Monday night, in HBO’s stylish offices downtown, Geekwire hosted a chat with Steven Soderbergh, the director of such movies as Traffic and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and writer Ed Solomon, who were in town to promote a project called Mosaic. This filmed experience is a branching story that can be viewed via an app, but there’s also a linear version that will air on HBO. Mosaic is a murder mystery starring Sharon Stone as a famous childrens’ book author, and as her story progresses, you, the viewer, can choose various paths. Tangential scenes, documents, and other ephemera to flesh out the story, with the cumulative experience clocking in at around seven hours. It looked really fascinating, and I definitely plan to check it out.
During the Q&A, a young woman admitted to not knowing anything about Mosaic when she showed up at the event, thinking that it had a VR component. At the mention of VR, Soderbergh bristled, and launched into an impassioned explanation for why he thinks VR will never produce compelling, feature-length experiences.
According to Soderbergh, a restlessly experimental filmmaker who hasn’t ever been afraid to challenge the rules of cinema, there are simply some foundational features of movies that can’t work in VR. For example, the game-like agency inherent in VR means that you can’t create reaction-shots of a protagonist. Soderbergh threw up his hands at the fact that VR doesn’t allow for montage. Sounding a bit miffed, he declared that VR would never be good for anything beyond 2-3 minute experiences.
I think Soderbergh was right to a point. True, there is a certain grammar to cinema that can’t work in virtual reality. In VR, you’re placed in the center of your environment, an embodied panopticon. For someone accustomed to framing shots and directing the audience’s attention via linear narratives, this can be pretty confounding.
Because VR is newer than cinema, it’s in the early stages of finding its grammar. Comparing a new medium to an older one that has enjoyed over a hundred years of experiments, movements, schools, and masterpieces isn’t exactly fair. You can’t expect the same things out of VR that you out of cinema, and that’s perfectly fine. We have different art forms for a reason. No one complains that it’s hard to dance to a sculpture.
I left the well-catered event Monday with the feeling that Soderbergh hasn’t figured out how to engage with VR yet, so he’s decided to write off the whole thing. I was thinking about this last night while at another event, at CoMotion Labs. Eva Hoerth, Aileen McGraw, and Katherine Harris presented a new app for Hololens called Muralize, which was developed by Magnopus, whose Sally Slade was on hand to introduce an enthusiastic audience to the tool.
Muralize allows you to superimpose images pulled from Instagram onto a physical surface so that you can trace them. It’s a simple, elegant idea that resulted in original artwork, and it looked like a lot of fun. What I liked about this idea was that it melded physical art-making processes that have endured for centuries with a new holographic tool.
When I want to catch a glimpse of coming art forms, I’d rather hear from people like Eva, Aileen, Katherine, and Sally than someone wholly committed to an older medium. Soderbergh was a big reason movies got better in the nineties, but I wouldn’t look to him for guidance on the evolution of virtual reality. No slam against Soderbergh, it’s just that a foundational understanding of older media can become a hindrance when charting the course for a new one. It can be hard to let go of your hard-earned expertise and become a vulnerable beginner again. But that’s what seems to be required of us in these early days of immersive art. I’ll throw my lot in with the enthusiastic amateurs of untested art forms over the seasoned pros of the old ones any day.