Taiwan-based auteur Tsai Ming-liang, whose credits include “Stray Dogs,” “The Wayward Cloud” and “What Time is it There?” should have been the last person to make a virtual reality movie. Instead, he renewed his collaboration with top actor Lee Kang-sheng, partnered with pioneering cell phone and tech company HTC and tested the limits of story-telling in the new medium. He speaks at length with Variety.
HTC’s Liu Szu-Ming says that the parallel universe created by VR will soon be the way we all communicate.
Tsai Ming-liang: “The first person to invite me to make a VR film was Marco Mueller, the former head of the Venice Film Festival. He was planning a film festival in Asia in the second half of last year and wanted to open the festival with a VR film. I am usually unenthusiastic about such technology trends, but I was intrigued to find out more. I was also curious to know why Marco Mueller picked me. Unfortunately, before I had the chance to ask him, the plans for the festival were scrapped. However, the investor that he had introduced me to was hopeful that I would continue the project. Therefore, I began to prepare myself.
“After my very first experience with VR, my head was spinning and I was ready to give up the idea altogether. I was shown some VR clips, most of which were either commercials or content that were experimental or interactive in nature, like a ghost that appears suddenly to scare the viewer, or a carnival-like party scene. You could turn your head in any direction and there’ll be something to look at. The viewer is kept busy, the filmmaker is busy, everyone seems to be busy for no reason.
“I found the image quality unbearably digital and unrealistic, the headset was heavy and clumsy to use and worst of all, there was no sense of aesthetic beauty at all. I told my producer, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’
“Just as I was about to leave the VR production company, their technical director said he wanted to show me something. It was a 360 degree view of a fabric shop. The details of the image were crisp and the colors rich. I was enthralled. It was only a single frame from a VR clip, yet it gave me the sense that I was there in person. I became interested.
“But the investor withdrew their funds and the project came to a sudden end. Six months later, Taiwan’s HTC came to me with an invitation. They are the leading company in the VR industry in Taiwan. I found it strange that these VR companies all came to me.
“The feeling that VR gives me is less like film and more like theatre, a theatre of life. Traditional film techniques such as picture composition, enticing facial close ups and the construction of a narrative using editing are all irrelevant to a VR film. The viewer is placed in a scene and allowed to look freely at the virtual surrounding. To a filmmaker who is used to the language of film, it could feel a little debilitating.
“The focus of my thoughts are (normally) on how to present my content, how to capture the attention of the audience and how to keep them calm and attentive to what I am trying to express. This is extremely difficult but important to overcome. “(With VR) even though I’m the filmmaker, I’m also a viewer, placed in a 360-degree space. I need to consider the best position from which to view the scene. In other words, where to place my camera and the objects, including the actors, around it. What’s the best distance, height and even angle? These are all considerations that are very different from before. Also important is how to light the scene.
“The production company was very insistent that the VR film be kept within 20 minutes, but they had forgotten that I am known for shooting very long takes. The film ended up being 55 minutes long, which shocked them at first, but after watching it, they felt it worked very well. “For the actors, I’m still using my usual cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi and Lu Yi-ching. This time, I added Yin Shin, who starred in Lee Kang-sheng’s ‘Help Me Eros’ ten years ago. In the past, the actors performed in front of the camera. Now, they are in a space. As long as they don’t go within 1.5 meters from the camera, which causes distortion, they actually have more freedom than before.
“During filming, all the crew members need to clear the set, which perhaps allows the actors to experience the location in a way that feels more real. However, I insisted on remaining beside the camera to watch their performances and have them remove me during post-production. It feels a little like shooting 35mm film in the early days when there was no video assist and you could only watch with your own eyes.
“The Chinese title for ‘The Deserted’ is ‘The Home at Lan Re Temple,’ which comes from a short ghost story from the classical Chinese novel ‘Liao Zhai’ (translated as ‘Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio’). Lan Re Temple is an abandoned temple in which ghosts and spirits dwell. Three years ago, due to poor health, I moved to an abandoned ruin in the mountains with Lee Kang-sheng and began a life closer to nature, fixing up the old house, tilling the land and living with the insects, birds and other creatures. We were surrounded by other abandoned and dilapidated houses. Sometimes, I get the feeling that it’s not that we don’t have neighbors, but that we can’t see them. I told Lee Kang-sheng, ‘We are living at Lan Re Temple.’
“I thought to myself, this has got be the main location for my next film. I began to brainstorm the concept for the characters and settings and how to create a new kind of handcrafted film. I had begun conceptualizing my next feature film when I received the invitation from HTC to make a VR film. I replied them promptly with the following synopsis:
“Hsiao-Kang is recuperating from an illness in the mountains. His late mother visits him and cooks for him. But he is unable to eat the food. A female ghost lives next door to him. Like his mother, she’s unable to enter his life. The only companion he can speak with is a lone fish.
