FIVARS 2016 Spotlight: Adam Cosco’s “KNIVES”

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.”

knives VR screenshot
Jessica Lancaster from Knives by Adam Cosco

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.”

knives_vr film by adam cosco
Corey Landis plays a mysterious salesman in Adam Cosco’s virtual reality short “KNIVES”

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.”

Adam Cosco and crew on the set of KNIVES
Adam Cosco and crew on the set of KNIVES

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.

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