Gregory Plotkin, the director of the upcoming Paranormal Activity 5, is working on a newfangled project at a massive special effects studio in the San Fernando Valley. The actress covered in gore and the monk-hooded masked extras are standard issue for a horror movie—but the massive camera rig in the middle of the room looks like a Dr. Who dalek, and there are all sorts of strange audio sensors up in the air.
Plotkin and his partners, a virtual reality company called Jaunt, are making a horror movie for the Oculus Rift called Black Mass.
Watching a horror movie on the Oculus Rift is a strange experience. The headset straps on you, and you see everything in 360 degrees. Not only that, but your field of vision tilts as you raise your head to the sky or look at the ground. It’s a far cry from the polygon-y virtual reality games many of us played in early 1990s shopping malls.
But the strangest thing is the surround sound headphones. Because you are in an immersive world, content creators are forced to use sound as a cue that instructs you where to look. The footsteps behind you and the screams from a corner make everything that much scarier—just as much as the monster or serial killer jumping out from behind the pile of trash.
Project Black Mass is a five-to-seven-minute short, directed by Plotkin and produced by Plotkin along with the Stan Winston School’s Matt Winston and Erich Grey Litoff, David Sanger, and John Ales. Although distribution details are still sketchy, it’s one of the very first attempts Co.Labs has seen of Hollywood creating straight-to-Oculus Rift content.
The film starts with the user being kidnapped and waking up in a shed filled with torture implements and a blood-stained floor. According to promotional materials, from there it "puts you in the middle of the action—surrounded on all sides by 360 degrees of 3-D video that is terrifyingly real." To be honest, the plot is the standard horror movie template to show gore and chills.
The real star of the show here is the Oculus’s potential for horror movies. Jaunt’s rigs are set up in the cavernous interior of New Deal Studios, a visual effects studio that has worked on projects like The Dark Knight Rises, Hugo, and The Avengers.
Filming takes place with an array of cameras located in the center of the set in a large rig, with audio recorders hanging down from the ceiling. The big, this-changes-everything complication is that the camera array records everything in a 360 degree space. Or, as Plotkin told me, "If you see the camera, the camera sees you."
And because footage from all those little cameras is merged, in a server-intensive process, into a single Oculus-compatible video file, every scene has to be done in a single take. Meanwhile, the actors are in front of, behind, and to the sides of the camera. The filming experience itself is akin to the bastard progeny of experimental theater in the round and video game production.
Kat Nelson, the actress who stars in the short alongside child actress Mila Brener, added that "It’s more like acting in a play than a movie." As Plotkin and New Deal’s Shannon Gans explained, another of the major workflow challenges is that once a camera is rolling on-set, there’s no way to hide equipment or other cameras off-camera. Everything has to be disguised and dressed in, meaning that set designers have to make some elaborate compromises. "Hiding microphones is a big, big issue," Plotkin added.
Meanwhile, the special effects team was seeing how far gore can go in virtual reality. The leadership of the legendary Stan Winston School of special effects worked with Plotkin and Jaunt on the project (and received producer credit). Gary Tunnicliffe, a special effects expert who worked on the Hellraiser and Halloween franchises, was working on getting an "especially satanic-looking goat" ready for virtual reality scanning.
It’s unclear territory for Litoff and everyone else working in special effects for Oculus productions. Everyone involved sees that there’s clear potential in making immersive virtual-reality movies, but no one knows what the audience will love, and what will just be too strange (or too corny) for them.
Actors in the movie had to work under strange conditions. Because Oculus movies depend on smoothly stitching together footage from a large numbers of cameras, there was no room for error and entire scenes had to go 100% smoothly. Editors, for the most part, can’t simply delete footage and work around awkward transitions. The algorithms that generate Oculus-compatible films are unforgiving as they create an immersive experience. For that reason, several laptops with attached Oculus headsets were stationed nearby to let the director and producers make sure the tentative experience was okay.
Black Mass will be one of the earliest films released for the Oculus Rift alongside the documentary Zero Point. Earlier this year, director James Cameron expressed his interest in working with the Oculus Rift in a Reddit question-and-answer session. A release date for the film has not been announced, but the makers say it will be within "the next few months."