“To me, VR is merely a creative medium. It is very new and in terms of hardware, still needs further development. It is still rather inconvenient to watch and there is a significant quality difference between what was filmed and what ends up being viewed. In other words, even though the quality is rather good at the filming stage, it ends up being compromised during the viewing stage. However, I don’t really mind it because when I’m filming VR, I still feel like I’m doing creative work. It is worth waiting for a piece of creative work and I hope that in three years time, there’ll be a more ideal way of presenting ‘The Deserted’.
“At the moment, every step of the VR production process is a little complicated, especially the post-production, stitching the image, color grading and even sound mixing. There are many limitations and lots of uncertainty and it takes more effort, which creates a lot of anxiety. With this presentation, I feel that we have already made it as best as we could.
“If anyone were to ask me to make another VR film, I will reply in the same way: ‘Give me money, give me freedom, give me Lee Kang-sheng’.”
Variety: What is HTC’s ambition and goal in developing Virtual Reality (VR)?
Liu: Tens of thousands of years ago, Homo neanderthanlensis made their first drafts on cave walls. Since then, human have developed signs, languages, music, characters, and gradually retained a record of life on papers, paintings, music, drama, and different kinds of performances. Ways of satisfying humans’ bottomless demand for communicating created a milestones in human civilization.
The advent of the Internet in the late 20 century and the widespread use of smartphones have completely broken through spatial barriers and information gaps. The world now is indeed flat. Billions of information have been exchanged intensively through 4G and WIFI. Messages, music and videos transmitting in a second dimension intertwine with our daily routine. Our second life overlap with reality. The appearance of VR is going to be another great leap forward in the history of human civilization.
The experience of virtual reality will replace data transmission of in that second dimension. Everything happening on the Internet can be represented in the biospace though VR, and can even go beyond the reality. VR networking is going to be a parallel world that coexists with our real life. With the social networking ability of VR, we no longer face two-dimensional screens in learning, entertaining, communicating, exercising, medical caring etc, but live with three-dimensional space, just like the real universe. It is a brave new world crossing different spaces, races, appearances and distances.
HTC’s future vision of VR isn’t only about providing an entertaining and communicating devices, but finding a better way of living.
Variety: Why did HTC decide to invest in content developing and manufacturing?
Hardware is merely the container. The essence that satisfies human is the water or the wine inside the container. As a forerunner in VR field, we have no precedent to go by. But we know we don’t want to create only the equipment, We need to build a VR industry ecology. Before the ecology could become robust HTC built an inner micro ecological environment. We hope to explore humanities and cultural fields more by using our hardware equipment. It’s still a virgin paper, integrating all the possibilities. Even its business models are still in development. In the light of this, HTC founded VR Content Center last year, aiming at pan-entertainment (music, films and videos, interaction) ideas.
Variety: How are you working in film?
Liu: In film we coordinate with the directors and cooperate from script writing, preceding, shooting to post-editing, mixing and dimming. Due to the fact that VR isn’t really regular movies which possess long history, we need a more accurate knowledge, technology and devices to assist our abstract ideas. We’ve seen many VR works transplanting traditional film tricks, narratives and equipment, but they flopped. HTC’s VR Content Center founded an integrated filmmaking team in hope of allowing film directors to practice their creativities in a three-dimension space. This is also the process of setting up the standardization, including post-production, audio format, and even the appropriateness and optimization of video players.
Variety: Why invest in content such as ‘The Deserted’?
Liu: There are two parts to this movie. The first part is what will be showcased in this year‘s Venice film festival. A full 360-degree virtual immersive film. Director Tsai Ming-Liang believes that every movie should have its independent narrative characteristic and the audience not needing to get involve to the story. For the second half, we’ve built the movie set in a 3D virtual environment. This allows audiences to explore the environment in VR. They may move within the environment and interact with the objects within. Our idea is to integrate the story with virtual character, to produce an immersive interactive movie through head-mounted display. The main production was by Tsai ‘s production company and HTC Virtual Reality Content Center. Jaunt China co-produced and provided us with high quality cameras, stitching and rendering services.
Variety: How big was this project?
Liu: This VR film is 55 minutes in length, captured using high quality stereoscopic 360 cameras. Without any benchmarks, our initial investment plan was around $1.6 million. When we reached post-production stage, we remembered an old Chinese saying: “Man proposes, god disposes.” It was a step by step journey. But we are fortunate enough to have completed this project within our budget.