their gaze, as they swivel in the headset; they may choose to peer deeper into the character’s eyes, or to look away in curiosity. They may choose to feel invisible, or seen. Sometimes the viewer is caught between two characters gazing at each other. As the viewer engages the film with their choices, they will discover deepening dimensions of the story. With this early foray into narrative virtual reality, the viewer is able to affect what they see in the space, but not what happens – akin to the act of recalling emotional experiences. Emotional reality is our guiding light; we aim to blend the cinematic and life experience, where virtual reality may thrive. We are also playing with the mundane and the profound, balancing tones of humor and gravity in our virtual reality, as in life. How can VR give people dimension? We’d love to inspire viewers to take a look.
Lilian Mehrel creates film & TV, illustrated books, and virtual reality. She is a writer/director with a fresh sense of humor and vision. She is interested in surprise moments of human connection – hoping to inspire viewers to look for such moments in life. Her films have premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won her awards including ABC/Disney, the Marcie Bloom Fellowship, Alfred P. Sloan, the Science & Entertainment Exchange, and the Nancy Malone Directing Award. With a PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans, she is an MFA candidate at New York University’s Tisch Graduate Film in Directing & Writing.
Lilian was born to a Kurdish-Iranian mother and German-Jewish father, sparking her life-long experience of multiple worlds. From Miami public school, she went to Dartmouth College, where she was awarded a Senior Fellowship. She wrote and illustrated a 226-page family memoir. Her stories reveal the underlying universalities she sees between people, shaped by her work connecting youth from conflicting countries. Lilian’s work includes creating a James Franco behind-the-scenes series, videos for Vogue, and a collaboration with Within’s virtual reality films and the Portals project at the United Nations, as the Shared Studios Storyteller. She created one of the first virtual reality narratives – haunt – which played at Tribeca’s Interactive Playground.
The FIVARS Festival of International Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories – Canada’s original and largest immersive technology storytelling festival – is very pleased to present DEFROST Episodes 1&2 – a Feral Dog Production – as part of this year’s selections. This unique first-person perspective 360-degree serial fiction is directed by none other than Hollywood legend Randal Kleiser. His directing credits include, Grease, which is still the most successful movie musical ever made, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, The Blue Lagoon, Summer Lovers, Flight of the Navigator, White Fang, Big Top Peewee, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, North Shore, and the 1996 AIDS drama It’s My Party.
Working in 70mm 3-D, he directed Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, which ran for over a decade at the Disney Parks in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris. With George Lucas, he produced the online course, USC School of Cinematic Arts presents the Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors, and at present he serves on the Sci Tech Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At the Directors Guild of America, Kleiser chairs the annual Digital Day presentation and serves on the National Board.
We had the opportunity to ask Mr. Kleiser about his inspiration for his Virtual Reality project DEFROST:
“I wrote the screenplay for DEFROST in 1968 after reading Robert Ettinger’s book, ‘The Prospect of Immortality.’ He was the founder of the Cryonics Institute and his book was about freezing humans until a cure is found for their ailment, then reviving them using nanobots to repair their cells.
“My script lay in suspension itself until I put on an Oculus Rift in 2014. I immediately saw the potential for narrative storytelling with actors. A light went on and I defrosted my screenplay and adapted it to this new exciting medium. When I told my friend – producer and actress Tanna Frederick about the project – she jumped up and helped me to launch it.
“I called upon actors Carl Weathers, Bruce Davison, Harry Hamlin, Veronica Cartwright and Christopher Atkins to help bring the story to life. Since then, we have completed production on the first season of DEFROST, outlining cryonics patient Joan Garrison’s adjustment to reanimation in the year 2045. We plan to release these 12 five minute 360 degree stereoscopic episodes in early 2017.”
DEFROST Episodes 1 and 2 make their Canadian premiere at the FIVARS Festival in Toronto September 16th-18th 2016.