Evolution of Verse, VR and VRSE

The video at the top of this post is entitled Evolution of Verse.

At first glance - it's just another computer-generated landscape... 

But hit play. If you're using a computer to read this, what's the little disc with arrows in the corner of the frame?

Maybe there is more to Chris Milk's video than meets the eye... 

Give it a try... especially if you're unfamiliar with virtual reality ("VR").

People have been touting VR for years. 

Jaron Lanier was manufacturing VR devices in the 1980s. And his company, VPL Research, was bankrupt by the 1990s. 

Back then, the images lacked realism.

And even today, VR in practice is still a bit clunky - an apparently early-stage technology, that can turn off potential users who wouldn't be caught dead wearing geeky-looking isolating headsets.

And leaving aside the creepy headgear - why are the VR demonstration videos that are offered online so often so dull? 

Do we really need another fan-boy recreation of Star Trek's holodeck or another vr-for-its-own-sake music video?

Nevertheless, recently several large corporations have gotten on the VR bandwagon

For example, in 2014 Facebook acquired Oculus Rift (reportedly paying US$2 billion for that company's virtual reality technology).

Which brings us to 2015.

Working with visual effects leader Digital Domain and Annapurna Pictures, director Chris Milk created Evolution of Verse to demonstrate the potential of VR.

Like the earliest motion pictures back in the 19th century, Evolution of Verse is short - clocking in at under 4 minutes - and relatively crude. 

Nevertheless, Evolution of Verse premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2015.

Part of the excitement about Evolution of Verse is that the creator, Chris Milk, has a history of innovation.

And, please know, watching any VR demonstration on a laptop doesn't give the experience its due.

If you have an iPhone, Android, Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard device, download the free app at http://www.vrse.com to get a better sense (still far from immersive - but at least a bit more naturally interactive) of what watching VR with a headset feels like.

And for filmmakers who are interested in exploring the creative possibilities, here is some interesting news:

A January 28th, 2015 post to AdAge announced that Chris Milk, Patrick Milling-Smith and Brian Carmody had teamed up to open VRSE works, "an independent production company dedicated to virtual reality-focused projects."

What are the aesthetic goals of VRSE?

According to Mr. Milling-Smith: "Up until this point, it's been all about the technologists. What we're trying to do is bring real artists and filmmakers and a sense of story and marry that with the technology."

What is the revenue model of VRSE?

"The company will work with agencies and direct-to-client on branded projects."

Will VR spin off commercially viable products? 

No one can say with certainty. 

But... Would you bet against it?

The New Audience: Videos from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Program from May 12th, 2015 on the Future of "Moviegoing in a Connected World"

Mr. Robot: How the Internet (and Anxiety about Big Brother, Corporate Villainy, Cyber Security and Ultimately the Unknowability of Others) is Fueling a Cable TV Hit

Mr. Robot is, IMHO, one of the best new shows on TV.

Some of us first learned about the USA Network show - about a hacker - played by Rami Malek - who struggles with questions of morality and identity in the dark corners of 21st century NYC - through social media recommendations.

Some may have encountered the faux-subversive campaign (see the video above) that "gamified" the cyber crime elements of the plot.

Maybe this is the first you're hearing about it.

No matter. 

For marketing the show - and for the unique approach to storytelling that series creator and executive producer Sam Esmail has taken with Mr. Robot - the internet itself seems to be the point.

Even though Mr. Robot is being presented as weekly appointment (Old World day part) viewing on USA, it's the binge-watching audience parting experience of the internet - and its aesthetic of jumpy impermanence - that seem to define the show and Elliot Anderson's fundamental dilemma.

In the era of the Arab Spring and #Ferguson, it can't be accidental that the storytelling of Mr. Robot - with its unreliable narrator and non-linear approach to revealing character (for example, watch the way that the end of episode 6 flows into episode 7) - mirrors the experience of following hyperlinks in a (futile?) effort to get to the truth.

Pay attention to the way shots are framed. Slightly off-kilter. Visions of subway cars, corporate suites and abandoned spaces. Notice how the characters are lurking in the shadows of a shuttered Coney Island arcade or stumbling into an outer-borough shooting gallery. When we see faces - they are often slotted into slightly uncomfortable spots at the edge of the frame. Images seem to have been filtered through cellphones.

This is a show where the aesthetics and the experience of the internet - from how shots are framed and lit to how soul-piercing news can arrive with the bouncy sonic alert of a new email - are converging with traditional episodic TV.

And it isn't just the look and sound of the show (the soundtrack features Mac Quayle's totally electronic take on score as well as deft ironic choices, like episode 6's use of the Tangerine Dream cut that was also featured in 1983's Risky Business), Mr. Robot also captures the murky morality of an untrustworthy now...

Hollywood is in transition. 

I imagine the Hollywood casting notice for Mr. Robot described Elliot Anderson as "a hacker with a gift for exploiting the cyber weaknesses of others - but his own weaknesses keep him strung-out on opiates - and barely hanging onto his gig at a strait-laced cyber security firm - as after hours he joins with an Anonymous-like hacker collective and struggles to find and hold onto his own identity..."

But that's not really it.

It isn't Elliot's hacking. It's not his relationship to his work, his fragile mental health, or his run-ins with corporate crime and drug crime, or even his struggles to unravel the secrets of his own identity that make this show so special...

What makes Mr. Robot compulsively watchable is its jittery (only sometimes fully-successful) re-imagination of network TV storytelling. Like Tony Soprano on HBO - Elliot Anderson is pushing boundaries on weekly ad-supported TV. He isn't always trustworthy or likable. But, just as in the 19th century photography “freed Western painting, once and for all, from its obsession with realism”, the internet (as seen in Mr. Robot) seems to be pushing the TV series away from the safe moorings of linear story and trustworthy narrators into new uncharted places.

UPDATE: Aug. 27th, 2015 Thanks to South East Asia-based Nicarauguan theater artist (and former student) Jaime Zuniga, I've just read Todd VanDerWerff's Aug. 26th, 2105 post to Vox about the unique look of Mr. Robot. Mr. VanDerWerff's post includes numerous screen-grabbed examples of how the visual aesthetic of Mr. Robot "gives the show an overriding feeling of coherence and thematic unity that exists in few brand new shows." Like me, Todd VanDerWerff sees intention behind the visual style of the show: Specifically, the show's shot composition often pushes characters away from what we've come to expect from traditional TV and movies based on the "rule of thirds" (places in the frame with "significant amounts of power"). Both Mr. VanDerWerff and I noticed that many of Mr. Robot's shots feature characters at the edgier edges. In my post from last week (above), I suggested the distinctive framing of shots in Mr. Robot might be part of an aesthetic informed by the internet - an intentional breaking of old rules shaped and colored by casual online filmmaking, selfies and cellphones snaps. Mr. VanDerWerff offers another possible explanation: "The system is so overwhelming that it's all the characters can do to stay in the frame. It keeps trying to push them out of it.

Randy Finch's Film Blog:

Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.